Museum of Fine Arts volunteer gave generously while guarding her privacy

Kathryn Stenquist gave the funds for the Museum of Fine Arts to acquire Alfred Stevens’ Woman By the Sea, Le Puys, 1893.

Photo by THOMAS U. GESSLER

Kathryn Stenquist gave the funds for the Museum of Fine Arts to acquire Alfred Stevens’ Woman By the Sea, Le Puys, 1893.

ST. PETE BEACH — Twice a week, a quiet and tastefully dressed woman showed up at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, a black ribbon on her lapel.

Kathryn Stenquist had no relatives anyone knew of and lived alone in St. Pete Beach, where she enjoyed long walks on the sand. She had her own volunteer's desk at the museum, and a regular job updating membership information.

"I don't think she had a lot of friends, and the museum was kind of her social outlet," said former membership and volunteer director Donna Fletcher, who described Mrs. Stenquist as "very much a lady."

Over time, the museum staff became like a family to her. She eventually told Fletcher she wore the ribbon to remember her husband, William Stenquist, who died in 1990. They had shared an appreciation for art, traveling to the great museums of Europe, where they lived for a time.

"I was always aware of how much she missed the love of her life, which was her husband," Fletcher said.

Fellow volunteers and museum staff members knew she valued her privacy — Mrs. Stenquist attended no museum parties or galas. But she was at ease with all sorts of people — she chatted as easily about art with the chief curator as she did with the janitor about sports.

She also gave the impression of modesty: She drove a Buick Regal, wore understated jewelry and refused to wear clothes that needed to be dry-cleaned.

But in 1994, co-workers learned something else about Mrs. Stenquist: She was wealthy.

The discovery came about when museum officials were wondering what to do with some empty space, adjacent to its main hallway, to replace a gift shop that was being relocated.

"Kathryn let it be known that maybe she would be interested in helping with the redesign of a gallery in that space," said museum spokesman David Connelly.

She later backed up the offer with a gift. The Kathryn B. Stenquist Gallery of Decorative Arts exhibits part of the museum's collection of 18,000 pieces of decorative art on a rotating basis.

Having a separate gallery for crafts such as jewelry, furniture and pewter pitchers fulfills the vision of museum founder Margaret Acheson Stuart, who wanted the museum to be "more like a private home," said Connelly.

"We didn't have a gallery devoted to decorative arts at that time," Connelly said. "That was a big step forward."

She later gave a painting to the museum, Woman By the Sea, Le Puys, by Belgian artist Alfred Stevens, a friend of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas.

Mrs. Stenquist, who transformed personal loss through her gifts to the museum and her association with its staff, died May 8. She was 93.

She attended exhibits at the Stenquist gallery, a darkened room with lighted display cases, but never mentioned that her gift had created it.

"Usually people who give galleries like recognition," said Connelly. "They generally come to those big events. And Kathryn was very private."

She confided in her attorney, Richard Hitt.

"I think that she enjoyed the museum and she enjoyed doing her volunteer work there," said Hitt. "But at the same time, I think she was a private person."

Kathryn Burgess was born in Lansing, Mich., and graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in the social sciences. In 1941 she married fellow Michigan State alum William Stenquist. Mrs. Stenquist worked as an office supervisor for the state of Michigan for 29 years. She traveled widely with her husband, a manufacturing sales executive. For a while, they lived in Holland.

She read the newspaper cover to cover, hovering over the stock market pages, and followed the Michigan State Spartans basketball team with great interest. With her husband, she established a landscape architecture scholarship fund at Michigan State, and kept the thank-you letters she received from grateful students.

The couple moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1980. They had no children.

The gallery she founded hosts items from the museum's supply of decorative art, from 19th century daguerreotype photographs to the world's largest collection of antique baby rattles.

After the gallery was up and running, museum chief curator Jennifer Hardin presented Mrs. Stenquist with a list of paintings the museum wanted to acquire. She chose Woman By the Sea, the 1893 oil painting by Stevens, which depicts a solitary, well-dressed woman standing on a seashore beneath an overcast sky.

The painting is the museum's first by a 19th century Belgian artist, Hardin said. Mrs. Stenquist dedicated the gift to her husband.

A reproduction of the painting given to her by the museum hung on a wall of her home.

Mrs. Stenquist left the bulk of her estate to the William C. Stenquist and Kathryn Burgess Stenquist Landscape Architecture Scholarship fund at Michigan State University, her attorney said. A smaller portion went to Goodwill Industries.

As Mrs. Stenquist requested, there will be no funeral service. Her ashes will be scattered in the Gulf of Mexico.

Her former colleagues have noted similarities between Mrs. Stenquist and the elegant woman standing on the beach in the Stevens painting.

"I think she was drawn to that independent, solitary, pensive woman," said Connelly. "She valued her privacy, and had become in certain respects a solitary soul. I think that painting really captures her image because of that."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.BIOGRAPHY

Kathryn Burgess Stenquist

Born: April 3, 1918.

Died: May 8, 2011.

Survivors: none.

Museum of Fine Arts volunteer gave generously while guarding her privacy 05/23/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2011 11:53pm]

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