March is Women’s History Month, which gives us a great reason to talk about our founder, the visionary Elizabeth Holmes Fisher, her ideas, and legacy.
When Mrs. Fisher began collecting art in 1928 at the age of 61, her taste ran to works by English and Dutch masters. Just over a decade later, in 1939, the Elizabeth Holmes Fisher Gallery opened at USC. Mrs. Fisher donated 29 paintings to the gallery, with a promise of more to come under one condition: Mrs. Fisher wanted the gallery to be free of admission fees, providing the students of USC with beautiful and significant art to study, while having the art accessible to the public for as long as the gallery pursued its existence.
The collection Mrs. Fisher donated to the Fisher Gallery was meant to be a nucleus to attract additional gifts. She also hoped it would provide a cultural base for the growing city of Los Angeles. “If Los Angeles is to build up her collection of art treasures,” she had said, “now is the time.”
Elizabeth Holmes was born in Illinois on September 13, 1867, as the eldest of eight children. She attended college in Nebraska and subsequently met and married Walter Harrison Fisher. After the birth of their two daughters, Rachel and Ruth, the family moved to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where Walter worked for an insurance company. Their son, Walter, was born. They moved to Oakland, California, in 1892, arriving with the princely sum of $25 in cash.
A year later, the family moved to Los Angeles and, in 1900, Walter invested the family savings in a Long Beach oil well. The company struck oil soon, and the Fishers began an era of prosperity. When Walter died in 1926, his family was left very well off.
Elizabeth Holmes Fisher joined USC’s Board of Trustees in January, 1936, the first woman to do so. Soon after, her friend May Ormerod Harris became the second woman to sit on USC’s board; and in 1937, USC President Rufus B. von KleinSmid announced that a new building housing the College of Architecture and Fine Arts would be named for its primary donor, May Ormerod Harris, and its attached gallery for Elizabeth Holmes Fisher.
Over the years, until her death in 1955, the Fisher collection grew to include over 70 paintings, drawings and sculptures by artists from North America and Europe. Mrs. Fisher’s dream of seeing the collection inspire donations from other private collectors culminated in 1965 with the gift of 50 paintings from Armand Hammer, including works by Peter Paul Rubens (Venus Wounded by a Thorn and The Adoration of the Shepherds), Jacob van Ruisdael and a small masterpiece by Gerard Dou (Still Life with Book and Purse).
Mrs. Fisher’s legacy continues to grow. What used to be a gallery has now become a museum, which still stays true to its promise of free admission, while continuing to receive significant gifts, such as Dr. Gene Rogolsky’s collection of more than 700 works that will be exhibited in September 2016.