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One Man's Mission

One Man's Mission

Travel
By John Fry
posted: 03/03/2004

Go to a typical ski museum and you'll see antique wood skis, leather boots and bindings, and mannequins dressed in poplin parkas and wool knickers. But go to a new museum at Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and you'll see the sport's past presented in a startlingly different way. The Beekley International Collection of Skiing Art & Literature, just opening to the public this spring, contains 200 exquisite paintings and sculptures of skiers; 600 posters, some of which now auction for as much as $25,000; magazine covers dating back to the 19th century; unique etchings and lithographs; 2,400 ski pins and stamps; and one of the world's largest libraries of ski books and publications.

In all, the collection boasts approximately 10,000 pieces.

"Is there a larger, more diverse ski art collection in the world? I don't think so," says museum curator Finn MacDonald. Because of its size, only 2 to 5 percent of the collection will be on display at any time. "We'll have a vibrant exhibition schedule for years to come," MacDonald says. "That is part of its beauty and power."

This colorful, impressive collection was long held privately in New Hartford, Conn., by the late Mason Beekley, a wealthy entrepreneur and founder of the InternationalSkiing History Association. Beekley, who died two-and-a-half years ago at the age of 74, painstakingly and lovingly assembled ski books and graphics over a half-century of collecting. They are now on public view for the first time on the campus of Eastern Sierra College, minutes from Mammoth Mountain, California's largest ski area. You can spend an hour or a week in the new 4,000-square-foot Mammoth Ski Museum and come away with a vision that will change the way you think about the sport and its heritage.

The collection is valued at $2.25 million, according to museum officials, but Beekley didn't look at art as an investment. "He didn't collect for monetary value," MacDonald says. "He collected for historic and artistic value."

Beekley, who first skied when he was a youngster at boarding school in his native Connecticut, began collecting when he was a student at Princeton. He started with a book, Skiing, which he bought for 25 cents at the Smith College bookstore. After graduating from Princeton in 1949, he taught and coached skiing at an Eastern prep school, then joined his inventor father's hospital-services business. The pay wasn't much. But even with little money, he was able to amass a voluminous library of ski books. He found them in used bookstores and by scouring auctions. "I spent an average of less than $5 a book on my first thousand books," he said in a magazine interview in the mid-'90s.

Beekley was a gregarious and convivial man-and wildly optimistic. He began each day by loudly and joyously singing Rogers and Hammerstein's Oh What a Beautiful Morning.

He also happened to possess a bulldog persistence and a curious mind. When his family's business went flat in the late 1970s, Beekley looked to new ventures. He came to realize that doctors and radiologists needed a more reliable way to interpret X-rays, so he began to market tiny lead-containing patches that would stick on the patient's skin. The markers would be visible after the X-ray pictures were developed, like locators on a map. They brought an immediate improvement to mammography. Today, a couple million "Beekley Spots" are used monthly in X-ray rooms across North America.

With the business flourishing, Beekley now had serious money to fuel his collecting passion. He turned to oil paintings, early lithographs and prints. "I have only two criteria in buying," he once confessed. "There must be a skier in the illustration, and I must like it."

He bought works by Churchill Ettinger, Paul Sample, Sheldon Pennoyer and prolific sports artist Leroy Nieman. He loved the big mountain canvases of Eric Sloane, with their formidable cloud formations. A favorite Sloane subject was New Hampshirs Tuckerman Ravine at Mt. Washington, during its heyday as the Northeast's spring skiing mecca.

Cartons of books and magazines arrived at The Parsonage, his rambling 150-year-old, 12-room New England home on a hill above New Hartford, Conn. So great was the influx that his wife feared the second floor of the house would collapse under the weight, so in 1993 he built a 2,200-square-foot museum next door, naming it Ski Aerie.

With a museum to fill, his collecting took on an obsessive pace. Beekley began to show up at Christie's and Swann Galleries poster auctions in London and New York. "On nearly every lot he wanted, Beekley's paddle remained raised, driving out the competition," reported an antiques journal of a 1999 poster auction.

If Beekley was not going to be at the auction in person, he placed early bids that other buyers would be unlikely to top. In scarcely a half-dozen years, from 1993 through 1999, he acquired more than 600 posters from 17 countries-the earliest dating back to 1890.

"Mason Beekley virtually created the market in (ski) posters," says Nicholas Lowry, president of New York's Swann Galleries.

Two works purchased by Beekley dramatically portray skiing's change over a hundred years-from utilitarian winter transport to entertaining wintertime diversion. In one of the earliest-known American paintings of a skier-an 1873 oil by an artist known only as JHA-a weary farmer heads homeward on skis across his snow-covered pastures. What a contrast it presents to "Hot Dog!"-a wild portrayal of a 1977 freestyle skier made of glass and aluminum and painted with oils, acrylics and colored pencil by Ricky Bernstein, a Massachusetts artist known for his caustic commentaries on present-day lifestyles.

Pop art was a favorite of the Connecticut collector. He acquired the original art of scantily clad pinup girls wearing ski hats or holding a pair of ski poles. A painting done for a science magazine depicts a skiing soldier of the future propelled across snow by a giant motorized fan attached to his back. There are ads that used skiing to sell Camel cigarettes and Edsel cars. Beekley purchased a pen-and-ink color calendar illustration of Babar, one of the most famous figures in children's literature, by Laurent de Brunhoff. The little elephant is performing a jump on skis for Queen Celeste.

Beekley began acquiring ski prints 50 years ago, and they span every variety of the printer's art, from silk-screens to linocuts. Some 400 images by photographers include the work of Ansel Adams, Leni Riefenstahl, Ray Atkeson, Toni Frissel and Winston Pote. During a 1990 Aspen ski vacation, he met American skiing icon Dick Durrance. Both Durrance and his wife were outstanding photographers, and Beekley added their work to his collection.

While many skiers collect pins, Beekley's collection is staggering in size. An array of 2,400 ski pins from 52 countries is displayed in frame-mounted wall hangings, acquired from the Toronto collector Bruce Carnall. Beekley also collected ski-themed postage stamps. He bought the collection of former SKI Magazine editor John Henry Auran, some 585 postage stamps from 53 countries bearing images of skiers and skiing. "To tell you the truth," he once confessed to Auran, "I'm more interested in the art on stamps than the philately."

The Beekley library contains 2,110 books and as many booklets and periodicals, from 25 countries. There are English and Danish editions of Fridtjof Nansen's account of his 1888 crossing of Greenland on skis, the book that first made the world aware of what had been a little-known Scandinavian sport. There is a copy of Austrian Matthias Zdarsky's 1896 Lilienfelder Skilauf-Teknik, the earliest influential book on downhill ski technique. Another, by Vivien Caulfeild-How to Ski, and How Not to, published in 1911-is the first best-selling ski instruction book written in the English language.

There are books by virtually all of the sport's creators-Sir Arnold Lunn, Hannes Schneider, Emile Allais, Otto Lang and the legendary Otto Schniebs, author of the famous quip, "Skiing is not a sport, it is a lifestyle."

From a historic perspective, the superstar of the collection is the History of the Goths, Swedes and Vandals, written in 1555, which contains the first known printed images of skiers. "It is a highly significant historic document," MacDonald says. "It is irreplaceable."

Beekley became concerned about finding a permanent home for his collection in 1998, when he was diagnosed with cancer. He initially focused on Aspen, Colo., but the community there was not prepared to commit to the expense of creating a building to house the works, and of funding a curator and the security needed to permit public viewing. Other resorts knew of the collection's impending homelessness, but none were willing to make the necessary investment.

Meanwhile, Beekley's health worsened. He saw chaos lying ahead with the dissolution of his beloved collection. Then in 2001, filmmaker Warren Miller became aware of Beekley's difficulties. He contacted Mammoth Mountain President Rusty Gregory who, with the support of the resort's founder, Dave McCoy, acted swiftly and decisively to create a museum.

"How many resorts would be willing to dedicate 3,000 to 5,000 square feet to such a collection?" asks Evan Russell, president and CEO of the Mammoth Lakes Foundation. "But it perfectly fits our mission. We are chartered to support the development of higher education and cultural enrichment in the Eastern Sierra, and it ties in with Mason's hope that his collection would be established in an environment of research and study."

Indeed, that's what Beekley wanted. "I would like to see my collection as a resource for future historians of the sport," he said before his death. And, perhaps, the finest legacy of the collection will be that young skiers strolling through the museum this spring will grow up with a richer appreciation of their sport, thanks to Mason Beekley.

Information on Mason Beekley and the Beekley collection can be found at mammothskimuseum.org and skiinghistory.org. Click the slideshow below for a sample of the Beekley Collection.rnold Lunn, Hannes Schneider, Emile Allais, Otto Lang and the legendary Otto Schniebs, author of the famous quip, "Skiing is not a sport, it is a lifestyle."

From a historic perspective, the superstar of the collection is the History of the Goths, Swedes and Vandals, written in 1555, which contains the first known printed images of skiers. "It is a highly significant historic document," MacDonald says. "It is irreplaceable."

Beekley became concerned about finding a permanent home for his collection in 1998, when he was diagnosed with cancer. He initially focused on Aspen, Colo., but the community there was not prepared to commit to the expense of creating a building to house the works, and of funding a curator and the security needed to permit public viewing. Other resorts knew of the collection's impending homelessness, but none were willing to make the necessary investment.

Meanwhile, Beekley's health worsened. He saw chaos lying ahead with the dissolution of his beloved collection. Then in 2001, filmmaker Warren Miller became aware of Beekley's difficulties. He contacted Mammoth Mountain President Rusty Gregory who, with the support of the resort's founder, Dave McCoy, acted swiftly and decisively to create a museum.

"How many resorts would be willing to dedicate 3,000 to 5,000 square feet to such a collection?" asks Evan Russell, president and CEO of the Mammoth Lakes Foundation. "But it perfectly fits our mission. We are chartered to support the development of higher education and cultural enrichment in the Eastern Sierra, and it ties in with Mason's hope that his collection would be established in an environment of research and study."

Indeed, that's what Beekley wanted. "I would like to see my collection as a resource for future historians of the sport," he said before his death. And, perhaps, the finest legacy of the collection will be that young skiers strolling through the museum this spring will grow up with a richer appreciation of their sport, thanks to Mason Beekley.

Information on Mason Beekley and the Beekley collection can be found at mammothskimuseum.org and skiinghistory.org. Click the slideshow below for a sample of the Beekley Collection.

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