Saundra Lane, visionary benefactor of MFA’s photography collection, dies at 84

Saundra Lane, visionary benefactor of MFA’s photography collection, dies at 84


Saundra B. Lane at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2003.

© Provided by The Boston Globe
Saundra B. Lane at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2003.

Decades ago, when Saundra B. Lane and her husband, Bill, were pioneering collectors of photography, she spent a morning in the darkroom with their friend Ansel Adams, from whom they would purchase hundreds of works.

Though bulky and bearded, Adams moved gracefully about his workspace. To see him printing photos was “like watching ballet,” Mrs. Lane told the Globe in 2012, when she announced she was donating her photography collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “He was a big man, but he was so light on his feet.”

A former elementary school teacher who cultivated a discerning eye, Mrs. Lane befriended Adams and other historic artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe while amassing, with her husband, a significant collection of photos and early American modernist painting.

Mrs. Lane, who made history herself when her 2012 donation solidified the MFA’s place in the nation’s top ranks of photography collections, died of complications from dementia last Monday in the North Hill retirement community in Needham.

She was 84 and previously had lived in Lunenburg and the Back Bay.

The collection that, in 2012, she committed to giving to the MFA included some 6,000 photographs, 100 works on paper, and 25 paintings. Some of those works are now headed to the museum.

The MFA, which does not disclose the precise value of donations, would only say in 2012 that her gift was most likely in the nine figures, the Globe reported.

The photos — including roughly 2,500 each from Charles Sheeler and Edward Weston, along with works by Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and Brett Weston, Edward’s son — increased by two-thirds the MFA’s holdings of 9,000 photos.

“We have overnight transformed the photography collection from good to great,” Karen Haas, the Lane senior curator of photographs at the MFA, told the Globe at the time.

About 20 years earlier, Mrs. Lane and William H. Lane Jr., who died in 1995, gave the museum 90 American modernist paintings, including works by O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and Jacob Lawrence. Some of those works are in galleries named for the couple.

Haas worked closely over the years with Mrs. Lane as they became collaborators and friends.

“One of the interesting things about Saundra was that she was born and raised here. So many of our collectors are from elsewhere,” Haas said in an interview Friday. “She was a local person and it was a point of pride to her that she grew up in Chelsea.”

Mrs. Lane, Haas added, “would say, ‘I’m just a girl from Chelsea.’ “

“She was a charming, kind, good person,” said Peter R.V. Brown, a longtime friend who, as part of the Boston firm Nutter McClennen & Fish,was her lawyer for many years.

Indeed, he said, “She was such a lovely human being that people might lose sight of the fact that she was very bright and had a terrific eye. The fact that she collected some extraordinary things after Bill died is Exhibit A about that.”

William Lane was already an established art collector when they met.

She often told the story of her early years, when a benevolent friend of the school where she taught gave teachers free tickets to the opera in Boston.

One evening when she arrived for a performance of Verdi’s “La forza del destino,” or “the force of destiny,” the school’s benefactor was called away at the last moment and wasn’t able to leave her a ticket.

Left stranded at the box office, “I was just starting to go when a gentleman came up and offered me a spare ticket,” she told the Globe in 2012.

The gentleman was Bill Lane, who owned a Leominster plastics company. Sitting next to each other, they listened to the Verdi opera and soon attended other concerts together, sharing their interest in classical music.

“He was handsome and so knowledgeable,” she told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette in 2005.

They married about a year later, in 1963, after he proposed in Silverton, Colo., a subject of memorable Ansel Adams photographs.

“We kicked a can down that street then he asked me to marry him,” she told the Telegram & Gazette, gesturing to an Adams photo of Silverton at the MFA.

At that point, Bill Lane already knew Adams, who welcomed the couple’s visits to see him in California — encounters that led the Lanes to acquire about 500 Adams photographs.

When writing to Bill to encourage their return, Adams indulged his fondness for capital letters, exclamation points, and inventive punctuation.

“We miss you here!!!! Of course, we miss Saundy even more than we miss you,” Adams wrote in 1967, “because she is not only intelligent (as you are), but she is BEAUTIFUL which neither you nor I (or either you or I) (or is it ME?) would claim for ourselves! You will hear from me very soon. And, very soon, some vintage prints will come your way.”

Born in Boston Lying-In Hospital on Sept. 3, 1938, Saundra Baker was the only child of Jeraldine Clarke Baker and Franklin Baker, who parted ways while Saundra was growing up in Chelsea.

Her mother at one point worked for the state Registry of Motor Vehicles. Her father was a merchant mariner who was away for so long so often that eventually the couple remained apart.

“Growing up there was always something special about Saundra,” said her cousin Cliff Clarke of Boston. “She was very personable, she was very well-liked in school, and she did very, very well. She was an excellent student.”

After graduating from Chelsea High School, she graduated from what was then Simmons College with a teaching degree, and later received a master’s in education from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

While at Simmons, she developed her love of visiting museums, often walking from school to the MFA and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Along with her substantial gifts to the MFA, Mrs. Lane was a benefactor of institutions including Simmons, the Gardner, the Worcester Art Museum, and the Boston Public Library.

The MFA and the library “were the places she escaped to and found peace,” Haas said.

After marrying Bill, Mrs. Lane encouraged him to expand his art collecting beyond modernist paintings and significantly into photography, which they explored together.

Her eye and tastes helped shape the couple’s holdings, and ultimately it was her decision to make the enormous 2012 donation to the MFA, where she was a visionary benefactor — a title that recognizes contributions beyond those of most donors.

By the time of that gift, she had long been a familiar face at galleries and museums, particularly at the MFA, where she was elected a trustee in 1987 and became an honorary trustee in 2008.

“She used to joke that she knew the loading docks of many museums better than she knew the front doors,” Haas said. “She greeted security guards and cleaning people by name.”

A private graveside service will be held for Mrs. Lane, who had no immediate survivors.

Always the young woman from Chelsea who had the good luck to become a collector of significant art, Mrs. Lane saw the donations she made with her husband, and later by herself, as part of her original schoolteacher calling.

“I felt like we were educators,” she told the Globe in 2012. “That helped me feel right at home.”