Bernard and Barbro Osher Pledge Their Art Collection to San Francisco Museums

In addition to their vast gifts to arts institutions, Bernard and Barbro Osher have directed their fortune to adult-education programs and integrative medicine centers.

The collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the biggest public arts institution in the city, is about to get even larger. Philanthropists and art collectors Bernard and Barbro Osher are donating 61 works, including pieces by Georgia O’Keeffe and Alexander Calder, as announced yesterday (July 27).

Painting of Adobe style building against blue sky
Georgia O’Keeffe, Front of Ranchos Church, 1930. Image by Randy Dodson; courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

“We are delighted that these works that we have relished collecting and displayed in our home will now be appreciated by visitors to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco,” said the couple in a statement. Bernard, 95, has long been a collector of American 19th and 20th century artwork. A founding director of World Savings, which was the second largest savings institution in the U.S. when it merged with the Wachovia Corporation in 2006, he previously owned the auction house Butterfield & Butterfield before selling it to eBay in 1999 for $260 million in stock. Barbro, meanwhile, has been the honorary consul general of Sweden in San Francisco since the 1990s. The 83-year-old, who is originally from Stockholm, was also once the owner and publisher of Swedish-American newspaper Vestkusten.

Their gift to the Fine Arts Museums, which oversees both the de Young and Legion of Honor museums, includes artwork from 39 artists. Alongside O’Keeffe and Calder, works from Winslow Homer, William Merritt Chase and John Singer Sargent are among the trove. Homer’s The Angler (Casting in the Falls) will become the first large-scale oil painting by the artist owned by the Fine Arts Museums, while O’Keeffe’s Front of Ranchos Church and Merritt Chase’s Spanish Bric-a-Brac Shop are the first genre picture and Southwest subject from the respective artists to enter its collection.

Consisting of 50 paintings, nine works on paper and two sculptures, the artwork spans 1848 to 1940 and contains themes of American Impressionism and the development of American art colonies, reflecting the “dynamic period when the United States ascended to global prominence both culturally and artistically,” according to Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums. “We are profoundly grateful to Barney and Barbro for their enduring commitment to the Fine Arts Museums and the cultural life of San Francisco,” he said in a statement. The pair have long been benefactors to the institution and helped fund the construction of the de Young’s Herzog & de Meuron building, which opened in 2005, with the Fine Arts Museums naming both a museum wing and sculpture garden after them.

Older couple dressed in black dress and black tux
Barbro and Bernard Osher in 2007. © Drew Altizer/PMC

Donations for education, the arts and integrative medicine

Their notable philanthropy is typically conducted through the Bernard Osher Foundation, which was founded in 1977 and focuses on higher education, the arts and integrative medicine centers. Throughout the decades, the organization has made gifts to institutions like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Randall Museum, in addition to launching the adult-education program Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, which has been established at more than 100 universities across the U.S. Other education funding has included a $70 million donation to California’s community college system.

In 2006, Bernard and Barbro were ranked as the third most generous philanthropists in the U.S., listed behind Warren Buffett and Bernard’s late sister Marion, who was the former co-CEO of the Golden West Financial Corporation and World Savings Bank alongside her husband Herbert Sandler. Bernard, who had a net worth of $1 billion that same year, reportedly gave an estimated $723 million to his foundation.

Earlier this month, the couple also donated $1 million to Clark Atlanta University, matching their donation to Alcorn State University in June. The Oshers are signees of the Giving Pledge, a campaign started by Buffett, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates, meaning they have committed to giving away most of their wealth during their lifetime. In their pledge letter, the couple stated they “have been fortunate and have long felt an obligation to place the larger portion of our assets in the service of others.”

Bernard and Barbro Osher Pledge Their Art Collection to San Francisco Museums