...they embraced works by artists of every major school of painting as well as those by 'eccentric' artists who broke from traditional training to establish their own individual styles."
As a curator of Japanese art at the Met who arrived in 2011 and just happened to be in place here when the long-awaited gift of the Mary Griggs Burke Collection was accessioned, I'm deeply indebted to the Japan specialists who preceded me. The munificent bequest of a major part of the Burke Collection of Japanese art to the Met–over 300 works, including more than 225 paintings–in one fell swoop doubles the number of display-worthy, high-quality Japanese pictorial works in our collection. Both the Met and the Minneapolis Institute of Art had known for many years that most of the Burke Collection would be divided between the two institutions, but the final checklists of gifts weren't released to respective curators until the spring of 2015, and both institutions are understandably ecstatic about what they each received.
Pictorial art had always been the collecting focus of Mary Griggs Burke (1916–2012) and her husband, Jackson, even as they acquired religious sculptures, tea-related ceramics, and lacquerware to display in ensembles in the mini-museum they created in their Manhattan apartment. In 1963, the Burkes embarked on the serious collecting of Japanese art by acquiring, from a private Florida collection, over seventy colorful ukiyo-e paintings showing courtesans of the demimonde. While the Burkes were particularly fond of medieval ink paintings by monk-painters affiliated with Zen monasteries, they embraced works by artists of every major school of painting as well as those by "eccentric" artists who broke from traditional training to establish their own individual styles. After her husband's death in 1975, Mary Burke continued to build the collection in every area, but its special strength is the impressive constellation of folding-screen paintings of the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, of which some thirty sets have been presented to the Met.
It is indeed remarkable to reflect on how this American woman, born in the Midwest, grew up to be captivated by the distant culture of Japan and, with her husband, built one the finest collections of that country's art in the West. With great generosity and vision behind this transformative gift, Mary Burke has ensured that the beauty, elegance, and poetic profundity she discovered in the arts of Japan can be shared with visitors to the Museum for generations to come.
Mary Griggs Burke Curator of Japanese Art
Department of Asian Art