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World Monuments Leader Morphs Into Painter, Has Show: Interview

Marilyn Perry
Marilyn Perry with recent paintings in her studio in New York. Her works are on display at Rogue Space Gallery in Chelsea, NY, April 19 through 21. Photographer: Paul Goguen/Bloomberg

High up in the historic Ansonia -- favored home of singers, artists, eccentrics -- on Manhattan’s west side, Marilyn Perry is wondering which of her many paintings she likes the most.

“Maybe that one?” She ponders, pointing to a vibrant green work bursting with life. “But I’d sell it anyway.”

For decades Perry, 71, made her mark as the president of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and chairman of the World Monuments Fund, which she built into architecture’s version of the World Wildlife Fund.

Crumbling landmarks, from temples at Angkor, Cambodia to the ancient Maya city of Naranjo, Guatemala, have benefited from Perry’s zealous fundraising and strategic alliances.

Carlos Slim, James Wolfensohn, the Prince of Wales, Brooke Astor, Paul Mellon and Eugene Thaw are only some of the global personalities who were happy to receive preservation’s highest recognition, the Hadrian Award of the WMF.

Retiring in 2007, Perry has been painting obsessively ever since. Tonight, tomorrow and Thursday, see a show of her new work at the Rogue Space in Chelsea, a gallery artists can rent for short periods.

View the paintings beginning at 2 p.m., and have a drink with the artist from 5 to 8 p.m.

We continued speaking as her curator, Chris Watson, packed the pictures onto luggage racks and into a waiting van.

Lundborg: What was it like to put a brush to canvas for the first time?

Sky’s the Limit

Perry: It felt like a liberation. I love the excitement of creating something that’s separate from yourself, but that’s come out of your existence.

Lundborg: When did it get really interesting?

Perry: I started by taking a little workshop in the country with a local artist, and then I started ordering how-to books.

It got interesting when I realized the sky’s the limit, that with painting, you can do anything.

Lundborg: Did being an art historian help?

Perry: Spending so much time in the company of the artists I love gave me a sense of proportion and color.

Lundborg: How has your relation to painting changed?

Perry: I’m less possessive. When I sold my first painting, it was like giving away a child. Now, I know I’ll do other things I like.

Lundborg: But selling must also be a validation?

Perry: The most gratifying moment was when I sold my first canvas to a stranger. Somebody bought it off the wall in a group show, and I wasn’t even there. It went for $450.

Lundborg: Is that when you started feeling like a professional painter?

Who Was I?

Perry: It was gradual. It didn’t come from selling work, but from the pattern of my life, how my day was structured and what I thought about.

It was a very big transition from one role to another: You are no longer who you were. One of my friends was a CEO and after he sold his company, he told me that he got up, put on a suit and went to the library.

Lundborg: How do you put a price on your work?

Perry: That’s difficult. So many things come into play: who your audience is, what the value of a new (old!) painter is, what you love.

Someone bought a painting of trees because it made her feel happy, as though she were a child again about to go play in the woods.

Lundborg: Historically, what painters would you most like to meet?

Perry: Titian for color, Velazquez for the brush stroke, though I don’t dare to do portraits, except dogs under duress.

And Turner, whose space-dissolving pictures broke into new realms.

Forgotten Emperor

Lundborg: You made preservation chic and important. How did you come to realize that you could help save some of the great endangered places?

Perry: When I lived in Italy, I met Colonel James Gray, who raised funds for particular sites, and I actually saw him successfully saving monuments.

When he wanted to retire, there was no succession. He came to me, and we decided to invent a brand-new kind of nonprofit organization.

Lundborg: What are the biggest threats?

Perry: Neglect, active destruction, natural disasters and then there are buildings that are financially beyond the local community to help.

Lundborg: What’s your most satisfying save?

Perry: The Qianlong Garden in the Forbidden City. In 1771, the fifth emperor of China’s Qian dynasty started building a two-acre retreat with four courtyards, five rockeries and 27 pavilions and structures.

It was largely abandoned in 1924. We got the Chinese to recognize something that they didn’t know they had.

There’s currently a show at the Met Museum with treasures that were recovered from the Emperor’s private paradise.

Marilyn Perry’s work can be seen at Rogue Space Gallery, 508 W. 26th St. until April 21 and at

Prices range from about $500 to $3,000 for large seascapes.

(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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