Detroit arts patron James Pearson Duffy, 1923 - 2009

Nov 6, 2009 at 11:02 am
James Pearson Duffy, longtime Detroit businessman, consummate patron of the arts, and champion of the Detroit arts scene, died on Tuesday at his home in Grosse Pointe at the age of 86. He was the only child of James F. and Helen Pearson Duffy.

Duffy’s patronage of Detroit artists is legendary. Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) Director Graham W. J. Beal said of Duffy, “Jim was extraordinary in so many ways. If anyone can be said to have danced to a different drummer, it was Jim. His passion for art manifested itself all the time, and over a lifetime he collected avidly. He collected widely but gave special support to Detroit artists by relentless acquisition of their works—the best sort of support that can be given. His generosity to the DIA in gifts of works of art and funds puts him in the top ranks of DIA patrons.”

Born in Cleveland in 1923, Duffy graduated from Georgetown University in 1947 and while still in college began weekend jaunts to New York to learn about art. It was on these weekend trips and summer excursions to Europe that he developed what became a lifelong passion for the visual arts.

In 1947 when Duffy became an employee of the family-owned pipefitting and value supply business, Edward W. Duffy & Company, he took up residence in Detroit. Duffy assumed control of the company from his father in 1960, and it was at the company headquarters and warehouse on West Jefferson that many of Duffy’s commissioned works were later installed. The company motto soon became “We put art anywhere and everywhere we can.”

Duffy helped his parents collect 19th-century American and English paintings and decorative arts. He remembered with great fondness the conversations he had with his mother, Helen Pearson Duffy, about these works, but most especially their discussions of paintings he discovered and recommended that his parents purchase by School of Paris artists Georges Braque, Raoul Dufy and Georges Rouault, among others.

Duffy had a talent for finding and appreciating the best that life had to offer. Determined to find only the finest paintings, he inquired at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about art dealers and was directed to the nearby Knoedler Gallery. Later he broadened his horizons as his interest in more contemporary art grew, patronizing New York galleries as well as Detroit venues such as the Willis Gallery, Susanne Hilberry Gallery, Detroit Artists Market, Detroit Focus Gallery, Lemberg Gallery and David Klein Gallery.

Duffy was never content to simply be a patron. He wanted to support all efforts that elevated the arts. In 1954 Edgar P. Richardson, DIA director at the time, invited him to become a founding member of the Archives of American Art, then housed at the DIA. When W. Hawkins Ferry reinvigorated the DIA auxiliary Friends of Modern Art in 1964, Duffy was among its young leaders. He also began to frequent the Detroit Artists Market. His interests in the art of the moment were galvanized when Duffy met Sam Wagstaff, who had just arrived as the DIA’s first curator of contemporary art. Duffy began making significant contributions in support of art acquistions at the DIA, and through the years donated or supported the purchase of more than 1,500 objects.

In the 1970s Duffy discovered the work of artists living in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. Like Wagstaff before him, Duffy “crossed the street” to enter the homes and studios of artists in the cultural center after he was introduced to them during a visit to the Willis Gallery in 1972. Duffy later characterized the visit in a conversation with Mary Jane Jacob, former associate curator of modern art at the DIA, as “Just as mysterious and marvelous as I expected it to be.”

Never content with half measures, Duffy purchased several works on that first visit, which set the pattern for his support of Detroit artists. Soon he was commissioning works for his warehouse, office, and apartment by many artists, but chief among them were Gordon Newton and Bob Sestok.

“To Jim it was all good; it was the good that mattered. He loved making a difference, making grand supportive gestures, helping, being part of the process,” reminisced onetime Detroit artist John Egner. For Duffy, though, the quest was a two-way street: discovering meaning in an artwork helped him discover a bit of each artist’s genius and at the same time allowed him to claim part of his humanity. In an interview with art critic and founding director of Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Marsha Miro, Duffy let slip a comment that he would often keep a flashlight by his bed so he could inspect the artwork propped in a nearby chair. In the middle of the night Duffy would wake to consider the work, so keen was his need to understand an artist’s message.

Gilbert B. Silverman, another Detroit-based collector, curated an exhibition at the Detroit Focus Gallery that included a mix of work from well-known artists along with newcomers. Most surprising, though, was Silverman’s inclusion of photographs taken by Duffy that documented the city’s industrial architecture. Duffy gave great attention to details, especially when finding new meanings and beauty in Detroit’s changing neighborhoods.

In 1992, when Duffy sold his business and warehouse, he donated more than 1,000 pieces of art created by Cass Corridor artists to Wayne State University (WSU). His largess as a patron came to wider public attention in 2001 when cultural institutions—WSU, College for Creative Studies, and the DIA—joined forces to present four separate exhibitions of artwork championed by Duffy. Always anxious to discover the new, Duffy continued to support WSU and the DIA with large donations of artwork and significant gifts of money. According to Sharon L. Vasquez, dean of the College of Fine, Performing, and Communication Arts at WSU, “In acknowledgement of Jim Duffy’s generous gifts, Wayne State University announced on April 24, 2009 the naming of the second of its departments in the College of Fine, Performing, and Communication Arts. The James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History will enjoy an endowment of approximately $4.5 million to secure the future study and support of contemporary art and artists as they contribute to the education and training of our students.” The DIA Department of Contemporary Art was named the James Pearson Duffy Department of Contemporary Art in 2007.

As he supported Detroit institutions in life, Duffy leaves a bequest to the James Pearson Duffy Department of Art and Art History at Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of Arts.


Visitation at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul on 629 East Jefferson Avenue, Detroit MI 48226, will be at 3 p.m., followed by a funeral mass at 4 p.m., this Friday, November 6 (parking available north of the church in lot off of Larned).

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In accordance with Mr. Duffy’s wishes, please send memorial tributes to the Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Avenue, Detroit MI 48202); Wayne State University (Dean’s Office, College of Fine, Performing, and Communication Arts, the Linsell House, 5104 Gullen Mall, Detroit MI 48202); Saints Peter and Paul Jesuit Church (address above); or a charity of one’s choice. Arrangements through William R. Hamilton Funeral Home, Mount Clemens (586-463-0577).