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World-Class African Art Collection Donated to U-M Museum of Art

March 29, 2005—Ann Arbor businessman, philanthropist, art collector, and devoted UMMA supporter Helmut F. Stern has given his extraordinary collection of African art to the Museum of Art. The collection of ninety pieces—regarded by experts as among the most significant collections of Central African material—is noted for its outstanding objects from many cultures, with a primary focus on art of the Congo. Many of the Stern pieces will be highlighted once the expanded Museum—with dramatically enhanced gallery space for African art—opens in 2008.

Standing figure
Songye culture
Bekalebwe, ca. 1890
Wood, copper, metal tacks, snakeskin, fiber, cloth
Gift of Helmut Stern

”Helmut’s heartfelt passion and sustained commitment to UMMA is deeply moving,” said Director James Steward. “The collection’s particular strength in the art of one region is especially appropriate to a university museum, where it will serve a profoundly important research purpose as well as provide much visual pleasure for our visitors.”

Originally from Hanover, Germany, Mr. Stern attended George Washington University (1939–1942) in Washington, DC and has made his home in Ann Arbor since 1942. Mr. Stern is President of Arcanum Corporation and from 1946 to 1983 he was General Manager and President of Industrial Tectonics, Inc. He has long been actively involved with the University of Michigan as a wise and strategic advisor and unstinting volunteer and supporter of the arts, humanities, public health, public policy, and the sciences. Currently, he is a member of UM President Mary Sue Coleman’s President’s Advisory Group, the Health System Advisory Group, and the Cardiology National Advisory Board, and he is campaign chair for the Kellogg Eye Center.

“Helmut Stern has shown his generosity to U-M over many years and in a myriad of ways,” said President Mary Sue Coleman. “He has been a wonderful volunteer, charitable with his time and his support, as well as an astute and trusted counselor who sees the big picture and takes the long view.” 

Mr. Stern began collecting modern European and American art in 1950s, later becoming increasingly interested in Asian and African art. During the 1980s, under the guidance of then-UMMA director Evan Maurer, a noted expert on African art, the collection and its focus on the art of the Congo region took shape as new works were acquired from art dealers across the United States and Europe. Over the years, Stern generously gave numerous works of art to UMMA and provided the Museum with funds for key art acquisitions. Previous Stern gifts to UMMA include a significant collection of Japanese paintings, masterworks by Swiss artist Paul Klee and English master J. M. W. Turner, and several individual African works.

The Stern collection of African art given to UMMA has been broadly studied and published, and was presented in a major exhibition and accompanying catalogue at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1999 entitled Spirits Embodied: Art of the Congo—Selections from the Helmut F. Stern Collection, which was curated by former UMMA Director Maurer and Niangi Batulukisi.

In recent years, UMMA has stepped up its presentation and acquisition of African art, an especially dynamic and exciting field, and one with increased scholarly attention at the University due to the appointments of African art historians Ray Silverman and David T. Doris to the faculty. The Museum recently presented Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa, a stunning exhibition of artwork from the Democratic Republic of Congo organized by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. In consultation with distinguished guest curator Michael Kan—former curator of African art at the Detroit Institute of Arts—the Museum organized a series of three installations of African art from private collections in Michigan, the final of which remains on view through May 8.

In addition to expanded exhibit space for African art, the Museum's new wing will provide a variety of object study classrooms and open storage galleries, as well as housing the Charles Sawyer Center for Museum Studies. Collectively, these will allow faculty and student researchers, in particular, and the public in general, fuller access to all the Museum's outstanding works of art not on gallery display.

UMMA is located at 525 South State Street in Ann Arbor, at the gateway to the University of Michigan’s historic central campus. For more information, please call 734.763.UMMA or visit our website at Admission is free; a $5 donation is requested.