Esther Ferguson: A Woman with a Vision

Esther Ferguson is small in stature, but her dedication to the Gibbes Museum is immense. A long-time supporter of the museum, she joined the Gibbes Board in the spring of 2013. I sat down with her recently to talk about the inspiration behind The Distinguished Lecture Series.

Esther Ferguson at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Esther Ferguson at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

Fifty years ago Esther Ferguson was a young woman alone in Manhattan. She traded the security of Hartsville, South Carolina, for the great unknown of New York City. “I was scared. Women didn’t do that sort of thing back then. I was very poor and on the weekend, I would go alone to The Metropolitan Museum to listen to the lecture series. I remember walking out of a lecture and sitting down to cry because I’d learned so much about the art world, and because I realized how much more there was to learn!” The experience was nurturing during an unsettling time in her life. “Attending these lectures kept me going throughout the week,” she explained.

The significance of the Met lecture series stayed with Mrs. Ferguson throughout the years, and after returning to the south, she began to dream about bringing a lecture series to Charleston. In 2010, the Fergusons loaned works of art from their private collection to the Gibbes Museum to form the exhibition, Modern Masters from the Ferguson Collection. Two mixed-media works by world-renowned installation artists Christo and Jeanne Claude were part of the exhibition, which ran from April 30–August 22, 2010. As part of Modern Masters, Christo was invited to speak about his large-scale temporary works of art including the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin and the Pont-Neuf bridge in Paris, the 24 ½-mile-long Running Fence in Sonoma and Marin Counties in California, and The Gates in New York City’s Central Park.


Esther Ferguson with artist Christo.

“At the end of his stunning lecture, it was the men who clapped the loudest,” recalls Mrs. Ferguson. “After the lecture these men gathered around Christo and told him they didn’t know if they liked his work, but they understood it. That’s when I knew art could fill stadiums.” She smiled.

The Old Mill, ©Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; by Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas; 15 x 18 inches, Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Trust.

The Old Mill, ©Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; by Pablo Picasso, oil on canvas; 15 x 18 inches, Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Trust.

Mrs. Ferguson began to formulate her plan to establish a fund to create the Distinguished Lecture Series at the Gibbes Museum. She had the perfect speaker in mind, her friend of thirty years, Mr. Leonard Lauder. “Every time you see him it’s art, art, art,” she laughed. Mr. Lauder’s attention to art became evident to the world at large last spring when he donated his $1.5 billion collection of Cubist art to the very museum that brought Mrs. Ferguson to tears all those years ago. In a Vanity Fair article, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas P. Campbell (who visited the Gibbes museum in October) said of the donation, “In one fell swoop this puts the Met at the fore-front of early-20-century art.” Mrs. Ferguson decided she would ask her friend and philanthropist, Leonard Lauder, to be the inaugural Distinguished Lecture speaker. “He is a very private man, but when I asked he said yes. I’ll do this for you Esther.”

Leonard A. Lauder

Leonard A. Lauder, Chairman Emeritus, Whitney Museum of American Art, and Chairman Emeritus, The Estee Lauder Companies Inc.

We are so fortunate to have friends like Mrs. Ferguson who are working to bring outstanding, world-renowned artists, art collectors, museum leaders, philanthropists, and art historians to Charleston to stimulate discussion about the visual arts and creativity. We are already planning for future speakers and are excited about the future of the Distinguished Lecture Series!

Amy Mercer, marketing and communications manager, Gibbes Museum of Art

The inaugural lecture in the Distinguished Lecture Series, featuring Leonard A. Lauder, is Wednesday, November 20. A limited number of tickets are still available for this event at or by calling 843.722.2706 x21.

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