For Esther B. Ferguson, collecting art — whether it be painting, sculpture or works on paper — reflects a belief in the power of beauty and the desire to make a lasting connection with the creative vision of artists past and present. ‘Living with art is life for me,’ she says. ‘I need to be surrounded by art.’
A native of Hartsville, South Carolina, Esther Baskin Moore decided as a young woman to move to New York City. ‘I had the desire to see the outside world and to see the world of art,’ she explains. The future collector was a frequent visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she attended lectures and explored the art historical canon.
After studying political science and the history of art at the University of South Carolina, Moore returned to New York where she met her future husband, James L. Ferguson, an executive at General Foods and a respected philanthropist and community advocate.
The couple brought their leadership acumen and passion to numerous cultural and charitable organisations, including the New York Botanical Garden, Phoenix House, the Aspen Institute, the Hollings Cancer Center, the South Carolina Aquarium and Hamilton College, where they endowed multiple professorships.
Secessionville Manor, the Fergusons’ Charleston home
Upon retirement, the Fergusons relocated from Manhattan to Charleston, where Esther Ferguson oversaw the careful restoration of their magnificent James Island residence, Secessionville Manor. ‘When we first had the house we were highly conscious of it as something for which we were stewards, more than anything else,’ she explains.
Esther Ferguson says that she chose to hang their first major acquisition, a portrait by Pablo Picasso of his final consort and muse, Jacqueline Roque, on a wall painted a rich red hue, ‘so that when you come in, the art jumps off the walls’.
The portrait was followed by paintings, sculptures and works on paper by artists such as Willem de Kooning, Auguste Rodin, Barbara Hepworth, Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Gauguin and Milton Avery. ‘I have lived with the art of some of the great masters,’ she says. ‘I loved and nurtured these objects while they were in my care.’
In 2010, the Fergusons lent their private collection to Charleston’s Gibbes Museum of Art for the exhibition Modern Masters from the Ferguson Collection. To mark the exhibition’s opening, Mrs. Ferguson invited the artist Christo to speak in Charleston, beginning an ongoing series of conversations with luminaries such as Philippe de Montebello, Leonard Lauder, Jeff Koons, Tod Williams and Billy Tsien, and what would become The Gibbes Distinguished Lecture Series.
When not engaged with the art world, Esther Ferguson maintains numerous philanthropical commitments. She is the founder of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, has served on the boards of the Charleston Symphony, the South Carolina Arts Commission, the Young Concert Artists and the Spoleto Festival USA, and has provided financial support and leadership to the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture, as well as the International Piano Series, both at the College of Charleston. She also continues to honour her longtime commitment as a board member of the Gibbes Museum of Art.
As the Esther B. Ferguson Collection is now about to be passed on to a new generation of collectors and connoisseurs, it serves as a powerful testament to her deep passion for the arts. Her patronage has enriched the lives of many.