Art collector and curator Melva Bucksbaum dies at 82

Melva Bucksbaum, who turned her childhood passion for collecting dolls and glass animals into a career among America’s greatest art collectors, curators and patrons, died Sunday at her home in Aspen, in Colorado. She was 82 years old.

The cause was bladder cancer, said her husband, Raymond J. Learsy.

At the age of 9 in Washington in the early 1940s, Ms. Bucksbaum regularly took the downtown bus from her immigrant parents’ grocery store to escape “into another world” at the National Gallery of Art.

She aspired to be an artist, but when her “hand would never do what the head wanted it to do,” she recalls, she started collecting instead.

She served as chair of the board of directors of Des Moines Art Center in Iowa, where her first husband, Martin Bucksbaum, pioneered shopping malls and real estate investment trusts. He died in 1995.

In New York, she became vice-president of the Whitney Museum of American Art and married Mr. Learsy, a contemporary art collector, commodity trader, developer and member of Whitney’s board of directors.

In 2000, she and her family launched the Bucksbaum Prize, which awards an artist $ 100,000 every two years (an amount that has been described as the largest cash prize awarded to an individual visual artist) and an invitation to exhibit at the Whitney. Last year, the eighth winner, chosen from 103 participants at the Whitney Biennial, was Zoe Leonard, the photographer and sculptor.

Ms. Bucksbaum and Mr. Learsy have been described by ARTnews magazine as some of the world’s greatest collectors, owning works by Matisse, David Salle, Richard Serra, Robert Mapplethorpe, Frank Gehry, Terry Winters and Nan Goldin.

She has also served on several other boards, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, the Jewish Museum in New York, the Aspen Institute, the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the International Committee of the Tate Gallery in London, the Drawing Center in New York, the American Friends of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Last year, she curated “The Distaff Side,” a collection of paintings, sculptures, photographs and videos of women – works from the couple’s collection – in their private exhibition space in Sharon, Conn.

Melva Jane Venezky was born in Washington on April 5, 1933, daughter of William Venezky and former Millie Ruth Bronstein, Jewish immigrants from Russia. She attended the University of Maryland.

After the death of Mr. Bucksbaum, president of General Growth Properties, she moved to Aspen and then to New York, where she met and married Robert I. Goldman, who died in 1998.

Besides her husband, Mr. Learsy, survivors include her sons, Gene and Glenn Bucksbaum; his daughter, Mary Bucksbaum Scanlan; her stepchildren, Bill and Peter Lese and Olexa Mandelbaum; seven grandchildren; and six step-grandchildren.

Norma D. Ross