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Charles Gilman III pumps his passion for art into MOCA

September 15, 2016 // by Denise M. Reagan

The devotion Charles Gilman III has for art--particularly photography--might be genetic.

Photography inspired his mother, Sondra Gilman, to start collecting art. She shocked her family by buying three photographs by Eugène Atget for $750 in the 1970s, when they were considered to have little value. She suggested that the Whitney Museum of American Art should collect photography, but they responded, it "isn't an art," according to The Wall Street Journal. The museum changed its tune in 1990, when the Whitney asked her to lead its photography acquisition committee.

Charles Gilman Talks to Ethan Murrow Project Atrium Members Preview b
Charles Gilman III speaks with Ethan Murrow at the members' preview for the artist's Project Atrium wall drawing. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

She helped her husband, Charles Gilman Jr., acquire photographs for the corporate collection of the family business, Gilman Paper Co., many of which are now part of the Gilman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After her husband's death in 1982, Sondra Gilman met Celso Gonzalez-Falla, who shared her passion for photography. After more than 30 years of marriage, their exceptional private collection comprises some 800 photographs, some of which appeared in MOCA Jacksonville's 2013 exhibition Shared Vision.

As chair of the MOCA Board of Trustees, Charles Gilman III is steering the Museum during a crucial period of growth and change, which includes the search for a new director. He and his wife, Marilyn Gilman, who are avid photography collectors, are presenting sponsors of Retro-spective: Analog Photography in a Digital World, which opens on September 24.

We asked Gilman to talk about his affection for art and his long history of service to MOCA Jacksonville.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up and went to school in New York City, but on weekends and holidays we flew to South Georgia where the family business was located. It made Kraft paper from pine trees. I remember checking brown paper bags from the city candy stores for the Gilman logo stamped on the bottom. During the week, I was a typical New York school kid. On weekends, I grabbed my cane pole and Red Rider BB gun and headed out for some fun. Apparently, the southern lifestyle won out, but my love of the arts has stuck with me.

Ever since childhood, I have enjoyed making things in shop or art class. In high school, it was ceramics. During college, I spent many hours in the sculpture studio working in wood and majored in art history. By the time I moved to Jacksonville, I didn't feel like making art for a living, but I wanted to be a part of that scene. My parents collected art--mostly photography--and covered the walls of our home with it, so I just assumed that was what one did with walls, but I wasn't ready to collect.

Charles Gilman Attends Collectors Circle Event e
Charles Gilman III attends a Collectors' Circle event at a private residence. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

How did you become involved with MOCA Jacksonville?

I met with an old family friend, Arthur Milam, who was a trustee at MOCA. He steered me to the Collectors' Circle group. Membership provided Marilyn and me with a glimpse into the business of collecting. We met several artists and began looking at art as only a potential first-time art-buyer can--with trepidation. A short time later, Arthur invited me onto the MOCA Board. At that point, I had experienced some of what MOCA offers, met some of its staff and leadership people, and became willing to become a supporter myself. MOCA appealed to me more than any other arts organizations in the city.

Why have you chosen to donate your time and money to MOCA?

As a trustee, I have seen the Museum go through a few significant changes. After moving to its downtown location, MOCA struggled to find solid ground. I was actually very worried after my first Board meeting regarding our future existence. Fortunately, UNF could see the untapped potential and decided to make the investment in MOCA. From that point, we found a great director in Marcelle Polednik who opened our eyes to the possibilities and gave MOCA a new confidence that I had never felt before. And somewhere along that journey, I have come to really love this Museum and believe strongly in its mission.

What elements of MOCA make you proud?

Basically MOCA is a place where we can participate in the exploration of thought and creation at a higher level. Appreciating contemporary art is a process for me. It is not always a singular thing or final artistic item. Some of my favorite works are only temporary. They exist and then disappear. The artists we exhibit may or may not be remembered by history, but I think they are doing some wonderful things now. And I want to help the rest of Jacksonville join in on the fun. Many artists we consider masters today were generally mocked by their contemporaries who didn't get it. That being said, I cannot think of a better use for my discretionary time and money than to help pave the way for others to have the same experiences that have enriched my life. 

Charles Gilman Attends Ethan Murrow Project Atrium Members Preview d
Charles Gillman III listens to Ethan Murrow discuss his Project Atrium wall drawing Plethora. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

What is your favorite exhibition you've seen at MOCA and why?

My favorite exhibitions are photography shows like Slow and Shared Vision because that is what Marilyn and I collect and know best. The upcoming Retro-spective also falls into that category, as we own works by three of the artists presented. Outside of photography, Angela Glajcar's Project Atrium just blew me away. But if you recall, her work is all about light and paper, just like photography.

Who are some of your favorite artists?

A few of our favorite artists in photography would be Chris McCaw, Alison Rossiter, and John Chiara. Two of them are in Retro-spective. Their work is just so simple and so deep at the same time. It's powerful.

How does MOCA compare with other museums you have visited?

Pound for pound, today MOCA is as good as any museum out there. I have served on committees at other arts organizations, so I have a frame of reference here. But I wouldn't have said that five years ago, and I hope I can still say that five years from now.

Charles Gilman with Jefree Shaleev Ethan Murrow Project Atrium Members Preview c
Jefree Shaleev and Charles Gilman III attend the members' preview for Ethan Murrow's Project Atrium wall drawing. Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.

How would you describe the arts and culture community in Jacksonville?

MOCA is a beacon on the Jacksonville landscape, signaling to those both near and afar that this is a place for open hearts and open minds. This is an inclusive space for all to experience the finer things that life can offer--often non-material things. MOCA is the most exciting spot in town because we exhibit contemporary art. That is the art of today. The stuff that we should most be able to relate, just like the music and fashion of our time.

What is the process for selecting the next director of MOCA?

The Board of Trustees has selected a top-notch search firm to assist us. We are not looking for a typical museum director. So much relies on personality and that characteristic we call charisma that we will not know until we meet them face-to-face who is best for the job.

What do you see in MOCA's future?

MOCA is more than ninety years old, but it is young as an organization. And that's a really good thing. I feel like we are just spreading our wings in this contemporary art thing we are trying to do. MOCA is all about change and innovation. So in a sense, I hope we never think we have it “figured out.” But I do see us gaining in respectability and the comforts that come along with that. We must continue to exhibit and celebrate our great artists. Maintaining these artist relationships is paramount to our success. One of the great things about contemporary art is that the artists are alive and well.  

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