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Elevating Indian Art

Catherine Glynn Benkaim and Barbara Timmer enhance the collection through a landmark gift/purchase
Julie Evans, Donor and Member Communications Manager
February 25, 2019

Barbara Timmer (left) and Catherine Glynn Benkaim

For Catherine Glynn Benkaim and Barbara Timmer, philanthropy is a joyful obligation. The couple takes great pleasure in giving back to the community, and the Cleveland Museum of Art is grateful to be among the recipients of their generosity.

In 2018 the California-based couple divided more than 200 Rajput and Pahari paintings from the prestigious Catherine Glynn Benkaim and Ralph Benkaim Collection between the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Freer|Sackler). The philanthropic move made both institutions significant destinations to view Indian court paintings from the 1600s to 1800s (see pages 26–27). In December the collection was featured as an Acquisition of the Year by Apollo magazine.

Acquired as part of a generous gift and purchase arrangement, the paintings elevate the CMA’s collection of Indian art, already considered a leader in the field. In 2013 the museum acquired the Catherine Glynn Benkaim and Ralph Benkaim Collection of Deccan and Mughal Paintings, an unparalleled private collection of 95 works from India’s major Islamic courts. That acquisition was made possible in part through the support of an anonymous donor.

The Benkaim Collection is remarkable for its quality and breadth. Catherine’s late husband, Ralph, began collecting Indian miniatures in 1961. The collection evolved in the mid-1970s when he met Catherine, a scholar in the field of Indian painting. The couple married in 1979 and continued collecting, guided by Catherine’s curatorial connoisseurship. At that time Catherine was curator of Indian painting at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Catherine has lectured and published extensively, and Barbara, an attorney, shares Catherine’s interest in art; they met at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena 15 years ago. They recently shared their thoughts on art and philanthropy and why their hearts belong to Cleveland. 

Why does the collection focus on Indian miniature paintings?

CB: By the time Ralph began acquiring Indian miniatures, he was already an astute collector. He began the Indian miniatures collection almost by accident with the purchase of a “Persian” painting that reminded him of his service in Iran during World War II. Later, we discovered it was a beautiful painting from the Deccan, the central section of India. The painting, A Dancing Dervish and Three Musicians [2013.288], is now in the CMA’s collection. 

Why divide the collection between the CMA and Freer/Sackler?

CB: It was always Ralph’s and my intention that the collection end up in a museum. I have benefited from museums, worked in them, and cared for their collections; I believe that is where the public can experience and enjoy art just as I have.
Ralph had a close relationship with the Freer|Sackler, and I was a trustee there for eight years. And the Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the great institutions in the world. Both are committed to South Asian art, and these paintings will transform their collections. It’s also important to note that both institutions have curators with whom I have worked and for whom I have the utmost admiration. The time was ripe when Sonya Rhie Mace came to Cleveland.
Another reason why Cleveland appealed to me and Barbara is that the Indian sculpture collection is of the utmost quality. We wanted the CMA’s Indian painting collection to be represented in the same way.

BT: When our paintings have gone somewhere, it’s because we’ve built relationships there. We’ve been to Cleveland and it feels comfortable—like home. In fact, we recently supported FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.

How did this collection become so well curated?

CB: This collection is unique in that it was started in 1961 by someone who didn’t know anything about Indian paintings. Over the next 40 years, until Ralph’s death in 2001, each acquisition would trigger the removal of a painting. At first, this was an easy thing to do. But as we began collecting smarter, it became more difficult to figure out the weakest one. 
Very few collections offered to museums have been curated in this way for more than 50 years by a professional in the field. Our collections of Indian paintings were refined for museums so that the paintings would interact with each other and tell a story. 

How did you develop your deep sense of philanthropy?

CB: I was working at LACMA and dating Ralph. He asked if I would give $250 to any charity to see how it made me feel. I felt fabulous, and from that moment on I have given generously. In fact, Barbara and I spend the month of December playing Santa Claus, deciding which charities to support. It’s just a wonderful feeling.

BT: My father was in the Air Force and my family was always involved in public service. I was taught that you give back as much as you can. The more you give, the more you get in return. The act of giving is itself a gift. 

Cleveland Art, March/April 2019