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Largest art gift in Tufts history donated by "adopted" alum

As a wedding gift to his wife, Dorothy Skinner, J52, John Cook gave her an Antonio Saura painting titled Autorretrato 2 (Self Portrait 2). The powerful responses the abstract piece drew from its viewers intrigued the couple, who went on to amass more than 100 pieces of modern art, a collection some referred to as their children.

"As collectors, John and Dorothy were driven by their passion for acquiring knowledge, and wanted to own work for the sheer pleasure of living with it," said Amy Schlegel, Ph.D., director of galleries and collections at the Aidekman Arts Center.

As a tribute to his wife, who passed away in 2005, Cook, a cell biologist from Falmouth, Mass., plans an unrestricted bequest of more than 75 works from their collection to the School of Arts & Sciences. The intended bequest would be the largest and most significant art gift to Tufts in its history.

An exhibition of 17 works from the bequest was held in the Koppelman Gallery on May 16 during Alumni Weekend. Friends and alumni from the Class of 1952 came to support their friend, Cook, a loyal enthusiast of Tufts, and to honor Skinner's memory.

"Tufts meant so much to her," said Laura Gavrelis, J52, of Columbus, Ohio, a Jackson basketball teammate at whose wedding Skinner served as maid of honor. "If Dottie were here, she would be thrilled." Marjorie Harvey, J52, who helped organize the event, said Skinner "spent her life giving back to Tufts" after attending college on a scholarship.

An invertebrate zoologist renowned for her work on the DNA of crabs, Skinner received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Tufts in 1994. She was Tufts' dean of admissions at the age of 23 for two years before going to Harvard to get her Ph.D in biology. She also was an active member of the Tufts Alumni Council and the Association of Tufts Alumnae.

The collection of 20th-century modern American and European art, appraised at about $2.5 million, reflects the couple's aesthetic taste for abstraction, with artists like Pablo Picasso, Egon Schiele, and sculptor Henry Moore.

Cook said he does not play favorites: he has a unique appreciation for each piece. He and Skinner took a photo of every piece of art, researched the artists, and wrote a history of how they found the piece and what memories are associated with each.

"This collection is a testament of love for each other, for travel, and for their love for Tufts," said the dean of academic affairs for Arts & Sciences, Andrew McClellan, an art historian. "Tufts will have a lifelong remembrance of John and Dorothy."

To the surprise of Princeton alumnus Cook, he was presented with honorary membership in Tufts' Class of 1952 by Vickie Sullivan, dean of academic affairs for Arts & Sciences and professor of political science. Many classmates already considered Cook one of their own.

"It's great with the diploma," said Sandy Phillips, J52, "but we adopted John way before that. His name is on all our stationery!"