Estate Gift will Research and Expose Historic Women Artists

“Lamentation with Saints,” by Plautilla Nelli (public domain)

The Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art of Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Indiana recently received an estate gift of about $4 million from the late art historian and philanthropist Jane Fortune, who died in 2018. Fortune founded the non-profit Advancing Women Artists (AWA) in 2009 with a mission to research, restore and share women’s artwork, particularly in Florence, Italy. She was known to be a passionate explorer and advocate for the preservation of historic pieces by women and was affectionately dubbed “Indiana Jane” by the Florentine press, according to Smithsonian.com. The new gift to the museum consists of a collection of works as well as funds to back future research and initiatives that will support women artists. 

“Jane Fortune’s interest in women artists was profoundly inspiring to me… her [gift] will leave a permanent legacy by providing substantive information on historic women artists. I deeply miss Jane and am thrilled to be part of this project,” Eskenazi Museum of Art Director Emerita Adelheid “Heidi” Gealt told Blouin ArtInfo

The gifted collection of 61 works includes art by Sister Plautella Nelli (whose work inspired Fortune to found AWA), Anna Atkins and El Anatsui, among others. The remaining funds will establish the Dr. Jane Fortune Endowment for Women Artists and the Dr. Jane Fortune Fund for Virtual Advancement of Women Artists. The museum will also rename its gallery of American and European Art from Medieval to 1900 the “Jane Fortune Gallery.” 

AWA has helped restore about 60 paintings and sculptures and identified 2,000 pieces by women artists, many of which have languished in storage or little-known galleries. In 2019, it is continuing a collaboration with the Uffizi Galleries on the exhibition, “The Lexicon of Women,” at the Pitti Palace. 

AWA and Fortune also supported a project called, “A Space of Their Own,” an illustrated database of women artists who worked between the 15th and 19th centuries from the U.S. and Europe. This endeavor, led by Eskenazi Museum of Art researchers, began in 2017 and is expected to launch by the fall of 2019. The database contains more than 640 artists. 

Speaking of this historic undertaking, Adelheid Gealt, project director and IU art historian, told Smithonion.com in 2018, “Women’s history is not a given. The fact that many of these women were famous in their own day and now are almost forgotten tells us a lot.” 

Fortune served on the Dean’s Advisory Board for the IU, Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Herron School of Art, the National Advisory Board of the Eskenazi Museum of Art, and on boards with the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, along with other organizations. In 2010, IU recognized her with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. IU is home to the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, whose research we often cover. 

The wheels Fortune set in motion to unearth and steward women’s artworks continue to turn and gain new momentum. Laurie Burns McRobbie, IU first lady and founder of its Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Council, said, “[Jane Fortune’s]  tireless efforts to shine a light on Renaissance women artists and her beloved city of Florence are admired by her fellow alumnae as exemplifying the power of passionate philanthropy in action.” 

For more ways philanthropy can support women in the arts, check out our recent conversation with artist Kathy Hodge. 

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Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions

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Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

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