Remembering Donald B. Anderson
By Christina Stock
Today, we continue with the second part about philanthropist, artist, founder of the Roswell Artist-in-Residence and arts supporter, late Donald B. Anderson (April 6, 1919-June 7, 2020).
A new goal and vision: Roswell Artist-in-Residence program and a first exhibit
Anderson had arrived in Roswell in 1946 and while working as chief of exploration for Malco Oil and Gas, he became a father for the first time in 1950, when his wife Patricia Anderson gave birth to his son Donald Jr. Together, the couple would have three children, which included Joseph and Sarah.
In this busy pioneer time when more and more oil and gas fields were opened in the Southwest, Anderson laid the foundation for a fortune that he carefully built and grew, which included even a building company. This fortune was not only to support his growing family, but would become indeed fortunate for Roswell and artists around the world.
While being busy building his life, Anderson kept his passion for the arts alive, pursuing his passion as a painter and supporting the Roswell Museum and Art Center. According to RMAC’s Executive Director Caroline Brooks, Anderson volunteered as the museum’s first art curator in 1947 and continued to be active throughout the decades, first on its board of trustees and, later, with the RMAC Foundation, where he was listed as director emeritus up until his passing. He would be actively helping, donating time, money and art. He was board member, volunteer and supporter of almost every art and educational institution in the state and beyond, such as the Santa Fe Opera, Eastern New Mexico University, School of American Research in Santa Fe, Jargon Society out of Wales, Great Britain and The Smithsonian American Art Museum, to name a few.
Anderson’s early art was accepted in esteemed shows such as the group show Art News Magazine Traveling Exhibition in 1950 and 1951, at the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe in the late ‘60s, mid- and late-’70s.
Finding time was always an issue for Anderson: Time for work; time for his family; time to support others; and time to create his own visions on canvas. Time, he knew was of essence, though he may have not guessed, he would have more time available than the average man.
In 1963, Anderson left Malco Oil Inc., which was purchased by Conoco Oil. He was ready for the next step in his career, founding Anderson Oil Company.
One can only wonder how Anderson managed to juggle all these ventures and interests successfully as he did.
Soon, however, he would be able to realize a dream that had been his for a long time: To bring other artists to town.
While Roswell’s people appreciated the arts and supported them from the beginning when the area was still a territory, it was rare for Anderson to be able to meet with fellow artists; only their art would travel by train in travel exhibitions from up North to stay at the RMAC before being packed up and being sent to the next city. But, Anderson had a dream and — businessman as he was — a longterm plan, which he had shared with likeminded art enthusiasts in town.
In 1967, it was a devastating year for Roswell, which almost turned the town into one of the many ghost towns, or just a speck on the map for a few families to live in. The military pulled out without warning and Walker Air Force Base was no more. Following the military were the men and women whose livelihood depended on providing services for the AFB. Roswell was emptying out and had to reinvent itself. Anderson’s dream would be part of the new attraction Roswell would show the world, an artist-in-residence program, which would make the RMAC a tourist attraction and later on would become a second art museum, the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art.
Together with RMAC, Anderson planned and found a place north of town where studios would be built. Built by artists with artists in mind, the first three houses had everything an artist needed for accommodation, which included space for the artist’s family and of course, large studios with high ceilings and good lighting. For an entire year, artists could stay and concentrate on their work. The grant included a stipend that way — unlike with other grants — the artists didn’t have to work. It was a true “gift of time.”
Often the spouses or partners of the artists were artists themselves and the city thrived on the influx of art-interested tourists.
Anderson could have been content, but his vision did not end, it had just begun.
In 1947, Anderson had purchased a 5,000-square-foot metal building, really just a large maintenance building, which he had used for the trucks of his oil company. Soon, however, he turned the building into a place where he could keep his paintings, some were rather large. Then, with the artists joining the residence, he would purchase one or two art pieces, which he collected and put in the building.
In 1992, the building at 409 E. College Blvd. had its first official exhibition of works under the moniker “Gallery 409.”
The story on how the exhibition came to life shows a lot about how Anderson appreciated RAiR’s artists.
Robbie Barber was one of the youngest artists invited to the residence. He is a
professor of sculpture, teaching at Baylor University in Waco, Texas for 20 years. In a phone interview, he talked about his experience. “I am sitting down with the family and we are looking through old photographs. Don was a hard person to photograph,” Barber said.
Barber said that he had never been out West, growing up in North Carolina. “When I went to school, I wanted to go out West. I went to Tucson, Arizona and got my graduate degree, and while I was in graduate school at my last semester, I applied to an artist-in-residence program and didn’t really know anything about it. Someone put it in my hand and said, ‘Hey, you should apply for this. It is a great opportunity for artists.’ So I said OK and applied to it and it ended up being the Roswell residence. Once I got it, I realized how important it was, how special it was. It opened my eyes. I went straight from Tucson to Roswell. I don’t know if I am the youngest person (at the time) to be at that residence, but probably close because I was straight out of graduate school and at least up to that time, I don’t think they had anyone that age on the ground,” Barber said.
Barber was an unknown artist at the time. “Don sat in on all — when they were choosing artists — so I feel really good about it that he was sitting down with two/three artists who chose the artists looking at my work — (they) didn’t know me from Adam as they say and liked me good enough to give me one of the spots on the residence,” he said.
Asked about some of his impressions, Barber said, “There are several. The one that sticks out the most: I had this sculpture that I had in Tucson — it is a big and heavy outdoor sculpture — I made it there as a graduate student. I was desperately trying to figure out how to move this piece. I wanted to show it somewhere. I went straight to Don, it was probably my first conversation with him and said, ‘Don, I’ve got this sculpture and I know you have outdoor sculptures at your home; do you think this might be a piece you’re interested in? And Don — I think we all know this — he was a man of few words — he saw the photos of it, didn’t say anything but, ‘Let me think about it.’ That was it. He called me the next morning and said, ‘Yeah, bring it on. I’ll pay for it, getting it here.’
“That was a big deal, it would’ve probably cost me $3,000 to move it, and Don said he’d foot the bill to bring it here and it’s in his yard, his backyard. It is that big Army tank piece, a house trailer, a mobile home turned into an Army tank. I remember when we brought it out there with a crane and Don was out there directing them where to go, where to put it. That was really cool,” Barber said and chuckled.
“Then the other time, probably three or four months later — I was wanting to do this show, I was on a roll making these works. I was making the golf bag sharks. I was making those and had a vision of doing a full-fledged indoor installation to where these 10 or 12 sharks were swimming through a reef. I had gone to the Roswell Museum and talked to the director over there, but it just wouldn’t work out there because of how long it takes to schedule a show there. Any museum is like that, you can’t just walk in and do a show in six months. It usually is two or three years out. At the time, Don had his own personal gallery (Gallery 409), which is the Anderson Museum today. It wasn’t as big, just a single room with his paintings hanging there. So I went to Don — looking back, I had a lot of guts to do that. I went to Don and said, ‘Hey Don, can we remove all your art from the gallery and put my work in there and bring in 2,000 pounds of cement debris, so I can make a cool reef?’ And just like earlier with the sculpture, he didn’t say a word. He just said, ‘Let me think about it.’ Then he came right back and said, ‘Yes, we can do it.’ That was the first exhibition of other people’s work in his space, which kind of started the ball rolling into the Anderson Museum. I am really proud of that,” Barber said.
“Don is a man of few words, and we didn’t have very many conversations through the years, but his impact on my career has been hugely profound,” Barber said. “It’s a big deal. When I think of Don, I think of the residence — he is the residence. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t gotten that residence. Really, I owe a lot to him. Everything leads to something else. I really think everything connects. Coming straight out of graduate school, having the residence take a chance on me, this young artist, that led to some other things in a couple of years past that and that led ultimately to getting some grants, those led to me getting a teaching job, that brought me to Texas. All that is connected. My career as an artist got started with the residence, we all owe that to Don.”
Many families got started over the years at the residence. Barber’s family was started at RAiR, as well. “It all ties into Don, we had our first daughter on the residence,” he said. “I really can’t think of Roswell and the residence without thinking of Don. It was the start of my family, the start of my career. And my son, he was born in Roswell also, seven years later. Our lifelong friends in Nancy (Fleming) and Steve (Stephen Fleming), it’s all tied together. When we would travel back, we would try to see Don and Sally, I know they were busy people, but it just made it complete to see them.”
To be continued.