No one would expect to see an art collection worth millions housed in a high school in a small Midwest town. Yet, that’s exactly what you’ll see at the Peru (Indiana) High School. The school has a permanent art gallery exhibiting 138 pieces of art, including ancient Asian pottery, lithographs, sketches, and paintings by such artists as Salvador Dalí, William Merritt Chase, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso.
Steel magnate G. David Thompson (3/20/1899 – 6/26/1965) known as G. David, graduated from Peru High School and donated the art in memory of the teacher he credited with turning his life around, John Whittenberger. G. David was a poor student who often hooked school until he was befriended by Whittenberger.
G. David went on to graduate from what was the Carnegie Institute of Technology now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. By 1945 he was the owner and CEO of four Pittsburgh steel companies.
In 1928, he purchased his first important piece of art—a Paul Klee. G. David’s art collection grew to be so famous that 340 pieces of it were shown in Dusseldorf Germany in 1961 and made the headlines in Time magazine.
The self-made millionaire collected world class contemporary art as aggressively as he conducted business. And, for 27 years, from 1938 until his death in 1965, along with the works by Dalí, Picasso, and Miro he donated pieces by Milton Avery, Ernest Lawson of the Ashcan School of Artists and Maurice Prendergast to Peru High School.
Although G. David’s primary interest was abstract art he also had a keen eye for and collected pieces of Folk Art, and Oriental porcelain.
For the high school he donated art that he thought would interest teachers and students. Fifty-four pieces of priceless Asian pottery dating from 215 B.C. were housed in a closet when they weren’t being used as teaching tools in ceramics classes. Some paintings were hung around the school, but as the collection grew, more objects went into storage.
With the help of Connie Cutler of the Peru Community Schools Arts Alive! Program and the school board, which budgeted $250,000, the school’s theater department’s technical workshop became the Peru Community Schools Art Gallery. And, for the first time in 75 years, the G. David Thompson Collection is being shown in its entirety.
In 1959, G. David offered his collection, 600 works of art, to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh on the condition that it be exhibited in a new gallery and building bearing his name. The museum rejected his offer. In his will he left 100 artworks to the museum.
“There is nothing snobbish about art,” G. David Thompson said, “Art is what appeals to a person. It belongs to everyone who can enjoy it, familiarity is the best way to develop appreciation for beautiful things.”
When it came to showing his art collection G. David was adament on how it would be displayed. For an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in the 1960’s, he wrote the catalog introduction himself; “Taste and experience play an important role. During the years I classified art as abstract or realistic and by schools such as DaDa or Surrealist. Today I recognize but two kinds… good art and bad art.”
Today G. David Thompson’s art collection would be worth upwards of $350 million.
Circus Performance, oil by Milton Avery—
The Burial oil by Jorge Camacho—
La Fille au Reflect D’Homme oil by Jean Helion—