Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Shared Inspiration: About the Collectors

This blog post was written in conjunction with the exhibition Shared Inspiration: The David R. and Muriel Kohn Pokross Collection, on view at the Smith College Museum of Art through July 29.

David R. Pokross (1906 – 2003)

David Ralph Pokross was a lawyer, mentor, community leader, art collector, avid tennis player, and family man. He was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, and was the first graduate of his high school to enter Harvard College, from which he graduated magna cum laude, majoring in French literature, in 1927. He went on to earn a degree from the Harvard Law School in 1930, having financed his entire education on his own.

In 1939, David was named a partner at the prominent Boston firm, Peabody, Brown, Rowley & Storey (now Nixon Peabody), where he practiced law for 70 years, including chairing the firm's Executive Committee. He was regarded by many as a “lawyer's lawyer,” whose colleagues sought out for advice. Although he practiced labor law, securities, corporate law, estate planning, and litigation, he was particularly known for his public utility work, also serving as a trustee and member of the Executive Committee of Northeast Utilities, and for his role as lawyer to the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Beloved as a mentor to younger lawyers, he served as counsel to the firm until six months before his death.

David’s lifelong philanthropic work revealed his deeply-rooted commitment to social justice. A community leader of unbounded energy, he devoted countless hours to numerous non-profit and charitable organizations in Boston. He held leadership positions in many organizations including serving as president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, director of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay, board member of The Boston Foundation (where he established a special fund for children in need), overseer of The Boston Symphony Orchestra, president of the American Jewish Historical Society, and trustee of the Buckingham, Browne & Nichols School. David also served as the chairman of the Board of Overseers of the Florence Heller Graduate School for Advanced Studies in Social Welfare at Brandeis University where a chair in law and social policy was endowed in his name. Among numerous honors that he received, David was the first recipient of The Alexis de Tocqueville Society Award of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay.

Self-taught in his artistic interests, David carefully studied works of art and artists before making a purchase, and sought the advice of professionals in the art world. He and Muriel were avid travelers, and they connected with the art world wherever they went. In his memoir, David described how they discovered new artists:

"We walk around a museum, and then I will ask if a director or an assistant director is available. I would say, ‘I don’t own any art of local painters. If you will name five (and I always said five) young painters who have been recognized in your museum but who have not become top artists, I would like to look at their art and perhaps buy some of it.’

I never had a negative response from a director, and so we would receive recommendations."

Over years of traveling and collecting, David and Muriel developed friendships with museum directors and curators, such as Carl Belz, formerly director of Brandeis University's Rose Art Museum, and the artists they patronized, among them William T. Wiley, Gregory Gillespie, William Beckman, Joseph Floch and Barnet Rubenstein. According to their daughter, Joan, “My parents would have been delighted that the heart of their collection now resides in the Smith College Museum of Art as The Pokross Collection.”

Muriel Kohn Pokross (1913 – 2011)

Muriel Kohn Pokross, social worker, community leader and art collector, who was also devoted to her family, was born in Boston. She was educated at the Girl’s Latin School and Smith College, where she graduated in 1934 with a degree in French Literature. Reflecting on her years at Smith, Muriel cited her junior year in France as her most valuable college experience. “A whole world opened up,” she recalled.

After raising three children—Joan P. Curhan, William R. Pokross, and David R. Pokross, Jr.—Muriel returned to her academic pursuits. She received a master’s degree in Education at Boston University, with a major in rehabilitation counseling. Muriel went on to spend the next 25 years as a social worker with the Boston Guild for the Hard of Hearing, aiding hearing-impaired children and adults, and teaching nurses, teachers, parents and caregivers how to communicate with the hearing-impaired. She was instrumental in persuading Channel 2, Boston’s public TV station, to caption their programming for the hearing-impaired, an unprecedented practice for public television at the time.

The Pokross home was always open to their many friends, whom Muriel entertained with her lively conversation and home-cooked meals. According to Muriel, “We particularly enjoyed and helped many European doctors (especially psychoanalysts), lawyers and teachers, whom David helped bring to the U.S., to settle in and begin new lives after immigrating to Boston in the late 1930's and early 1940s.” In the late 1930’s, David had prepared affidavits to help Jews from Vienna to escape the Nazis. Among the people he helped to immigrate to the United States was the artist Joseph Floch, from whom David and Muriel purchased a number of works, including a portrait painted of Muriel.

Muriel was an active community leader, serving as a volunteer, committee member and trustee for charitable organizations and non-profit agencies in the Boston area. These included the Board of Overseers of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, and the Dean's Leadership Council and Nutrition Round Table at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Muriel also held leadership roles at Smith College, serving as the Chair of Planned Giving and Alumnae Representative for the class of 1934 for almost twenty years. She remained active in the Belmont Smith Club throughout the years, serving as President in 1950. On the occasion of her 80th birthday, her family established the Muriel Kohn Pokross 1934 Kew Garden Travel/Internship Fund at the Botanic Garden of Smith College in her honor. This fund sends two students each year for ten weeks of botanical research with scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England.

Muriel and David’s marriage, lasting 67 years until David’s death in 2003, was a truly loving partnership. In addition to three children, they had four grandchildren: Jenifer Curhan Panner, Jared Curhan, and Benjamin and Samuel Pokross; as well as seven great grandchildren: Samuel, Elizabeth, Harry, David, and William Panner, and Hannah and Joshua Curhan.

Muriel Kohn Pokross at her 75th Smith College reunion.

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