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Image: Iwan Baan

Just in time for the holidays, the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum has just received the largest gift in its 42-year existence. The museum is the recipient of a $1 million bequest from longtime benefactor and philanthropist Jane Dale Owen, who passed away in June 2014. An ardent environmentalist and arts patron, Owen was the granddaughter of Sarah Jane Blaffer, from whom the museum takes its name.

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Blaffer Art Museum's director and chief curator Claudia Schmuckli

Part of the gift, which Blaffer Gallery’s director and chief curator Claudia Schmuckli calls “life-changing,” will go towards creating an endowment in Owen’s name that will support future exhibitions and corresponding public programming.

“I couldn’t have anticipated what was coming,” says Schmuckli, who made the official announcement this week. “It is an incredible thrill. It gives us a tremendous amount of security and leeway in how we think about exhibitions and public programs from here on out.”

In June, Owen’s son Erik and his wife Lora invited Schmuckli and leaders of several charities that Owen supported to the family home in New Harmony, Indiana. At a dinner party, Schmuckli mingled with representatives from groups including Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club, Doctors Without Borders and Greater Houston Community Foundation, and learned that they had each received $1 million from Owen. “For those of us who hadn’t had a chance to meet her, this was a way to understand and get to know the person behind these donations,” Schmuckli recalls.

The grateful and inspired Schmuckli is now focused on properly paying tribute to Owen, aiming to educate future generations by increasing “the quality and texture of public programs in the way of community programs and education.”

She also plans to increase the Blaffer’s scope. “We are now going to become even more ambitious in how we think about future exhibitions,” she says. “That means more cooperation with both national and international museums to co-produce and co-present exhibitions.”

For now Schmuckli is celebrating the fact that her dream exhibitions can suddenly be made a reality. “Of course this is a wonderful way to end the year, and it is a wonderful Christmas gift,” she says. “Gifts like that don’t come very often. Endowments are promises for the future. It supports the institution for eternity.”

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