‘There is a strange quality here; I feel as if I had lived a whole life in this country, so perfectly does it seem to fit me. And I have unlimited energy and great clarity of mind. I want to work hard here – everything is so radiant.’
The name Helene Wurlitzer (1874-1963) is synonymous today with the close-knit artist community in Taos, New Mexico. The Wurlitzer legacy is so firmly woven into the fabric of the small town that it is difficult to imagine that Helene ever put down roots elsewhere. Having spent her early life in Freiburg, Germany, and Cincinnati, Ohio, it was not until 1940, when Helene was 65 years old, that she journeyed to Taos for the first time and was instantly drawn in by the area. She immediately purchased land with the intention of building a home, and by 1942 had taken up part-time residence.
Shortly after her arrival, Helene formed lasting friendships with many local artists. Her home, designed and built by local Taos architect Arturo V. Martínez y Salazar, hosted the likes of Earl Stroh, Andrew Dasburg, Rebecca Salsbury James, Emil Bisttram, and Thomas Benrimo, among many others.
Beginning in the 1940s, Helene quietly - and often anonymously - offered financial support to a multitude of artists and began collecting their work. One such recipient of Helene’s generosity was Ansel Adams, who photographed Taos and the surrounding historical landscape several times beginning in the 1920s. Ten photographs by Adams were acquired by Helene, including 9 rare views of Taos as well as his seminal Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. These exceptional prints, each made in the early 1940s, have been in the Helene Wurlitzer Collection for nearly three quarters of a century.
Helene’s generosity was limitless – one anecdote tells of a 35-year-old Agnes Martin, who had been living out of her car, and wrote to Helene to request a stipend in support of her preparations for an upcoming exhibition. The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation’s very first charitable grant was awarded to Martin, ultimately helping her to launch her career and cementing Helene’s role as patron.
‘I feel very much honored in being chosen to receive assistance from the Wurlitzer Foundation. Till now I had never sought nor received any real recognition for my work. I did not realize how encouraging it could be. Your kindness has been a positive moral uplift. Your action in this has become the most encouraging event for art in this country that I have ever witnessed. I hope to do worthily. Thank you for all your considerations.’
In 1948, Helene’s friendship with artist Earl Stroh resulted in him accepting a residency on her property for a number of years. During this time Helene supported Stroh further by encouraging his studies in New York and Paris, all the while contributing to a stipend that made this possible. Her patronage of Earl Stroh served as the impetus for the residency program, a founding tenet of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation’s mission.
The Foundation, formally established in 1954 by Helene and Henry Saurerwein III, can claim the privilege of not only upholding Helene’s legacy in the more than 50 years since her passing, but of managing one of the country’s oldest artist residency programs, which is still active today. The Foundation’s premises, formerly Helene’s Taos home, boast 11 guesthouse “casitas” in which artists live and work for 3 month periods, on the 15-acre property.
A true philanthropist at heart and in practice, Helene never sought credit for the support she gave to her friends and the artists with whom she worked. Many such artists remained in Taos after their residency concluded, continuing to enrich the cultural landscape of the community. Helene’s legacy remains a gracious and unassuming presence, with significant impact and might – much like Helene herself.
Sotheby's invites you to discover the importance of The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, which is reaching out to the community at large in support of its mission. Funds from the sale of their Ansel Adams photographs will be used to enhance and expand the existing programs and renovate the campus facility.