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No petunia paintings 

Collector Sandy Besser says he’ll gather 500 works of contemporary art for schools program.

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By April 1, Santa Fe art collector and former Little Rock investment adviser Sandy Besser says, he’ll have collected 500 pieces of significant contemporary art for inclusion in the Art Across Arkansas program of the William J. Clinton and Thea foundations.

None of it, he says, will be pretty pictures — what he likes to call “posies and petunias.”

Instead, the art, to be donated to the Clinton Foundation, will be the sort that “makes people think,” he said, chosen with an eye he’s developed over 45 years of purchasing thousands of works of art for his own collection. Much of that work — which includes works on paper and sculpture — can be seen in his 5,200-square-foot home in New Mexico, featured in the current issue of Santa Fe Trend magazine. Arkansans are most familiar with works in the Diane and Sandy Besser Collection, which has been shown at the Arkansas Arts Center.

Besser says he started collecting things as a child — butterflies, postcards, swizzle sticks. He began collecting art as a young man, before he had money — he once had a limit of $500 on his purchases. At Stephens Inc., he initiated Jack Stephens’ foray into art collecting in 1975 and kept adding to the family collection in the following decade. He has no doubt that he’ll be able to amass the art in just four months. He’s not the kind of person to have self-doubts — he speaks plainly and with a self-assurance that comes with financial success, native wit and a slightly quirky personality. He’s gotten the ball rolling with four works from his own collection — which serendipitously arrived at the Clinton Foundation offices just as he was talking to a reporter about the program.

The works, all figurative, were by New Mexico artists whose careers Besser helped launch. Included are an oil on paper painting by Beverly McIver, just featured in the Studio department of ARTnews magazine in November; a Bosch-like pencil drawing by visionary artist Bartley Johnson; a glitter and watercolor on paper of two boxers by Richard Kurtz; and a neo-classical fantasy in pen and ink by Michael Farris. They are thought-provoking in content and style, just the thing kids could sink their teeth into.

Besser admitted to a distaste for asking artists to donate work. But so far, he hasn’t had to ask.

“Seventy-some-odd artists have made the mistake of calling me” recently, Besser said last week in an interview at the Clinton School of Public Service. “After I tell my story, they say ‘count me in.’ ”

They’re eager, Besser says, to be part of Art Across Arkansas — which he believes will be Art Across America eventually — for several reasons, one of which is that many artists are teachers, and the Art Across Arkansas idea — which just kicked off in schools in Pulaski County — turns them on.

“I believe we are going to change the whole manner and methodology in which art is viewed in this country,” Besser said. A sweeping statement, yes — but, he said, “I am not a daydreamer.”

Besser said Americans, unlike Europeans, do not yet see fine art as an integral part of life and culture; “Europeans respect art in a way we don’t.”

Asked how he’d limit content in the work, since the art will be displayed in schools, Besser joked, “No more than 12 in an orgy.” He explained further: “No lewd nudes and no nukes.”

Art Across Arkansas, which is being directed on the Clinton end by Ann Kamps, is distributing art one piece per school per year. Each school receives a 6-foot-tall columned display case that can be adjusted to accommodate the size of the work and which will also frame statements by and about the artist. The program includes no curriculum; teachers may use the art in any way they see fit. Kamps said she hopes they’ll share the ways they’ve used the artwork as a jumping off point for other studies on a website to be developed about the program.

The work will be stored unframed in print drawers in the foundation office at 601 Clinton Ave. until an exhibit at the Clinton Library opens in June. It will then travel to schools. At that point, Besser said, his work will be done.

Bylites, which has created the display cases, has also assisted in transportation. Besser, however, has another idea. “We need to get FedEx as a partner,” he said, because so much art will be going out to schools.

Being part of the Clinton Foundation collection has a certain prestige, and the knowledge that the work will be included in a book and may be part of a three-month exhibit that will open June 1 in the Clinton Library helps, too.

Besser’s participation in the joint project of the Clinton and Thea foundations — the latter created by Paul and Linda Leopoulos to support the arts in honor of his late daughter — was prompted by a phone call he got several months ago from Rose Crane, the outgoing president of the Thea board. She was looking for a donation of art. What she eventually got was not just Besser’s art but Besser. In October, former president Clinton wrote Besser a note thanking him, and saying he hoped the project would be “a model for taking art into the public schools nationally.”

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