A Visual Syllabus: An Interview with Collector Barbara Lawrence Alfond


A gift of artworks recently donated to a Florida college will not only enrich the school’s art museum but also support scholarship funds.

Boston-area collectors Barbara and Ted Alfond have given Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla., over 100 paintings, photographs and sculptures. The gift includes examples by figures such as Mel Bochner, Joseph Kosuth and Martha Rosler as well as younger artists like Lalla Essaydi and Sara VanDerBeek. Ted Alfond’s father founded the Dexter Shoe company, and Barbara Alfond has served on museum boards including as president of the board of trustees at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The works of art will be spread between the college’s Cornell Fine Arts Museum and Alfond Inn, which opened this summer and is owned by the college and named for Ted’s father. The inn’s profits for 25 years, or $50 million—whichever is greater—will go to scholarships.

Barbara Alfond spoke with A.i.A. by phone about the gift.

The catalogue for this gift describes art as serving as a “visual syllabus.” Can you tell us a little more about that idea?

That was the expression of our thesis coined by Abigail Ross Goodman, the curator we worked with to build our collection. Mostly when we began to develop this collection, what resonated with me was the notion of literacy—the idea of understanding other cultures, past and present, and being conversant beyond your subject area.

How long have you been collecting?

Over 40 years. We bought an antique house outside of Boston in 1975. We had three kids and no furniture, so we began with American decorative arts and then, as Teddy says, when everything below the chair rail was taken care of, we started working on the area above it, starting with 19th-century American art. I still sometimes see a Sanford Gifford that makes my heart stop. We became interested in contemporary art because we wanted to remain current. We have a small house and we have what we need for ourselves, but we want to help public institutions in whatever way we can.

Can you tell me about a couple of the artworks that are particularly meaningful in their new context?

The Michael Bühler-Rose [The Secret, Alachua, FL, 2006] was the first piece that we bought. I love the whole idea of otherness. It’s a photo of beautiful Indian women in their saris in central Florida, holding on to their own ideas. I love the liberal arts campus because the whole idea is about embracing that which is new to you and trying to sort it out for yourself in your own mind.

The Mark Flood painting [Mirror, Mirror, 2012] means a lot to me because of his persona as a ventriloquist. He’ll send other people to be Mark Flood at gallery openings. We have a number of works that I associate with finding your identity, and a college campus is a great place to do that.