Penn State and Palmer Museum mourn death of donor and alumnus John Driscoll

April 23, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State and the Palmer Museum of Art mourn the loss of dear friend, generous donor, and loyal champion John P. Driscoll, who died from complications due to COVID-19 on Friday, April 10. Driscoll, owner of Driscoll Babcock Galleries in New York, was a longtime friend and supporter of the Palmer Museum and will be remembered for his role as a leader, gracious mentor and trusted adviser, as well as for the expansive gifts he made to the collection and to his alma mater, Penn State.

“John Driscoll’s generosity knew no bounds. He was as generous in spirit, intellect and wisdom as he was in gifting works of art to the museum that laid the foundation for our American holdings,” said Erin Coe, director of the Palmer Museum of Art. “His impact is beyond measure. John enhanced and shaped our collection of American art, and as a true philanthropist, he inspired others to give as well. Thanks to John, the Palmer boasts one of the finest collections of American art in the country. As an esteemed alumnus and long-standing member of the Advisory Board, his leadership and commitment were vital to the success and growth of the museum. John touched many lives here in the Penn State community, and he will be greatly missed and mourned.”

Driscoll was born in 1949 and grew up in rural Minnesota, from where, at 10 years old, he traveled with his parents to see the Minneapolis Institute of Art, his first visit to an art museum. Arising from that “magic moment,” as he called it, his love for art emerged, and after studying at the University of Minnesota, he earned his master’s degree and doctorate in art history from Penn State. In 1978, he became curator of the William H. Lane Foundation in Massachusetts, followed by a guest curatorial post at the Worcester Art Museum in Boston, where he later established an art gallery. In 1987, he acquired Babcock Galleries in New York, which he renamed “Driscoll Babcock” in 2012.

It was during his graduate studies at Penn State in the summer of 1972 that he first encountered the museum of art at Penn State. From those formative years as a student — originally working as a graduate assistant and later, in 1976, as the museum’s first official registrar — he developed a close relationship with the Palmer Museum, and his support and philanthropy took many forms throughout the years. From 1994 onward, he donated 36 works of art, including major paintings by Benjamin West, Jacob Eichholtz, Tompkins Harrison Matteson and Sanford Robinson Gifford; a large group of prints, drawings and paintings by American modernist Arthur B. Davies; contemporary works by Abe Ajay, Marylyn Dintenfass, Alan Gussow, Don Nice and Jenny Morgan; as well as a notable group of British ceramics, many of which are on display in the galleries.

Driscoll was instrumental in directing several collectors to donate their treasured works of art to the Palmer. Many of those works — among them important Gilded Age and American Impressionist paintings — have become visitor favorites in the permanent collection galleries. 

His contributions led to high recognition in 2000, when he was awarded the lifelong title of Penn State Alumni Fellow, the most prestigious award given by the Penn State Alumni Association.

In December 2018, he gifted an additional 140 works on paper to the Palmer Museum that spanned more than 150 years of American art history, from 1798 to 1950. The expansive and transformational gift of the John Driscoll American Drawings Collection was one of the most important in the 47-year history of the museum and reflected the wide-ranging scholarly and collecting interests of its namesake.

Highlights of the collection include a rare and early charcoal sketch by the neoclassical painter John Vanderlyn, an impressive array of Hudson River School drawings, and city and architectural scenes by the most accomplished artists of the 19th century. Works on paper by women artists, as well as Native American and western subjects, are also well represented in the collection. Additional works traverse the late 19th and early 20th centuries and include a significant group of drawings by the early American modernist Marsden Hartley, whose work Driscoll admired.

The gift was the basis of the current exhibition “Drawing on a Legacy: Highlights from the John Driscoll American Drawings Collection,” which opened at the museum on Jan. 21. Despite the museum’s temporary closure, the exhibition remains viewable as an online gallery via images of the works, text selections and related photos.

The first exhibition to spotlight the collection, “Drawing on a Legacy” surveys an array of techniques and media, including graphite, charcoal, ink and watercolor, through a selection of 30 works. Curated by Adam Thomas, the museum’s curator of American art, the selections include landscape views and botanical sketches, animal scenes and still lifes, as well as portraits and preparatory figure studies. It has been nationally lauded in multiple publications, including American Fine Art Magazine, Art and Antiques Magazine, and others.

“In the art world, John Driscoll was among the most visible and influential alumni of our college,” said B. Stephen Carpenter II, dean of the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State. “Over the years he became a trusted adviser, colleague, donor and friend. His 2018 gift to the Palmer Museum of Art — these works on paper by American artists — will have a lasting influence on our students, as it enables them access to work by influential artists and makes tangible the educational value of this form of philanthropy.”

“Without question,” Carpenter added, “John was a cherished member of our college family and we will miss him very much.”

After four decades of philanthropic giving and personal engagement with the Palmer Museum and Penn State, Driscoll was the special guest and honoree at the museum’s “Shout it from the Rooftops!” Gala in May 2019, where he was the inaugural recipient of the prestigious James and Barbara Palmer Service Award. The award “honors an individual who represents the spirit of philanthropy and service as exemplified by the museum’s namesake and benefactors, James and Barbara Palmer,” stated Coe during the speech and presentation honoring Driscoll for his years of distinguished service and magnanimous generosity to the museum.

At the gala, he gave an emotional and memorable acceptance speech for the award, recalling that first experience at an art museum so many years ago, his first glimpse at a real painting, one that went through him “like a freight train.”

“I don't know if I was shaking on the outside, but I was shaking on the inside,” he related in the speech. “I was mesmerized.” When his mother later found him and said it was time to leave the museum, he was reluctant to go. “I found myself being jerked from this new reality that I experienced, back into the reality of my everyday 10-year-old life, and I knew something at that moment. I didn't know what had happened, but I did know this: I knew that the experience that I had just had was real; knew that it was good; and I knew I wanted more of that,” he said.

“More of that” throughout Driscoll’s life included passionately collecting American art and British, Danish and Japanese ceramics; writing extensively on American art; and curating, co-curating or contributing to exhibitions that have traveled to major museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, National Academy of Design, Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art. As a well-respected collector, scholar and connoisseur, he was invited to serve on the advisory boards and committees of several prominent national museums. He was a past member of the board and the council of the National Academy of Design; served on the Visiting Committee, Department of Drawings and Prints, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and, up until his death, was a member of the Advisory Board of the Palmer Museum and twice served as its chair.

“My life in the world of aesthetic and scholarly concerns came into sharp focus while studying art history and working in the Museum of Art at Penn State,” Driscoll said in 2019. “I have always been appreciative of those experiences and the wonderful people with whom I had, and continue to have, the opportunity to work and grow. My wish is that my continuing association with the Palmer Museum of Art be an expression of my appreciation and that it will have a continuing beneficial effect for students and visitors to the University and the museum.”

The Palmer Museum and Penn State extend their thoughts and heartfelt sympathy to John Driscoll's wife, artist Marylyn Dintenfass; his daughters, Emily and Gillian; his extended family; and his many friends during this difficult time.

For more on Driscoll’s remarkable achievements and life, read the poignant obituary by his friend, curator, author and historian Glenn Adamson: http://www.driscollbabcock.com/exhibitions/installation/john-driscoll-1949-2020#works

About the Palmer Museum of Art

The Palmer Museum of Art on the Penn State University Park campus is a free-admission arts resource for the University and surrounding communities in central Pennsylvania. With a collection of 9,600 objects representing a variety of cultures and spanning centuries of art, the Palmer is the largest art museum between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Areas of strength include the museum’s collection of American art from the late 18th century to the present, Old Master paintings, prints and photography, ceramics and studio glass, and a growing collection of modern and contemporary art. The museum presents 10 exhibitions each year and, with 11 galleries, a print-study room, a 150-seat auditorium, and an outdoor sculpture garden, the Palmer Museum of Art is the leading cultural resource for the region.

Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and some holidays and is temporarily closed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Palmer receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and from the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau.

For more information on the Palmer Museum of Art or for the calendar of upcoming events, visit www.palmermuseum.psu.edu.

About the new University Art Museum at Penn State

Penn State and the Palmer Museum of Art are planning to construct a new University Art Museum located in The Arboretum at Penn State. With nearly twice the exhibition space of the Palmer, new classroom spaces and a teaching gallery, flexible event spaces, and on-site parking, this building would dramatically enhance the museum’s capacity to offer educational and enrichment opportunities for visitors of all ages. It would be integrated with the Arboretum, inspiring collaboration and creating a unique nexus of art, architecture and natural beauty. And like the Palmer Museum of Art before it, it will depend upon visionary philanthropy from the Penn State community. Learn more at artmuseum.psu.edu.

Last Updated July 28, 2020