Last spring Esther Ferguson called her friend Leonard Lauder for a favor. She wanted him to be the first speaker in an arts lecture series she'd underwritten and was helping organize for the Gibbes Museum of Art.
"He said he didn't really do that sort of thing, but I talked him into it," says Ferguson, who has known the chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder Companies for 35 years.
Her timing couldn't have been better. The day after she convinced him to come to Charleston, she picked up The New York Times to read that Lauder had donated 78 works by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Leger worth more than $1 billion to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "It was serendipitous that there was all this press at the time," says Gibbes director Angela Mack. "People started buying tickets as soon as we announced it."
The relationship between the museum and Esther Ferguson and her husband James, retired CEO of General Foods, isn't as old as the one they have with Lauder, but it is a strong one. In the early 1990s Mack, then an independent art curator, cataloged the Fergusons' art collection. Some of the collection, which includes work by Picasso, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, Christo, and other 20th-century masters, was shown at the museum in 2010. In conjunction with that exhibition, Ferguson arranged for Christo to come to Charleston to give a talk.
"We weren't sure how that would go, but the response was amazing," Mack said. The success of Christo's visit was part of the impetus for the lecture series, funded through a $100,000 donation from Ferguson, who is now on the museum board.
Ferguson's involvement with the arts has also included serving on the boards of the Spoleto Festival USA, Young Concert Artists, and the Charleston Symphony, although she didn't grow up around art. She calls herself "a poor child from Hartsville" who left as soon as she could. "It really wasn't something that was done 40 or 50 years ago, but I had the desire to see the outside world and see the world of art," she says.
She first moved to Washington, D.C. and then New York. She spent her weekends going to museums and attending art lectures.
"I'd walk out in tears about how much I didn't know," she says. But every day she was learning and understanding more, and becoming a self-taught connoisseur. She moved back to South Carolina and earned degrees in art history and political science at the University of South Carolina. After her first husband's death, with her studies completed, she returned to New York where she met and married James Ferguson. They began collecting art about 30 years ago and moved to James Island in 1989 after he retired. "We wanted to have things that are real, meaningful, and lasting," Esther says.
Leonard Lauder may have come from less humble origins than Ferguson, but his first collection was of postcards. In 1976 he bought his first cubist work, and that's what he's stuck with. Along with collecting and donating art, he has become a major museum benefactor, giving $22 million to the Metropolitan for a modern art research center and donating $131 million to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where he was a long-time trustee.
Next on Ferguson's lecture list is another person who's recently been in the news — Tod Williams of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, which won the 2013 Architecture Firm Award, the highest honor from the American Institute of Architects. The firm's recent projects include the Barnes Foundation Collection building in Philadelphia, the Asia Society center in Hong Kong, and the Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. Williams will give a talk in January.
"Jim and Esther Ferguson have been an important part of all this," Mack says. "They have access and relationships, and we've combined that with the people we want to bring in who will include artists, philanthropists, collectors, and scholars."