Ben Bernstein: Philadelphia’s Premier Art Patron (Part 2)

Ben bernstein: philadelphia's premier art patron (part 2)

Continued from Part 1.

Ben was widely respected by artists throughout the Philadelphia area and beyond. According to Kim Sajet, Deputy Director at PAFA, Julius Bloch was another fine artist who received substantial support from Ben Bernstein. Born in Kiel-Baden, Germany, Bloch came to Philadelphia in the 1930s and worked for the WPA as an artist. He studied at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at PAFA, where he taught for many years. In addition to buying his art, Ben gave Bloch a job at Quaker Storage as a packer to help supplement his earnings. In one way or another, he helped support Bloch for many years and also provided financial support to Bloch’s three sisters after the artist’s death.

Remenick, considered one of the best teachers at PAFA for 40 years, also approached Ben for a job at Quaker when he was a young man.  He told Ben he needed a dollar an hour, but Ben said, “No, I have to give you $1.53 an hour because I have a union.” The two established a life-long friendship and lunchtimes at Quaker often found Remenick on the roof of the warehouse painting the Philadelphia scenes for which he became renowned.               

Referring to Bloch, Remenick and other local artists, including himself, Keene says, “What’s fascinating is that these artists really didn’t know that Ben was supporting other people. They might have sensed it, but they didn’t know for sure.”

“That speaks to Ben’s integrity,” says Kim Sajet. “He was a true patron. He bought paintings for the amount the artists asked. He didn’t simply give them money out of charity. It was always a business transaction that reinforced the integrity of their relationship. He was very conscious of the artist’s dignity. And despite his statement that he’d ‘buy from anyone who could slam a brush,’ I think he had innate good taste. He bought from very high-caliber artists, including the Dutch COBRA ‘school’ of artists. He had an international perspective. Once he got to know an artist, he put his faith in him and, in effect, said ‘I’ll take whatever you’ve got.’ That shows enormous faith in a person. Very few people do that today.”

Ben’s interest in European artists grew over the years and he made more than 100 trips to Europe. He favored artists in Holland, Germany and Belgium, but the Dutch artists were his favorites. “I love Dutch art and I have tremendous respect for the Dutch people,” he says. “They are one of the most civilized nations in the world.”

In typical Bernstein style, he befriended many Dutch artists and, in the mid-1960s, mounted a series of exhibitions of Dutch art in Philadelphia and other U.S. cities — paying out of his own pocket to bring both the art and about 20 Dutch artists to this country for the events.

After more than 40 years, his interest in Dutch art and artists has not waned, according to Ben Gall, owner of the former Holland Art House in West Chester, Pa., the nation’s first gallery to feature contemporary Dutch artists, now doing business as

“When I heard about Ben from Dutch artist friends, including some whose art Ben has collected, I called him and he invited me to  visit,” said Gall. “I could hardly believe my eyes when I walked into his home in center city Philadelphia. Every wall, stairwell and even the bathrooms are literally covered with paintings. One room, devoted to African art, has more than 150 pieces of statuary. His four-story house is literally a monument to art collecting.”

A native of Holland, Gall was able to gain insight into the Dutch art world of the ‘60s through his conversations with Bernstein. “He has never been anything but generous in sharing his experience and knowledge of Dutch art and artists of those times,” Gall said. “I can see how artists would have been drawn to Ben. His enthusiasm for art is enormous — and infectious.”

Ben Bernstein says with no little pride that “I am one of the biggest givers of art in America. My art is in every museum in Philadelphia and in many others throughout the country.” His gifts of paintings, sculpture, lithographs and other art works number in the thousands, with more than 800 given to Villanova University alone.   

Kim Sajet noted that on October 23, 2002, Ben gifted 12 works by Julius Bloch, seven by Seymour Remenick and one by Paul Keene to the PAFA Museum — just one of many occasions on which he donated art to the institution, where he served on the board from 1972 to 1977, and again in 1979. He also packaged, shipped and stored most of PAFA’s collection during the historic building’s restoration in 1974-75,  “probably at little or no cost,” Sajet said.

When asked what he does now that he’s “retired,” Ben Bernstein smiles and says softly, “Who’s retired? I still do a little business, but I’m not as active as I used to be. I don’t have the drive I used to have.”

He then recounted the story of his days at Oxford University in England. “I was intrigued by an ad in an international newspaper offering summer classes at Oxford. Since I was only 80 at the time, I figured ‘why not!’ I called the university and the young woman who answered asked what my education was. I said I’m not well educated, but I’ve had a lot of life experience and have traveled to Europe more than 100 times. Asked what school I attended, I said, ‘McIntyre.’ She said she had never heard of it, but why would she? It was an elementary school in Strawberry Mansion.”

Ben finally convinced university officials to accept him for the summer sessions, which he attended for several years. “I was made head of my class each time,” he recalls. “It was a wonderful experience for me and I’d like to think I helped make it an equally good experience for those who attended with me.”

Looking back, Ben sums up almost 70 years of art collecting and philanthropy with these words: “I have great respect for creativity. It’s the only original thing that happens that means something. What I did was to look for creativity and when I found it, I supported it. I’ve never understood why there seems to be universal ill treatment of creativity. After all, they (creative people) are the ones who make the world.”