Samuel Kress Sprinkles Great Art Across America

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1929

Samuel Kress realized his philanthropic dreams by bringing great art to Main Street. He started with one five-and-dime shop in 1896, which he expanded to 264 stores by the 1930s. While he was stocking his outlets with attractive retail goods, Kress also “envisioned his stores as works of public art that would contribute to the cityscape,” according to one observer. To distinguish his stores from competitors Woolworth and Kresge, he hired on-staff architects to design landmark buildings—from Gothic revival to Art Deco—that helped to beautify and unite American downtowns. Many former Kress stores are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But Kress’s greatest philanthropic achievement was the creation and disposition of the Kress Collection, comprised of more than 3,000 works of European art, mostly Italian Renaissance paintings and sculptures. (By comparison, Andrew Mellon’s founding gift to the National Gallery of Art included less than 200 pieces.) Kress’s collection included masterworks by Giotto, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Duccio, Filippo Lippi, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Bernini, and Tiepolo, as well as non-Italian artists such as Dürer, Holbein, Cranach, El Greco, Rubens, and Goya. During the Great Depression, Kress toured 50 of his greatest pictures through 24 American cities, and he made many gifts to regional art museums. He was intrigued by Andrew Mellon’s invitation to other collectors, when founding the National Gallery of Art, to donate their artworks. Kress became one of the first to respond to Mellon’s challenge. He made a gift of nearly 400 pieces—enough to stock 34 galleries—to the National Gallery.

After World War II, Kress had an opportunity to distribute his benefactions more broadly. He (who died in the midst of this project, in 1955) and his foundation donated a total of 700 Old Master paintings to 18 regional museums across the United States—most in cities where Kress had a retail presence, and predominantly in the South and the West. Thanks to Samuel Kress, art museums in Birmingham, El Paso, Denver, Houston, Memphis, Tucson, Tulsa, and other medium-sized cities enjoy high-quality cores in their collections. Kress’s collection was ultimately divided among 90 institutions in 33 states. By foregoing the creation of a single spectacular museum, Kress elected not to receive the eternal fame that often accompanies such acts. Instead his gifts spread a rich legacy of artistic appreciation among millions of Americans living in communities all across our heartland.