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The old joke about ceramics--that muddy array of things made of clay--is that the difference between a pot and a vase is about 10,000 bucks. Not long into the tour of Anne and Sam Davis' El Paso home, it's apparent that the Davises, who recently donated about $400,000 in pots and vases to the Arizona State University Art Museum, have been tastefully living that difference for quite some time.
Every room in the house is a gallery. The walls and surfaces are gray and sleek, to avoid clashing with the colors and occasionally elaborate detailing of the pottery and other art in view. Every doorway frames a household scene that easily could have been torn from a magazine with perfume on its pages.
After driving I-10 west up the hill from the urban scraps of downtown El Paso, past the hovels scattered atop the hills of the neighboring Mexican town of Juarez, the house is a jolting change of taste. Almost too well-arranged. Too tidy. Too filled with serenity and an aura of aesthetic sanctuary to be plausible in a town more known for dust and drug blight.
Some collectors pile their belongings like fat desserts atop a six-course meal, filling every domestic inch with visual morsels any normal eye would be too stuffed to sample. But the Davises follow the less-is-more school of display. All of the works have plenty of breathing room--inhaling big Texas space, exhaling rarefied sensibility.
"I don't like to have a lot of pottery out because I feel it detracts from the work and shows a lack of respect for it," says Anne Davis, who has been the force and eye behind the collection.
A stylish grandmotherly Britisher with tinted red hair and matching coppery rouge on her lips and brows, she's been buying ceramics for more than 20 years, and collecting seriously since around 1983. She and her husband settled in El Paso in the early 1970s. Sufficiently long ago to make her crisp Londoner's cadence sound almost like a chipper defense against a land of gravelly western drawls.
She pauses at every pot she comes to and quietly announces it, as if she's introducing unacquainted friends. "This is one of my favorite Bacerras." An orangey spouted form by Californian Ralph Bacerra, it's tucked into an altarlike alcove off the entryway. Like a lot of high-end ceramics these days, its loose interpretation of a traditional teapot wasn't designed to steep anything stronger than artistic whimsy.
Around the bend in the next room, three more pots rest on a belly-high shelf with a blade-thin edge. Like Bacerra's teapot, their function is more visual than actual. They're all superb and pricey examples of their kind. And they come with a ceramic pedigree that any art museum in the market for modern clay would covet.
For those who measure art in numbers, the 50 or so ceramics that the Davises still live with are relatively small potatoes compared with the stash of kiln babies they unloaded last year on ASU.
With 315 works by about 120 artists, the Sam and Anne Davis Collection is the largest donation of ceramics the museum has ever received. About a third of it is now on view at the museum in a show that runs at least through May 2, possibly longer--museum officials are considering extending it, perhaps in a slightly altered form, through next summer.
By almost any standard, the Davis Collection is an extraordinary gift to an institution that already has a quiet reputation for having one of the largest university holdings of modern studio ceramics in the nation.
In addition to boosting the size of the museum's trove to about 1,600 objects, museum officials say it substantially bolsters the quality and scope of the museum's permanent collection, roughly valued at $1 million before the Davis additions.
Heather Sealy Lineberry, the museum's senior curator, says the Davis gift fills some historical gaps, adds key artists that the museum didn't have previously, and enables the museum to tell a fuller story of the modern studio ceramics movement that emerged after World War II.
In addition to giving students a remarkable study collection, says the museum's director, Marilyn Zeitlin, it changes the scale of the museum's commitment to ceramics by putting it in a position to develop an encyclopedic array of modern British and American studio ceramics--an area that few museums nationally have collected comprehensively.
Davis, who claims to have sworn off collecting ceramics, says she was attracted to ASU by its reputation as a friend of clay and craft, something the museum had developed under its former director, Rudy Turk. When she began thinking about finding a home for the collection several years ago, she knew she wanted it to remain in the West. She didn't have much faith that institutions around El Paso could properly care for it. She didn't want to disperse it, or give it to an institution that could afford to go out and purchase a sizable collection. "I really wanted it to be wanted, and to make a difference wherever it went," she says.
To an institution accustomed to receiving gifts a handful of objects at a time, the deluge of clay has been almost too much of a good thing. Museum officials say the gift has given the museum some growing pains and food for institutional thought that it hadn't expected to encounter just 10 years after moving into its new building at the Nelson Fine Arts Center.