Gift of Art Collection Results in Arizona LDS Museum

“Gift of Art Collection Results in Arizona LDS Museum,” Ensign, Apr. 1981, 74–75

Gift of Art Collection Results in Arizona LDS Museum

Springerville, a town located in a scenic cattle ranching area of eastern Arizona, would seem an unlikely place to find an outstanding collection of European art. But so it is. Visitors will probably be surprised to discover that a special wing of the new meetinghouse for the Springerville and Eager Third wards contains an engraving attributed to Rembrandt, three pen and ink drawings by Tiepolo, and dozens of other pieces of art and furniture dating from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. This remarkable collection was a gift to the members of the Church in Springerville from a woman who was not a member of the Church, Mrs. Renee Scharf Cushman.

No one was more surprised about the gift than the people of Springerville as Mrs. Cushman had lived in their area for only a few years during and after World War II. Only upon her death in 1969, when she willed this valuable collection to the local Latter-day Saint congregation, did anyone begin to realize how much she had loved the land and respected the people.

Renee S. Cushman, the only child of prominent European artist Victor Scharf II, was born in Paris, France, and travelled and lived in many places around the world, growing up in an environment of artistic appreciation and high expectations. She was still a youngster when her parents settled in Argentina; there she developed a love of ranching and riding that remained with her for life.

Renee eventually married and moved with her husband to Philadelphia. Divorced ten years later, she married Victor Donnet, a noted Swiss brain surgeon working in New York. Worried about the impact of World War II, they moved to Arizona and purchased the White Mountain Hereford Ranch at Springerville. There Renee was able to realize her lifelong dream of cattle ranching, gradually shouldering most of the work herself as the hired cowboys went off to war. Within a few years, her skill in business matters and excellent judgment of animals made the ranch known throughout North America.

Renee’s first contact with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came through Bishop C. Bryant Whiting, a general contractor who remodeled their home and some barns on the ranch. Although not a Latter-day Saint herself, Renee always called Mr. Whiting “Bee-shup,” a term of endearment as well as recognition of his local ecclesiastical position. Bishop Whiting later adopted an abandoned child that Renee had brought with her from France.

There were other contacts between Renee and the Latter-day Saints. Once, the local ward membership mobilized to rescue a portion of the White Mountain herd which had become stranded in a severe snowstorm. Renee returned the favor by giving the ward a large sow, which soon produced a litter of twelve piglets—a welcome contribution to the local welfare project.

Renee’s widowed mother visited America several times before her death, after which the family’s collection of art and antique furniture passed to Renee.

After her marriage to Dr. Donnet ended in divorce, Renee in 1950 married Allerton Cushman, a New York investment banker who had recently moved to Texas. The Cushmans lived in Houston for five years, with Renee frequently returning to Arizona to oversee the ranching operations.

In 1968 she was stricken with cancer and died in Switzerland on 29 August 1969, good-humored and keen-witted to the end.

Although she had not lived in Springerville for twenty years, Mrs. Cushman evidently remembered the Latter-day Saints there with affection and respect, willing to them the art collection her family had assembled over most of a century, on the condition that it would be properly displayed in memory of her parents, Victor and Marie Louise Chauvin Scharf.

Local Church leaders in Arizona received permission from the First Presidency to accept this generous gift. Sister Florence Jacobsen and her staff in the Arts and Sites Division of the Church Historical Department were assigned to help make plans for an appropriate facility, and the decision to build a new meetinghouse in Springerville provided the opportunity to proceed.

The museum wing of the Springerville meetinghouse can be opened separately from the rest of the building. It has its own outside entrance and equipment for temperature and humidity control, proper lighting, and security. The largest room was designed especially to accommodate a large Persian rug and two tapestries that were part of the bequest.

A crystal chandelier and a few pieces of furniture were provided from the Church collection in Salt Lake City to complete the setting for the art collection, which features several works of Victor Scharf, including portraits of himself and his wife.

Some of the antique furniture is the work of master craftsmen, with elaborate inlays of wood, metal, and tortoise shell. A few famous artists are represented, including Sir Godfrey Kneller, England’s most prominent painter of the early eighteenth century. A French porcelain and German glassware collection includes two bottles of Baccarat crystal, which were reportedly given by Napoleon to one of his generals. In addition, there is Renee Cushman’s complete set of Austrian china monogrammed in gold and a fine collection of French pin boxes with miniature paintings on the lids.

Although they are taking precautions for the safety of the objects, local members are looking forward to an active program of firesides, musical presentations, and other cultural events that will be open to the entire community. Local leaders anticipate that the museum will attract nonmembers to the building and provide opportunities for making friends and fellowshipping.

Allerton Cushman, Renee’s former husband, who provided help during the planning of the museum and generously donated additional items for display, visited the museum as it was being completed in December. He expressed his satisfaction, noting that it exceeded his expectations. During his visit, he observed that some windows in the museum provided a view of cattle grazing in a nearby pasture. He smiled and commented, “Renee would have loved that.”

The largest of the three display rooms shows a Persian carpet underfoot. Paintings by Kneller and Victor Scharf hang on the walls with a Verdure tapestry. The chandelier at one time hung in the New York City mission home. (Photography by Paul L. Anderson.)

Portrait of Renee Cushman, also on exhibit in the museum.