Obituary for William J. “Bill” Dane, 1923-2019
The “dapper, refreshingly irreverent art scholar,” who began his career as a clerk in the Art and Music Department of the Newark Public Library in 1947 and ended it 62 years later in 2009 as the Supervising Librarian of Special Collections, William J. “Bill” Dane died on Saturday, July 13th at the age of 96.
“Renowned in art circles for his unimpeachable manners, his implacable curiosity, and his unassailable scholarship… but perhaps, most revered for his impeccable eye…,” Dane took charge of a very rich collection founded at the turn of the 20th century and expanded it so that it is now a comprehensive survey of the graphic arts from the Renaissance to the 21st century, from Europe, America (both North and South), as well as Asia, all in a variety of formats. It includes over 25,000 fine prints, 5,000 posters, 1,000 autographs, plus artists’ books, pop-up books, and rare books, greeting cards and postcards, even shopping bags. It contains some real treasures: a page from the Gutenberg Bible; a copy of the Nuremburg Chronicle from 1493; etchings by Piranesi and other European “old masters;” prints by Matisse and Picasso, as well as Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rauschenberg; illustrated books by Arthur Rackham, Charles Dana Gibson, Kate Greenaway, and Edward Gorey, among others; Japanese prints, albums, and picture books from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries; and many, many other priceless illustrations in the visual arts. One of his personal favorites was Red Grooms’ portrait of Gertrude Stein, because it reminded him of the time that he met her and her partner Alice B. Toklas after the war at a lecture given by the famous writer for the soldiers in Nancy in France. As he tried to engage her in conversation, she asked him to watch her poodle Basket. “So many pieces of artwork,” Dan Schnur, his long-time exhibits designer, once noted, “he has a personal story about them all. The collection is not dated. It’s ongoing, very open, very democratic.”
“Dane has been an ideal custodian of the art collection,” art historian Ezra Shales said in an appreciation, “because he understands that they were created in the first decade of the 20th century to entertain and inform the library’s patrons… [He] has been careful to preserve the emphasis on aesthetic pleasure…, [but he] has pushed the envelope.” In another article, the independent journalist John McIntyre wrote, “Dane’s work as a collector has deepened his engagement with the community around him. Rather than endlessly pursuing his darlings, so to speak, Dane sought to acquire works by artists whose background and style would resonate with the city’s changing population.” (Fine Books and Collections, 2012) Toward that end, he cultivated friendships with numerous living artists, such as Louis Lozowick, “the noted Precisionist painter and lithographer,” who was “always delighted to have his work in our growing collection;” Luigi Rist, “an unforgettable individual,” whose “precise color prints using the Japanese wood-block technique” are part of the treasures within the collection; Minna Citron, “the best of company,” and Reva Helfond, “a perfect hostess,” two emerging women artists in the post-war era; Rafael Tufino and Lorenzo Homar, both from Puerto Rico, where Dane traveled annually to vacation and to acquire prints for the library and rings for his own gaudy collection! Adolf Konrad, the well-known painter of Newark and New Jersey scenes, once reminisced that trips to the Newark Public Library “always turned into a delightful and enriching visit with Bill Dane… [He] has built… an incomparable collection of fine prints for which we will always be in his debt.” In his own words, Dane defined his guiding principle as “a magical thing really.” “I love abstraction. I love realism. I love non-objective. I love bright colors and lines, and exploratory graphics. I don’t have any personal barriers for that sort of thing, which helps.”
Born and raised in Concord, N.H., where his Irish-born father ran an auto repair shop, Dane was an inquisitive child. After his father became a state legislator, he often attended legislative sessions to watch and hear the debates from the balcony. “It was a wonderful thing to do,” he said later, “because I saw democracy at work.”
His education at the University of New Hampshire was interrupted by World War II. He joined the Army right way in 1942, underwent basic training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and was then sent to the Newark College of Engineering (now the New Jersey Institute of Technology) to study bridge-building. It turned out that the Army didn’t need bridge-builders so his infantry division (the 69th) was sent to Belgium in December 1944 and he spent the rest of the war “dragging a 155-mm gun” across most of central Germany. His division was the one that met up with the Red Army at Torgau on the Elbe River in April 1945. “On May 8th the war ended,” Dane recalled. “We were taken totally by surprise. We saw a light on at dusk in a farmhouse, and we thought, ‘What is that fool doing? Someone will shoot!’ And then in about fifteen minutes, more lights came on… We would have been dumb not to realize that the war was over.”
While stationed in Newark, during the war, during one of his free weekends when he was not attending a performance at Radio City Music Hall, he wandered into the Renaissance-style palace on Washington Park known as the Newark Public Library. “I sat on one of the windowsills in the stacks and chose a book to read. It was such a relief to get away from engineering books, a luxury to enjoy something I selected for myself. In those days, I never dreamed that one day I would return to the library and spend [more than] half a century working in the building…”
Thus it was in the fall of 1947, having finally finished his degree in liberal arts and without a clue as to what to do with it, he applied for a job at the Newark Public Library. He was hired, assigned to the Art and Music Department, and began to learn about art. “I circulated books, shelved and moved materials, and I picked up all kinds of information relating to the subject areas of art and music.” He furthered his education through generous leaves of absences granted by the library administration and through the support of the G.I. bill. In 1950 he returned to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, although he admitted that he spent more time in the Louvre than in the classroom. He received his master’s degree in library science from Drexel University. At Harvard, he studied art history under Ernest Gombrich, the famous art historian, and at NYU, he took over 20 courses at the Institute of Fine Arts. During vacations, he attended programs at the Attingham Park School in England, the Palladian Institute in Italy, and other places throughout the world, almost all sponsored by various professional organizations. “I realized that I wasn’t going to get a degree, which I didn’t need for my job. [But] I was able to bring the things I learned immediately and constantly into my work at the library.”
In the 1950s and 1960s it wasn’t unusual for a large public library to have an art and music department, but Newark Public Library’s department owed much to the inspirational leadership of John Cotton Dana, the second director of the library and the founder of the Newark Museum, who wanted to establish “an institute of visual instruction.” In an interview in 2005, Dane recalled his work in those early years: “We purposely put together vertical files, picture collections, bibliographies, and brochures. That’s what made it so exciting: you were being so creative and helping others.” “It was a magnificent golden-age,” Dane admitted, “because we had money to buy books [and to manage] the pictures, slides, vertical files, and fine prints.”
Later, especially after the 1990s, financial constraints led to a redefinition of his role. “Certain parts of the huge art collections were spun off to be special collections, and this is where my new assignment came in: … to look after these collections… and to utilize these materials for our in-house exhibitions in two large galleries.”
Over the course of his many decades at the Newark Public Library, he curated over 350 exhibitions on topics as diverse as etchings by old masters, prints by modern masters, “Mostly Pop and A Little Op,” Japanese traditional woodblocks, Japanese modern woodblocks, work by African American artists, Puerto Rican artists, and numerous individual artists, posters on circuses, films, opera, and music, “fantastic tales” as illustrated in children’s books, “the magic world” of adult illustrated books, “A Potpourri of Pop-Ups,” playing cards, antique maps, shopping bags, “Fashion and Color” on “feminine modes,” and so many more.
It was in these years that Dane started calling himself “the Keeper of Prints” – a royal title that he had given himself after a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 1997 the collection was named “The William J. Dane Fine Print Collection” in his honor, and in 2004 he established “The Gertrude Fine Prints Endowment Fund” in memory of his sister with an initial contribution of $30,000 and $10,000 from the Dodge Foundation.
An active member of many professional organizations, in 1972, along with James Humphrey from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Judith Hoffberg from the University of California at San Diego, Dane and other librarians founded the Art Libraries Society of North America. In those early years, Hoffberg served as its executive director and Dane served as its treasurer. In 1998, the organization gave him its Distinguished Service Award.
Other organizations, such as the New Jersey Library Association, the Society of American Graphic Artists, the Center for Book Arts, the Aljira Center for Contemporary Art, the Printmaking Council of New Jersey, the Center for the Innovative Print at Rutgers University (now the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions), and several other groups, have all recognized his contributions to their goals and objectives. In 2002, for example, Dane received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Chapter of the Victorian Society in America, an association with which he was very involved throughout his career.
Any memorial to Bill Dane must take into account his “jocular sense of humor,” which made “the library a profoundly optimistic place.” Once, while showing a reporter around the library, he saw some graffiti on the walls of the elevator. “How nice,” he said approvingly, “an artist at work!” As he showed the same reporter a pop-up book on Star Wars, he exclaimed: “Watch out, watch out, here it comes. Boy, that was scary!” He delighted in showing off his brightly colored, extravagantly oversize plastic rings and watches (which he didn’t even know how to set). His enthusiasm was contagious.
In summing up his career, Dane once said, “I feel very lucky that early on I fell into a professional subject area that I found very rewarding and filling… No two days have been the same.”
Internment will be private. A gathering to celebrate Dane’s life, career, and friendships will be held at the Newark Public Library in the fall. Gifts in Dane’s memory may be made to the Gertrude Fine Prints Endowment that he created at the Newark Public Library. 5 Washington Street, Newark, NJ 07102.
This obituary was written by William Peniston of The Newark Museum
- Bill Dane, The World in Prints, 2007
- Bill Dane, interview, Art Documentation, 2005
- Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, 2007
- Vicki Hyman, Star Ledger, 2007
- Ezra Shales, Fine Art Connoisseur, 2009
- John McIntyre, Fine Books and Collections, 2012
- Star Ledger, 1997
- New York Times, 2007