Gathering Sage for the Sundance.
Gathering Sage for the Sundance . Photography: Courtesy The Rockwell Museum

A collector's fondness of the “Storyteller of the Native Americans” leads to a special exhibition.

Joe Beeler’s son, Jody, called him “the patron saint of Western art.” But Eddie Basha didn’t think of himself that way. Instead, he saw himself as a true art lover whose success allowed him to pursue and preserve his greatest passion.

His day job was chairman and CEO of Bashas’ Inc., a family business started as a single grocery store in Chandler, Arizona, by his Lebanese grandparents and expanded by his Uncle Ike and his dad, Eddie Sr. After getting a degree in history at Stanford University, Eddie Jr. joined the business, eventually taking over after the deaths of his uncle and father. Under his direction, the small company would grow into a chain of 160 stores.

By 1971 Basha was collecting art seriously, choosing pieces that spoke to his eye and his spirit — and his knowledge of history. “There’s a true and deep passion associated with a collection of art. It’s a love,” he explained. That great love would lead him to amass 3,500 works in his lifetime, one of the largest privately owned collections of contemporary Western American and American Indian art in the world.

“He never thought of himself as a patron,” says Nadine Basha, Eddie’s wife of 27 years. “He was really about the art, the history, the West, and, more importantly, the artist. He loved people. What he valued above everything was his relationship with the artist.”

One of those valued relationships was with the much-lauded “Storyteller of the Native American,” Howard Terpning, whom Basha met through Cowboy Artists of America. “What Eddie particularly admired about Howard’s work was his ability to draw, and underlying this mastery was his ability to evoke a feeling and sense of time in history,” Nadine says. “He is a realist, but he’s not just depicting a realistic moment in time. Howard has soul and feeling that are at a deeper level. His passion for Native Americans comes through, and Eddie shared that passion. Eddie believed that passion was his own essence. He always loved the history of the art and also that other level of feeling in Howard’s paintings.”

It was the perfect confluence of passions, and it’s the defining undercurrent of American Masterworks by Howard Terpning: Highlights From The Eddie Basha Collection. “This exhibition features never-before- and/or seldom-seen works. They span from 1978 to 2004, so it’s a very good focused snapshot of Terpning’s body of work and his mature style,” says Kirsty Buchanan, curator of collections at The Rockwell Museum. “The fact that Terpning is an expert historian and is well-versed in the details of life as it would have been among the Plains Indians in the 19th century comes through in his art.”

Buchanan’s personal favorite and a focal point of the exhibition is Gathering Sage for the Sundance. When Basha bought the painting, Terpning taped a letter to the back and requested that it be kept there. “Most of all, we’re grateful for our friendship and for your support and love of Western Art,” the letter read. “You certainly have the largest and also the best collection anywhere. I hope there are many artists out there who understand and appreciate what you are doing to promote their careers and to expand the horizons of Western Art. I am certainly at the top of that list.”

The letter remained taped to the painting, and Basha, who died in 2013, remained clear about his role in acquiring it and thousands of others: “History has repeatedly shown us art endures,” he once said. “We are only its stewards.”

American Masterworks by Howard Terpning: Highlights From The Eddie Basha Collection is on view June 24 – September 18 at The Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York. The Eddie Basha Collection resides in the Zelma Basha Salmeri Gallery in Chandler, Arizona.

From the July 2016 issue.