Aided by touching tributes from her friends and colleagues, James Reginato chronicles a legacy of giving as sublime as the collection coming to auction.
“S he had a kind of curated life,” recalls Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, of the late Michelle Smith. “As a philanthropist, she had a diversity of commitments. She thought very carefully about her philanthropic choices, and the combination of them – how she could encourage cross collaborations among the organizations she was involved in.”
That Smith was equally judicious as a collector was readily apparent to anyone who stepped inside her Georgetown penthouse, as Weinberg also notes: “The environment was sublime. Her home was an installation, in a way. She had a great sense of the tactile, the physical. Everything was beautifully arranged, including the people at her wonderful, intimate dinners. She loved to have ten or twelve people around her table. She thought very carefully about who would be there in terms of the conversation they would have. So, even her dinners were curated.”
This April in New York, Sotheby’s will highlight Smith’s legacy with A Vision: The Collection of Michelle Smith, presented across two dedicated auctions. Spanning 20th and 21st century design, fine art, jewelry and handbags, the Michelle Smith Collection is a testament to a passionate collector and philanthropist whose commitment to excellence resounded in every area of her life.
“She always knew straightaway what she wanted, and she had great intuition about how pieces would work together, and always with so much joy... She had a very special eye for curating the perfect collection in every sense. With everything in her life, she developed a perfectionism….the kind of perfectionism you don’t switch on and off. You could see it in every aspect of her life.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Michelle was the daughter of artist Clarice Smith and Robert H. “Bob” Smith, a visionary real estate developer, collector and philanthropist. Founder of the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, he also served as president of the National Gallery of Art (NGA), from 1993 to 2003.
After graduating from the University of Miami, Michelle spent time in Europe and New York before returning to the D.C. area, where she held key executive positions in the family real estate firm before she succeeded her father, in 2010, as president of the Smith Family Foundation.
“Michelle and her family were central to the growth of the National Gallery and a number of other flagship Washington institutions,” says Earl A. “Rusty” Powell, NGA director from 1992 to 2019.
“Bob carried on the Mellon tradition of stewardship at the Gallery, and Michelle continued with the tradition,” he adds. “Michelle had boundless enthusiasm. The Smith Foundation was probably the most creative foundation I worked with, because Bob and Michelle were interested in things that could be considered outside the center lane. They bought 19 condominiums to house visiting scholars, for example – not a normal path for philanthropic initiatives but the sort of thing that made a huge difference.”
“She was incredibly disciplined, while at the same time, incredibly adventurous and always pushing the envelope, not to be seen, but to learn and to make a difference... She brought all these attributes – curiosity, discernment, taste, discipline – not only to her collecting, but to her giving.”
“At the time of my grandfather’s passing, she took the helm of the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation,” says Michelle’s son Michael Smith Liss, CEO of Heronwood Capital, a boutique private wealth management and investment banking firm. “In this new role, she was not just a check writer. Her relationships with organizations that the foundation supported were very deep and she was passionately and intimately involved. She wanted to make the greatest impact from her involvement that she could, and she opened up her network to create collaborations and value in a myriad of ways. Her goal was to make these institutions and organizations the very best that they could be.”
While her father assembled one of the world’s most important holdings of Renaissance bronze sculpture (which were exhibited at the NGA and later bequeathed to the institution), Michelle developed a love for contemporary design and fine art. She acquired quintessential works by Francois-Xavier and Claude Lalanne, Alberto and Diego Giacometti, Jean-Michel Frank, Antony Gormley, Edmund de Waal and Alexander Calder, among others.
When it came to wearable art, Smith also excelled. She assembled an encyclopedic collection of iconic handbags by Hermès as well as a stunning trove of jewels by Hemmerle – 19 pieces of which will be offered by Sotheby’s – representing the largest single-owner collection by the Munich jewelry house to appear at auction.
“She always knew straightaway what she wanted, and she had great intuition about how pieces would work together, and always with so much joy,” says Christian Hemmerle. “She had a very special eye for curating the perfect collection in every sense. With everything in her life, she developed a perfectionism….the kind of perfectionism you don’t switch on and off. You could see it in every aspect of her life.”
“She was the dream client and collector,” recalls New York-based interior designer David Kleinberg, with whom Smith worked to create her spectacular duplex penthouse apartment atop the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. Originally raw space, it required years of construction to install limestone floors and moldings, rosewood doors, and a dramatic curved limestone staircase with a sterling silver balustrade, among other features. “A great collector, like a great gardener, is a person with patience, and she had that,” says Kleinberg. “Her taste was very considered in all things. But while she had very definite ideas, she was also open-minded and listened to people’s opinions.”
Along with her position as President of the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, Michelle served on boards or committees at a formidable array of nonprofits. The list includes, in addition to the NGA and the Whitney, the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies (FAPE), the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Maryland, the New York Historical Society, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (which own and operates Monticello), and the Aspen Institute.
“Michelle was a beloved member of the FAPE family, whose vibrant, infectious and positive personality played an integral role in the growth and success of our organization,” says Jo Carole Lauder, FAPE’s Chairman. “Her passion for art and architecture was evident and pivotal when working on our various projects at the U.S. embassies around the world. Michelle set a high standard of excellence and brought joy to everyone she touched.”
“Michelle Smith was an exceptional woman in every way,” recalls Walter Isaacson, the best-selling author and former president of the Aspen Institute, in a joint statement with Eric L. Motley, the organization’s executive vice president. “She was intellectually curious; when she became interested in an idea, she would totally lose herself. She would read everything on the subject matter, she would do her own research, she would seek out other scholars to speak to, and she did it not for show, but quietly and authentically.
“She was incredibly disciplined, while at the same time, incredibly adventurous and always pushing the envelope, not to be seen, but to learn and to make a difference,” they continue. “She brought all these attributes – curiosity, discernment, taste, discipline – not only to her collecting, but to her giving.”
Visit the Exhibition
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