In a move to close his leadership of Walt Disney Corp. with a philanthropic flourish, Chief Executive Michael Eisner announced Thursday that the company would donate its African art collection, hailed by experts as one of the most important such collections in private hands in the U.S., to the Smithsonian Institution.
In making the gift — 525 objects, spanning five centuries and valued at $20 million to $45 million — Disney turned away suitors including the French government and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and solved a quandary that Eisner said had vexed him for 20 years.
"A lot of museums contacted me," said Eisner, noting that French President Jacques Chirac "made several calls … and became increasingly aggressive." But Eisner said he wanted to place the collection with a museum that charged no admission fee, and "there's only one Smithsonian, only one museum for all Americans."
The gift will become part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, which plans a debut exhibition in 2007.
In choosing a destination for the collection, Eisner had a lot of options and at least one built-in connection. His wife, Jane, has served on the Smithsonian National Board since 1998 and is currently vice chairwoman.
Under terms of the gift, said Sharon F. Patton, director of the National Museum of African Art, at least 60 items from the collection are to be labeled the Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection and be displayed in the institution for at least the next three decades.