Editor’s Note: In honor and memory of Sharon Litwin, The Queen here at NolaVie, we will be publishing a piece from her every day for the next month. Sharon was an advocate and spokeswoman for arts, culture, people, and policies here in New Orleans. Her voice and sharp wit will be greatly missed.
To hear Sharon Litwin interview the Besthoffs on WWNO public radio, click here.
Was there one event that led the third-generation owner of K&B, the iconic New Orleans-based drugstore chain, into the world of sculpture? There was. And Sydney J. Besthoff III remembers it well. It all began, he says, when he went shopping for a building to house the company.
“We bought the building at Lee Circle, and it had on it a very gorgeous sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, a well-known Japanese sculptor,” Besthoff recalls. “And, as it so happened, I knew at the time that the sculpture was worth a fair amount of money. So when I made the arrangements with the life insurance company that owned it, I was careful not to mention the sculpture. And, lo and behold, nobody else mentioned it either. So it was a freebie. And that was my start.”
Sydney Besthoff III is now in his 80s. He was in his 30s when he took over his family business, expanding it to more than 180 K&B drug stores throughout the South before selling the chain to Rite-Aid in 1977. While he grew up in a well-established New Orleans family that generally enjoyed art, it wasn’t until he bought the building to house the K&B offices that he became truly smitten. Like many a real estate deal, though, not everything about the purchase was as described, including the Noguchi sculpture.
“In typical New Orleans fashion, the foundation had settled,” Besthoff says. “It was off-kilter and the fountain did not work.”
So, in typical Besthoff fashion, he just set about fixing it. Soon after he approached then New Orleans Museum of Art Director E. John Bullard about adding more pieces of sculpture to the open-air space around the building, he re-named K&B Plaza. These were not decisions made by a committee of two, however. There was a third person always present: Besthoff’s wife, Walda. She has been part of her husband’s art journey every step of the way. Together they read about sculpture, listened to experts in the field and, after a few years, learned to trust their own judgment.
Over time, the Besthoffs amassed an extraordinary collection. Placed on the Plaza were works by such well-known sculptors as Henry Moore and George Segal. Those and many others joined the tall steel piece by George Rickey, the upstate New York artist who John Bullard had first suggested, now almost 40 years ago.
Advice from John Bullard about purchasing more art, and conversations about the possibility of creating a sculpture garden in New Orleans, were ongoing. And in 2003, after almost a decade of negotiations between the Besthoffs and NOMA, and NOMA and CityPark, working with what Walda Besthoff calls the “dream team” of Lee Ledbetter Architects of New Orleans and Sawyer/Berson Landscape Architects of New York, the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden became a reality. Two years later, it was under water as the levees failed in Hurricane Katrina.
Working their way through all the post-Hurricane bureaucracy, the Besthoffs and the NOMA staff brought the Sculpture Garden back. It is now one of the treasures of this city, something that makes both Besthoffs happy and proud.
“People do ask us about giving all this [art] away,” Walda Besthoff says. “We had never really thought about it as giving it away. Sydney and I have deep roots in this community. I have eight great-grandparents buried here; Sydney has seven. In a country that’s as mobile as America, that’s almost unheard of. We are so much a part of this community that really the sculpture belongs here. It never seemed to us to be that magnanimous a gift; it was what we wanted. It pleases us to have our art here in this perfectly beautiful setting associated with the museum. It has collaterally been an act of generosity. But we have been giving to ourselves as well as giving to the community. So it’s been kind of self-serving.”
Seduced by Sculpture, a conversation with Sydney and Walda Besthoff is one in a series of occasional columns profiling cultural leaders of this community.