In his more generous moments, Arthur Magill dismisses modern abstract painting as “Freudian frustrations tossed in a Cuisinart.” The bumptious former lingerie manufacturer knows what he doesn’t like but he’s no Philistine. Magill, 72, gave his adopted hometown of Greenville, S.C. half the cost of its $2.2 million museum and filled it with the world’s finest collection of works by American realist Andrew Wyeth.
Magill began just last year by acquiring 26 Wyeth oils owned by movie mogul Joseph E. Levine. Plagued by burglaries at his Connecticut home, Levine had kept the works crated in a Manhattan warehouse. “We looked at them about an hour,” recalls Magill of his meeting in March with the producer. “Levine said it was like seeing old friends, and he started to cry a little bit.” Although both Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts had courted Levine, neither would promise permanent display for the paintings. So Joe accepted an offer estimated at $4.5 million from Magill.
“I was in a state of shock,” confesses the South Carolinian. So were Wyeth’s fellow Pennsylvanians who had hoped the collection would one day return home. “First they took our textile mills, and now they’re taking our Wyeths,” complained a Philadelphia newspaper editorial. That was only the beginning. A month after those acquisitions were first shown in Greenville, Magill and his wife Holly were invited to the Wyeth summer home in Cushing, Maine to examine the artist’s collection of watercolors, drybrush works and preliminary sketches for some of his paintings. A deal for 365 pieces was struck for another $4 million plus. The Greenville curators now figure they have enough material for at least 50 Wyeth exhibits, and the second—”Andrew Wyeth: Selected Studies”—opens Feb. 2.
Magill’s millions come from the children’s underwear business, Her Majesty Industries, which he inherited from his father in 1934. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Swarthmore, he moved his company from Pennsylvania to Greenville 25 years ago. There in the Blue Ridge foothills, he and Alice “Holly” Hollingsworth, his wife of 32 years, share a 10-room, high-ceilinged contemporary home that is filled with American art and Holly’s needlepoint. Wyeths are hung above their twin beds. With their daughter grown and married, Magill sold the family firm to Gulf & Western for $7.9 million in 1976. By then the Greenville County Museum of Art was on the drawing boards. “What’s so great about a goddamn building?” he snapped to those who praised the dazzling trapezoid design. “What you need is something to put in it.”
Some 65,000 people have visited the once-obscure museum in the four months since he found something to put in it, and the mail now includes letters addressed: “Wyeth Museum, Greenville.” A three-story addition is under construction and a national touring Wyeth exhibit is being planned. Magill meanwhile plays tennis (despite two heart bypass operations), writes poetry, travels to photograph Wyeth’s original backdrops and happily tags along with some of the busloads of schoolkids who trek through the galleries. “What the hell’s the point of hoarding your money just to give it to the government in taxes?” he says gruffly. “I like Wyeth, I had the money, so I bought them. It’s fun, that’s all.”