Vera List, who died on October 10 at age ninety-four, was a woman of great vision, rare intelligence, deep humanity, and enormous energy. Her generosity and that of her late husband, Albert, helped establish Brown’s List Art Center, as well as art centers at MIT and Swarthmore. “[All] of us,” she once said, “must surround ourselves with those things that make life worth living and that help us to define ourselves.” That philosophy clearly informed her generosity and visionary philanthropy.
After attending Simmons College in Boston, List began collecting art in the 1930s, while living in Fall River, Massachusetts. Her first purchases were five-dollar etchings from the catalog of the Associated American Artists, but after the Lists moved to New York City in 1945, they quickly became a presence in the artistic and cultural life of the city. List avidly collected modern and contemporary art, especially sculpture, in a collection that included works by Alberto Giacometti, Joel Shapiro, Richard Artschwager, and Martin Puryear. When asked about the early influences on her life as an art collector, List in 1973 told the genealogical magazine The Nutmegger, “I have always desired beautiful, meaningful things. We were always surrounded by them at my home in Brookline. Although we were the least well-to-do branch of the family, we always had the loveliest home.” Characterizing herself as “a would-be artist,” she said, “I get a vicarious gratification out of collecting.”
List was particularly interested in encouraging the work of young artists. Although she often visited New York City’s uptown galleries, she loved the new ones emerging in SoHo in the 1970s, and it was there that she could respond with a keen eye and an unencumbered intuition to new work by unknown artists. In the early 1980s, when Brown’s art department wanted to establish an artist-in-residence endowment, the List Family Foundation responded generously; Vera even suggested that for additional funding Brown could “sell some of the art I’ve given and use the funds to encourage and support the work of young artists.” After her husband’s death in 1987, she sold much of her collection so she would have more money to give away. In her last years she became an advocate for humanitarian programs, primarily those devoted to reducing hate crimes and overpopulation.
List was particularly proud of a Lincoln Center program that invited contemporary artists, both famous and yet to be discovered, to design posters for cultural events. For many years a set of those posters hung in the Blue Room at Faunce House, a testament to Vera’s indefatigable desire to help create an atmosphere for art and artists to thrive. She would have been pleased to know that this fall a group of Brown visual-arts students worked hard and successfully to establish a new student exhibition space in the Blue Room. Looking at it now, I can picture her wry smile and sense her modest satisfaction.
List is survived by three daughters, eleven grandchildren, and twenty-three great-grandchildren.
Richard Fishman is chairman of the visual-arts department.