Collectors as Philanthropists: William and Saundra Lane
Updated: Apr 25
William H. Lane was the classic “right man at the right place at the right time.” Lane, called Bill by anyone who knew him well, inherited a small plastics manufacturing plant in Massachusetts from his father in 1937 and grew it into a major business that was at the forefront of the burgeoning need for plastics in America. He not only became very successful, he used much of his wealth to invest in the wide-open art market of the 1950s and ’60s.
Lane made frequent business trips to New York City, and it was there he saw a new group of American artists for the first time. Something about the works of the modernist school, including Arthur G. Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Sheeler, resonated with Bill, and he began to buy small paintings and drawings whenever he was in the city. Soon he was known as an engaging new collector with a sharp eye and a thirst for knowledge.
By the late 1950’s he had acquired nearly 200 paintings by the modernists and other emerging American artists, and as he grew his collection he sometimes forged close friendships with the artists themselves. Bill became especially close with Charles Sheeler, who introduced him to the beauty of photography.
Sheeler sometimes used photographs as studies for his paintings, and he enjoyed showing Lane the connections between these two aspects of his art. They would sometimes spend hours discussing how his photos influenced his paintings and how painting, in turn, influenced his photography. At that time photography was not widely valued as a collectible art form, and in Lane Sheeler found one of the few collectors of his art that also valued the art of his photography.
In 1963 Bill met and soon married Saundra Baker, a former school teacher who also had a great love of art. Together the two became one of the powerhouse couples of the American art world from the 1960s through the 1980s.
When Sheeler died in 1965, Bill and Saundra were worried that his huge archive of photos might be treated as inconsequential by the art historians of the time. They approached his widow and offered to buy his entire photographic output — nearly 2,500 images taken over his lifetime. She accepted, and with this single purchase, they launched a collection that would grow over the next 40 years into one of the most comprehensive private collections in the world.
It didn’t take long for the Lanes to realize that they were beginning to collect at a time when there were unique opportunities in photography. Following up on their decision to buy Sheeler’s complete archive, they developed a strategy that focused first on building a significant depth for a selected group of key photographers. They started with important earlier photographers, adding nearly 100 images each from Paul Strand and Imogen Cunningham.
After the met Ansel Adams, they doubled down on their strategy. Within a few years, they had purchased nearly 500 of Adams’ prints directly from the photographer. Bill was in his element; he wrote to Adams “When all is done I hope to have the SOUL of ANSEL ADAMS — the definite cross-section of your work.”
“When all is done I hope to have the SOUL of ANSEL ADAMS — the definite cross-section of your work.”
Although they did not meet Edward Weston while he was still alive, they were introduced to Weston’s sons by Adams during this same period. Over the next few years, they acquired more than 2,000 vintage Weston prints — the largest collection of his works in private hands.
By 1975 the Lanes’ photography collection had grown into one of the most significant private holdings of modern American photography outside of major museums. Because of its proximity to their home and its outstanding collections, both Bill and Saundra had a long-time passion for and commitment to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. Bill served as a trustee from 1982 until his death, and both Saundra and he regularly consulted with the museum about their art and photography holdings.
Starting in 1989 the Lanes helped to fund a series of groundbreaking photography exhibitions that started at the MFA and later traveled around the country. The first was Edward Weston: Portraits and Nudes, followed in 1991 by Ansel Adams: The Early Years, and Weston’s Westons: California and the West in 1994.
After Bill died in 1995, Saundra continued to collect photography, further adding to the breadth of their holdings. She expanded their initial focus, adding works from the earliest days of the medium and striking images from important contemporary photographers such as Arno Rafael Minkkinen and Kenro Izu. She enjoyed looking for contemporary counterparts to some of their classic vintage prints, adding such images as a John Szarkowski landscape that reflects the simplicity of one of Sheeler’s views of barns.
In 2003 Saundra established the Lane Collection Fund at the MFA, providing additional funding for the museum to acquire important photographs. Two years later she endowed two key positions at the museum: the Lane Collection Curator of Photographs and the Saundra B. Lane Associate Conservator in the Department of Paper Conservation.
The MFA in 2010 opened a new Art of the Americas wing, which includes three large rooms known as the Saundra B. and William H. Lane Galleries. The galleries showcase many of the outstanding paintings, drawings, and photographs the Lanes had given to the museum over the years.
A year later the museum published An Enduring Vision: Photographs from the Lane Collection, a beautiful book that reproduces 120 of the masterpieces the Lanes acquired. The book reflects both Saundra’s continuing expression of her artistic vision and Bill’s original intent of collecting the best of the best. In the book, Karen Haas, the Lane Collection Curator of Photographs at MFA, says that more than anything else the photographs the two chose were ones that spoke to them directly, without any bias of “what Bill called the ‘isms, ‘ists, and ‘ites used by others to categorize or compartmentalize works of art.”
In 2013 Saundra Lane gave the entire art collection that she and her husband had built — more than 6,000 photographs, 100 other works on paper and 25 paintings — to the museum.
Culminating this long history, in 2013 Saundra Lane gave the amazing art collection that she and her husband had built — more than 6,000 photographs, 100 other works on paper and 25 paintings — to the museum. With this single gift, the photography holdings of the MFA increased in size by 66%. The museum has declined to publicly place a value on the gift, saying only that it “probably runs into ‘nine figures’”.
The Lane’s significance is measured not only in their preservation of a breathtaking collection of world-class photographs but, equally important, in their generosity of assuring their collection will forever be available to the public under the vigilant care of the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s rare to find that combination of an intense personal desire, a connoisseur’s expertise, and a true philanthropist’s heart, but it’s clear that both Saundra and Bill have all three.