Collector’s Eye: An Expressive Odyssey

To William P. Healey, art is the manifestation of American Western history, a subject he’s been interested in since childhood. His older brother, a bibliophile, shared countless volumes detailing Western events with him; but more important than books, Healey says, were the art prints of Charles M. Russell that hung on his bedroom wall.

As a boy living in Long Island, New York, Healey had other experiences that no doubt led him to becoming an avid art collector. His father, who worked for American Airlines, often took on extra work during weekends and would bring his boys with him. On the way, they’d stop to visit C.R. Smith, the president of American Airlines. Originally from Texas, Smith was a true lover of the West and had amassed a significant collection of works by Frederic Remington and Russell. 

“As a boy of 7, 8, and 9 years old, I was fascinated that Mr. Smith’s bachelor pad was full of art everywhere,” says Healey. “There wasn’t a chair or a wall that wasn’t filled with art. He’d purchased Charlie Russell works through Nancy Russell’s estate, who died 14 years after her husband, so I got to see every kind of art that Russell did, from drawings to paintings to sculpture, some unfinished.” He particularly remembers a Russell oil painting that hung over Smith’s fireplace, titled The Free Trader.

Healey says he was so anamored with Western history that the minute he received his graduate diploma from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, he and his pregnant wife drove Route 66 to Los Angeles, which, to him at the time, epitomized the West. With a degree in economics, Healey worked at a bank near Biltmore Galleries, known for their quality Western artwork. On lunch hours, he would wander over and look at the paintings and sculptures. During one of those visits, he met Steve Rose, the owner of Biltmore Galleries, who became a friend and art ally. 

With a young family in the 1970s, Healey didn’t purchase original art until after he established his real estate development company, which specialized in shopping centers. Since then, he has assembled a collection that reflects his lifelong passion.

“My focus in art was on the artists who lived in the period in which they painted, like Remington and Russell,” Healey says. He also thought some Taos Society of Artists members told the true story of the West, and he collected many of those works as well. Other artists in his collection include more than 200 works by Edward Borein. Though many of those Borein works are now in other collections, some of his favorites still hanging in his Jackson, Wyoming, home, alongside works by Carl Oscar Borg, William Robinson Leigh, E. William Gollings, Edgar Payne, Maynard Dixon, Laverne Nelson Black, Edgar Paxson, John Fery, Earle Heikka, Joseph Sharp, and Gerard Curtis Delano among others.

Ten years ago, after studying the tragic history of Native American children who were taken from their parents and forced into boarding schools, Healey redirected his focus. “As a hopeless collector, I began to amass a collection of Native American artists who’d found a way to express their history; it’s Native American contemporary art from the 1900s to the era of the IAIA School in Santa Fe, which would be around 1962, including artists T.C. Cannon and Fritz Scholder,” he says. 

Healey gifted 100 pieces from this Native American art collection to the Saint Louis Art Museum. The exhibit titled Native American Art of the 20th Century: The William P. Healey Collection is on view through July 14. The exhibit was co-curated by Navajo artist Tony Abeyta and Alexander Brier Marr, the associate curator of Native American art at the museum. 

WA&A: You’ve primarily focused on collecting historical works. Do you have any living artists’ work?

William P. Healey: Yes, my partner Cindy Riding favors Jenny Foster’s work; it’s whimsical and colorful, and we have some of her paintings. We also have some Evelyne Boren paintings as well as Graydon Foulger’s Impressionist paintings. About 5 to 10 percent of the collection could be considered contemporary painters. We love the enjoyment of getting to know the artists, such as Evelyne, who we visit each time we are in Santa Fe.

WA&A: Was there ever a piece that got away?

W.H.: Yes! Lots of them! I wish that when I was collecting the Taos Founders, I could have opened my mind and exposed myself to Western art in all its different manifestations. I stuck with Sharp and Couse but never got into Blumenschein or Higgins because I considered them more modernistic.

WA&A: Do you have a favorite piece? 

W.H.: Yes, I can absolutely tell you it is a C.M. Russell that is not in my collection now, but it was for 40 years and goes back further than that. It’s an oil painting Russell did the last year of his life after he’d been diagnosed by the Mayo Clinic, who told him to get his life in order. He and Nancy, his wife, had decided to move from Montana to Pasadena, California, to a warmer climate. He was taken by the sunsets there. He painted these romantic scenes of them, and this particular one had figures in front of the sunset. It’s titled The Free Trader, and it’s the very painting that hung above C.R. Smith’s fireplace when I was a boy. 

WA&A: Where do you see your collection in 100 years? 

W.H.: Through the gifting process to the Saint Louis Art Museum, I hope my collection is still around for people to see and understand how the boarding school tragedy occurred in a 100-year span. I feel like there was some good in the tragic story: the children, once they had pens, paper, and paints, were able to express themselves and tell their story, and many grew up to become legitimate artists.

 WA&A senior contributing editor Shari Morrison has been in the business of art for more than 40 years. She helped found the Scottsdale Artists’ School and the American Women Artists and directed the Santa Fe Artists’ Medical Fund for some years.

Based in Phoenix, Arizona, Mark Boisclair has specialized in architectural photography for 40 years.

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