Words by Margaret F.M. Walker; Photography by Jerry Atnip
“On October 22, the President of France hosted a dinner for Marlene and Spencer Hays. At the event President Hollande announced the couple’s decision to give their art collection in whole to the Musée d’Orsay.
We were privileged to be given a tour of the couple’s Nashville home and to see many of the masterpieces in the collection.
Ici c’est, pour votre plaisir visuel.”
Friendship. Family. Passion. These are principles that guide the lives of Marlene and Spencer Hays and that are reflected in their distinguished collection of Nabis art, truly the hidden gem of Nashville. The Nabis Movement followed Impressionism in the story of French avant-garde art from approximately 1890-1900 and is often characterized by strong color fields and a flatness of the picture that presages the abstraction of the twentieth century. In 2013, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris mounted an exhibition titled A Passion for France: The Marlene and Spencer Hays Collection, which united the works that are divided between their Nashville home and New York apartment.
To show their love for France, their Nashville home is modeled after one in Paris and is built with French stones, has a staircase crafted in France, 18th-century floors imported from France, and even the doorknobs were made in France. The Hays do have a passion for France, its art, culture, and people, though it is a relationship built in a uniquely American way. Marlene and Spencer Hays are an embodiment of the American Dream. Coming from humble beginnings in Gainesville, Texas, far from any great museums, the couple met in eighth grade. Spencer was able to attend college at Texas Christian University on a basketball scholarship. He began selling books with the Southwestern Company during college, a professional relationship that continues today. He has used those same values to build the Tom James Company and Athlon Media Group, which publishes Parade magazine.
Spencer Hays lives by the principle “You can’t build a business—you build people. People build a business.” Behind their art collection is the heart of this philosophy: Art is meaningful because it is about people and their relationships. To tour the Hays collection is to have a window into the lives of Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and numerous other notable artists. While drawn to collecting Nabis works for many reasons, one of them is clearly that many of these artists knew each other from childhood. To tour the collection is to step back in time, to peer through a window into the friendships and daily lives of these men. Each picture is connected to the others in a finely spun web.
The Hays speak of their paintings with an intimate knowledge and a connection to them that was built over countless hours lovingly spent getting to know them. Pierre Bonnard’s The Animals’ Luncheon (The Terrasse Family) is a scene of the artist’s sister, Andrée, and her husband, Claude Terrasse, with their many pets. It, like other Bonnard paintings in the collection, is a snapshot of regular life, friends, and family. They have enjoyed not just the nuances of the paintings’ aesthetics and stories, but also gaining a sense of the artist’s oeuvre as a whole and his artistic process. Similarly, The Table. The End of Luncheon at Madame Vuillard’s (c. 1895) by Édouard Vuillard, is a glimpse of family dinner. We know the identities of the figures (including fellow Nabis painter, his brother-in-law, Ker-Xavier Roussel) and even, based on the date, an idea of what they could be discussing. The strong themes of family and friendship in these paintings and many others have clearly been a draw for the Hays. Another element of their love for this artistic movement is these painters’ ability to create a scene from life, but to do so in a way that is often a puzzle to be deciphered from the play of composition, blocks of vibrant color, varied patterns, and interpersonal relations. They are intellectual paintings that take many hours of looking to fully appreciate. In Mrs. Hays’ words, over time, “they become old friends.”
“While it all began with a small old-master painting and several works by American artists, the couple discovered their love of Nabis art through regular trips to Paris.”
The relational quality of art collecting lies in individuals of the contemporary era, too. For many decades now, the Hays have sought the help and guidance of Stan Mabry of Stanford Fine Art, who has been integral to the building of their collection. Many Nashvillians will be familiar with Mabry, who met the Hays selling books for the Southwestern Company but went on to work for Sotheby’s after college and then to establish his own art gallery in Nashville in 1987. Spencer credits Stan as their “advisor and consultant, and a fantastic art historian in his own right.” Another Nashvillian Hays mentions is Suzanne Moore, who serves as curator of their collection.
The Hays almost stumbled into collecting. While it all began with a small old-master painting and several works by American artists, the couple discovered their love of Nabis art through regular trips to Paris. Over time, works of this movement would become the heart of the collection, though they own works by other canonical artists of this era like Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, James Tissot, and Amedeo Modigliani. In fact a Modigliani of one of his beautiful women was Hays’ gift to his wife on their 60th wedding anniversary recently celebrated in June.
As they began to acquire more pieces of note, they came to know more art historians. The couple loaned a panel by Vuillard, the only one of an original set of eight that is in a private collection, along with six other Vuillards to a traveling exhibition organized by their dear friend Guy Cogeval, an expert on the Nabis artists. The exhibit opened at the National Gallery in Washington, traveled to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and then to the Grand Palais in Paris.
When Cogeval assumed the directorship of the Musée d’Orsay, Hays suggested that they begin an American Friends group for the Musée d’Orsay. The group, the AFMO, raises public awareness and financial support for the Musée d’Orsay and its sister institution, Musée l’Orangerie, which annually has over three million visitors from around the world. Membership perks include no-wait access, private tours with curators, tickets to Musée d’Orsay exhibitions in the United States, and more, depending on the level of membership. The group also organizes annual tours of Paris with first-class events. This year it includes cocktails with the American Ambassador, visiting the Maison Mellerio dit Meller, Jeweler of Queens since Marie de Médicis, touring behind the scenes at the Ritz Paris Kitchen, and seeing the Château de l’Ermitage de Pompadour, the Home and Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Carlo Perrone.
When collecting art, considerations include aesthetic value and the artist, but also the provenance of a specific work, and the Hays collection includes a number of paintings that carry a rich and interesting history independent of what one sees on their surface. One work is an anomaly in the collection, dating from the mid-twentieth century: a drawing by Henry Moore (British, 1898-1986). Hays relates that it was purchased in the sale for his good friend Stanley Marcus (of Neiman Marcus), carrying provenance from another great collection and, more important, a sweet reminder of his old friend.
“The Hays speak of their paintings with an intimate knowledge and a connection to them that was built over countless hours lovingly spent getting to know them.”
As the Hays gradually built a preeminent collection of Nabis art, they became cognizant of another notable collector, Samuel Josefowitz, who had literally built his collection by knocking on doors in Pont Aven, asking residents to sell him these paintings. When he passed away, his son Paul began selling some of the collection. The Hays have several paintings with a Josefowitz provenance, but one in particular carries great meaning for them. Mrs. Hays first saw her favorite painting, Little Girls Walking (1891) by Édouard Vuillard, when it was on loan to the National Gallery, London. As Mabry says, “When you see a painting you love, you don’t forget it.” When Sam Josefowitz died, Hays approached Paul Josefowitz and attempted to buy it directly, but they couldn’t come to a decision. Years later, the very same painting came up in an important sale at Christie’s. Hays had to pay more, but he still acquired this touching piece for his wife. Provenance can create new layers of interest and value for a work of art. Other previous owners of works in the Hays collection include the actress Greta Garbo and the actor Edward G. Robinson.
On October 22, the President of France hosted a dinner honoring the Hays at the Elysée Palace. It was attended by their friends, family, and dignitaries from the art world. At this event, he publicly announced the couple’s decision to give their collection in whole to the Musée d’Orsay at their death. President Hollande also named the Hays as Commandeurs of the French Legion d’Honneur, the highest order of France. The Musée d’Orsay will install the collection as a permanent display, a true sign of its importance and the diligence with which the couple has built it over the past forty years. In a letter to family and friends announcing their decision, the Hays chose two quotes by Sir Richard Attenborough that they felt reflected the reasoning behind their decision: “Art belongs to no one. Some of us are simply its temporary, fortunate, and delighted custodians.” Similarly, “Art is for everyone—and failure to include everyone diminishes us all.” This was a carefully considered decision on the part of the couple and is rooted in their passion for this art and their desire to give it to the widest possible audience. The Hays collection truly will be a lasting legacy for the enjoyment of generations to come.
“Art belongs to no one. Some of us are simply its temporary, fortunate, and delighted custodians. Similarly, art is for everyone—and failure to include everyone diminishes us all.”