Past News at Kluge-Ruhe

John Werner Kluge (1914-2010) • Wednesday September 8, 2010

John W. Kluge, American businessman and founder of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection of the University of Virginia, passed away September 7, 2010 at the age of 95.

Kluge was born in Chemnitz, Germany in 1914, immigrating to America with his mother and German-American stepfather when he was eight years old. He left home at fourteen to pursue an education. An excellent student, Kluge was awarded a four-year scholarship to Columbia University, where he graduated with a major in Economics in 1937.

Kluge landed his first full-time job by offering to work for a very low salary in exchange for a share of the company if he doubled sales. Beginning in the stockroom, he set out to learn every job in the company. Within three years he had doubled sales, was vice president and owned a third of the company’s stock.

Kluge’s work history was characterized by risk-taking and unwavering ambition. He invested in several different industries, including radio stations, food brokerage, direct mail and real estate. In each case, he found new ways to promote a stagnant company or industry. By 1958, Kluge was a millionaire. He built his company, Metromedia, into a huge conglomerate of advertising, entertainment and communications businesses.

Kluge’s drive to achieve higher and higher goals is evident not only in his work history but also in his art collecting strategy. He began collecting art in the 1950s and became a leading proponent of corporate art investment. Through Metromedia, Kluge purchased the work of emerging California artists and an historic poster collection.

By the time he started collecting Australian Aboriginal art, Kluge already owned collections of Maillol sculptures, ancient bronze figures and 19th century horse-drawn carriages. His residences in New York, Florida and Virginia were filled with an eclectic mix of antiquities, modern and contemporary art, sculpture and fine furnishings. Aboriginal art complemented this extraordinary blend of cultures and styles.

Kluge began collecting Aboriginal Art in 1988 after seeing an exhibition called Dreamings: The Art of Aboriginal Australia at the Asia Society Galleries in New York. Drawn by the beauty and visual power of Aboriginal art, he assembled a collection of more than 1,600 objects including paintings on bark and canvas, sculpture and material culture. Kluge directed considerable resources toward creating the largest and most valuable collection of Aboriginal art outside Australia. His connoisseurship helped to establish Aboriginal art as an internationally recognized fine art form.

Kluge always possessed a soft spot for the “underdog.” As a collector, he consistently sought out artists who were not yet established, either early-career artists or those working in alternative media. Encountering Aboriginal art at a time when it was emerging in the global art market, Kluge believed it had not yet realized its potential. He enjoyed taking risks as a collector. “It wasn’t safe art,” he said, “that was part of the attraction.”

Kluge built his collection by organizing several notable commissions with community art centers, as well as purchasing works at auction and through art dealers in Australia, Los Angeles and New York. In 1993 he acquired the Ruhe Collection from the estate of Edward L. Ruhe, an English professor at the University of Kansas. This collection of more than 1,000 objects brought both historical depth and breadth of representation of diverse artists and styles to the Kluge collection. By 1995 Kluge began focusing on filling gaps in the collection by building on its existing strengths. Another round of commissions helped to “complete” Kluge’s vision of developing a comprehensive collection representing the major art-producing regions of Australia.

The Kluge collection remained private for many years. During this time Kluge explored the possibility of building a private museum for the collection. Finally, he became convinced that the collection should be open to the public and used for education and scholarly research. With this in mind, he donated the Kluge-Ruhe Collection to the University of Virginia in 1997. The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection opened in 1999 as the only public museum dedicated to Australian Aboriginal art in America.

John and his wife, Tussi, have been generous supporters of the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, financing the publication of the book, Art from the Land: Dialogues with the Kluge-Ruhe Collection, and donating 16 early Western Desert paintings to the collection in 2008. They recently agreed to co-chair the inaugural Advisory Council for the Kluge-Ruhe Collection.

Dr. Howard Morphy, Director of the Research School of Humanities & the Arts at Australian National University writes, “It is impossible to overestimate John Kluge’s contribution to increasing the global appreciation and understanding of Australian Aboriginal art. He built an exceptional collection of aesthetically powerful works and ensured they were documented to the highest standards. His support of research into Aboriginal art and his development of the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia helped to lay the foundations for the future art history of Aboriginal art. He will be greatly missed by all who share his sense of the beauty and power of Aboriginal art.”

John’s presence will be greatly missed as we strive to carry his vision for the Kluge-Ruhe Collection forward.

Margo Smith