Queen of Arts

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It's early evening, and the manicured desert landscape beyond a curving, north-facing bank of windows glows the late-day colors that were Curtis' trademark.

Herberger's back is to the windows, yet the reflected light from the high ceiling brightens her backswept wave of grayish-white hair, her white sweater and blouse.

Of all the objects atop the credenzas, coffee tables and shelves in the spacious room, the Curtis paintings, from the 1960s, and a small bowl atop an inscribed plaque from ASU, dated a year ago, are the only obvious bookends of Herberger's years of generosity.

In 1960, she joined a small group of Phoenix patrons who supported Curtis for several years, so he could concentrate on painting. Two years later, she made the first of 99 gifts to ASU that led up to last year's $12 million contribution.

Herberger initially asked that her recent ASU gift remain anonymous. But the university wanted her name.

"I told her what it would mean to other potential donors," says Robert Wills, the fine arts college dean. "She's a model that people can look at. And identifying her as an anonymous wealthy older woman isn't the same kind of model."

"She's not doing it for any of the personal reasons that people sometimes do," adds Wills. "She's not trying to gain stature for herself. She wants nothing in return, except to see the money help young people."

Says Herberger: "If you have a talent, it's a God-given talent. Supporting that just seemed like the natural thing to do. I suppose I gave just because I could."

Herberger arrived here as a snowbird in the late 1940s. Her late husband, Robert, had owned department stores in the upper Midwest. They retired here in 1949, then invested widely, and smartly, in real estate.

"I never thought of this place as a cultural desert," says Herberger. "There were always artists here, good artists."

Like Carol Whiteman, she grew up in a cultured home. Her mother played the piano; her father, a doctor, played the mandolin, flute and piccolo.

"I took up the violin," she says. "My sister took up the cello. And my brother played the flute and piccolo, so we had our own family orchestra and every Sunday afternoon we played classical music, just the family."

Herberger studied pottery after moving to Phoenix. Then artists Lew and Mathilde Davis encouraged her to try portrait sculpture.

"So that became my forte," she says.

Pointing to a small bronze bust on a coffee table beside her, she says, "This is a wonderful head I did of Bob, my husband." Other busts, in reddish clay, of her children and grandchildren sit elsewhere in the room.

Arthritis pushed her from sculpture to needlepoint. But failing eyesight and stiffening joints finally forced her to abandon that, too.

Yet she can still write checks. And people still come to her with their hands out.

"That isn't to say she'll give it to you," says Danny Medina, the publisher of ArtTalk and Scottsdale Trends, who has known Herberger for more than 20 years. "She tells a funny story about having lunch with a gal once and this gal said, 'Now, Kax, wouldn't it be possible for you to write me a million-dollar check' for something? And Kax said, 'You know, honey, I forgot my checkbook today.' She didn't get angry, she just took it in stride."

Yet one thing does bother her.

"My beef," she says, "is that all of these chairmen and presidents of the boards, with these huge salaries and bonuses, do not give themselves. They take credit for what their businesses do. But they themselves are not really philanthropic. And they need to be."

Friends say that as long as they've known Herberger, she's never had to be goaded into giving to culture.

"I don't think it's all that complicated," she says. "Art is the one thing that survives."

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow