Sydney and Frances Lewis | Virginia Museum of History & Culture
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Sydney and Frances Lewis

A Guide to the Sydney and Frances Lewis papers, ca. 1950-2003.
Call Number Mss1 L5888 b FA2

Administrative Information


Collection is open for research.


Use Restrictions

There are no restrictions.


Preferred Citation

Sydney and Frances Lewis papers, ca. 1950-2003 (Mss1 L5888 b FA2), Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va.


Acquisition Information

This collection arrived in three parts as gifts from Frances A. Lewis. The first donation consisted of theater pamphlets, and was donated in 2002. This segment included programs from a variety of performances, including drama, comedy, musical, and dance. A second group of theater pamphlets and personal and business papers were donated 2003. The third segment, consisting of artist correspondence, was given in 2005. The three segments were then integrated into one collection. Accessioned 2005.


Descriptive Summary


Collection Number: Mss1 L5888 b FA2
Collection Name: Sydney and Frances Lewis papers, ca. 1950-2003
Size: 3,200 items
Language: English
Abstract: Correspondence and other papers concerning the Lewis’s support of the arts and artists, and other philanthropic activities.


Scope and Content Information


Includes alphabetical files of correspondence and other materials concerning the Lewis's support of and friendship with a number of artists; records concerning a large financial gift to Washington and Lee University; more general correspondence reflecting other philanthropic activities; speeches made by Sydney Lewis while serving on the Board of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; and also an extensive collection of performance programs reflecting the Lewises' interest in theater, music, and dance. Many programs include post-performance annotations by Mrs. Lewis. The Best Products Foundation and the Sydney and Frances Lewis Foundation supported many of the events they attended.


Biographical/Historical Information


Sydney and Frances Lewis founded the Best Products Co., Inc. in 1957, in Richmond, Virginia. The catalog retailer started as a mail order business, but when customers wanted to see the merchandise, the idea of a catalog showroom was born. By 1982, Best Products reached sales of 1 billion and had showrooms throughout the United States. The company's owners took their commercial success and tried to effect change in society through the causes and institutions they supported. For example, Sydney and Frances Lewis encouraged cultural enrichment through their support of the arts. The Lewises' bartered with their company's products for art, giving artists refrigerators, hair dryers, and lawn mowers, and also allowed the artist's works to decorate Best Company offices and showrooms. The Lewises', both as individuals and through the Best Products Foundation, supported many institutions with their time and their money. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Washington and Lee University were particular favorites. As much as the Lewises enjoyed funding the arts, they also enjoyed attending cultural events, regularly traveling to New York City to attend plays and musicals.




The papers of Sydney and Frances Lewis are arranged into five series: Series 1. Artist files (arranged alphabetically); Series 2. Washington and Lee University; Series 3. Correspondence; Series 4. Speeches; and Series 5. Theater and Musical Programs (roughly sorted alphabetically).


Index Terms


Art -- Virginia -- Richmond -- History -- 20th century.
Art Collectors and collecting -- Virginia -- History -- 20th century.
Art museums -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Art museums -- Virginia -- History -- 20th century.
Art partronage -- Virginia -- History.
Art patrons.
Artists -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Arts and society -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Ballet -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Best Products Foundation.
Charity organization -- Virginia -- History -- 20th century.
Community theater -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Lewis, Frances, 1922- -- Art patronage.
Lewis, Sydney, 1919-1999 -- Art patronage.
Modern dance -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Musical theater -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Musicals -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Performing arts sponsorship -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Philanthropists -- Virginia -- History -- 20th century.
Richmond (Va.) -- Intellectual life.
Sydney and Frances Lewis Foundation.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Washington and Lee University -- History -- 20th century.




Series 1. Artist Files, ca. 1965-1998.

This series consists of correspondence between artists and Sydney and Frances Lewis. The artists would often write about personal issues in the letters. Theodoros Stamos’s correspondence discusses his problems stemming from being an executor of the famous artist Rothko’s estate and accused of fraud. Sometimes the artists included drawings and slides of art they were working on. The George Bireline file is particularly interesting in that respect. Files also include letters written by wives and close associates of artists who maintained correspondence with the Lewises. Many of the files include thank you notes for weekend parties at Virginia Beach, Va., where the Lewises maintained a vacation home. The other files represent art offered to the Lewises from auction house Christie’s, art loan files from the early years of their collection, and a promotional packet from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts presenting the new West Wing, which was funded in part by the Lewises. Some of the artists that are represented in this collection have files in an earlier collection of Sydney and Frances Lewis Papers (See Mss1 L58888 a FA2, especially correspondence of Theodoros Stamos and Jack Beal).

Box 1

Folder 1 Adams, Alice                                                                                                                        
  2 Ambrose, Allen
  3 Antonakos, Stephen
  4 Arman
  5 Armstrong, Tom
  6 Arneson, Robert
  7 Aronson, David
  8 Artist Choice Museum
  9 Artschwager, Richard
  10 Avedon, Richard
  11 Avery, Milton
  12 Aylon, Helene
  13 Baeder, John
  14 Barrett, Bill
  15-16 Beal, Jack (2 folders)
  17 Bireline, George
  18 Botero, Fernando
  19 Braque, Georges
  20 Brusca, Jack
  21 Budd, David
  22 Burton, Scott
  23 Caulfield, Patrick
  24 Clarke, John Clem
  25 Close, Chuck
  26 Coates, Kevin
  27 Colette
  28 Cottingham, Robert
  29 Crile, Susan
  30 Cummings, Angela
  31 Dalglish, Jamie
  32 D’Arcangelo, Allan
  33 Deem, George
  34 DeForest, Roy
  35 Diamond, Martha
  36 DiGiorgio, Joseph
  37 Dinnerstein, Simon
  38 Edwards, Stanley
  39 Escher, Fred
  40 Estes, Richard
  41 Ferrer, Rafael
  42 Fish, Janet
  43 Freckelton, Sondra
  44 Gelfman-Pereira, Marilyn
  45 Georges, Paul
  46 Gillespie, Gregory
  47 Gingerich, Jim
  48 Gold, Sharon
  49 Goodman, Sidney
  50 Goodnough, Robert
  51 Gray, Eileen
  52 Grigoriadis, Mary
  53 Grossman, Nancy
  54 Hammond, Harmony

Box 2

Folder 55 Hanson, Duane                                                                                                                       
  56 Harper, William
  57 Held, Al
  58 Hinman, Charles
  59 Holzman, Malcolm
  60 Hucleux, Jean Oliver
  61 Humphrey, Ralph
  62 Jasper, Johns
  63 Katz, Alex
  64 Keever, Kim
  65 Kelly, Ellsworth
  66 King, Tony
  67 Kraft, Grace A.
  68 Krushenick, Nicholas
  69 Leslie, Alfred
  70 Levine, Marilyn
  71 Lichtenstein, Roy
  72 Li-Lan
  73 Marden, Brice
  74 Merkin, Richard
  75 Milder, Jay
  76 Morris, Robert
  77 Nesbitt, Lowell
  78 O’Donnell, Hugh
  79 Oka Doner, Michele
  80 Owen, Frank
  81 Paschke, Ed
  82 Pearlstein, Philip
  83 Pepper, Beverly
  84 Perlman, Joel
  85 Pesce, Gaetano
  86 Plagens, Peter
  87 Pye, William
  88 Quaytman, Harvey
  89 Rosenfeld, Leonard
  90 Saari, Peter
  91 Salt, John
  92 Samaras, Lucas
  93 Schonzeit, Ben
  94 Sedgley, Peter
  95 Segal, George
  96 Sizemore, Wiley Eugene
  97 Smith, Richard
  98 Smith, Tony
  99 Snyder, Joan
  100 Solomon, Jack
  101 Sottsass, Ettore
  102 Soussa, Emilio
  103 Stamos, Theodoros
  104 Steir, Pat
  105 Stone, Sylvia
  106 Strider, Marjorie
  107 Tilson, Joe
  108 True, David
  109 Twombly, Cy
  110 Twyford, Christopher
  111 Valadon, Suzanne
  112 Valentine, De Wain
  113 Venturi, Robert & Denise Scott Brown
  114 Warhol, Andy
  115 Webster, Meg
  116 Wesselman, Tom
  117 Wilson, Robert M.
  118 Wines, James
  119 Wurtzel, David
  120 Yankowitz, Nina
  121 Youngerman, Jack
  122 Unidentified Artists
  123 Christie’s
  124 Loans
  125 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, “The West Wing”

Series 2. Washington and Lee University.

These files concern the donation of nine million dollars to Washington and Lee University in 1972 to create the Frances Lewis Law School.

Box 3

Folder 126 1972 Gift Correspondence                                                                                                         
  127 1972 Gift Articles
  128 Commendation Correspondence, 1972-1995

Series 3. Correspondence.

Many people admired the Lewises and what they did for their company and state and wished to commend them. Mrs. Lewis's philanthropic activities included serving on the Richmond City Board of Education and the Virginia Board of Education. The Lewises were also frequently solicited for their support of many causes.

Folder 129 Best Products Commendations, 1982-1991
  130 Frances Lewis Board of Education (Richmond City and Virginia) Commendations, 1980-1991
  131 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Commendations, 1976-1991
  132 Miscellaneous Commendations, 1982-1994
  133 Solicitations, 1991

Series 4. Speeches to the Board of Trustees, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Mr. Lewis was very involved in the Board of Trustees for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He was president of the Board of Trustees in the 1980s. This series contains examples of the speeches he made in that capacity.

Folder 134 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1984-1988                                                                 

Series 5. Theater and Musical Programs, 1978-2003.

Programs and other printed materials, 1978-2003, documenting cultural events attended by Sydney and Frances Lewis, mainly in Virginia, New York City, and other places they visited. The Best Products Foundation and the Sydney and Frances Lewis Foundation provided support for many of the events represented in this series. Materials include a wide array of musical, dance, and theater performances at varied venues, including art museums. Many programs feature annotations of post-performance commentary from Mrs. Lewis. Mrs. Lewis's nephew, Frank Rich, was the theater critic for the New York Times from 1980-1994, and he may have contributed to her prolific attendance at Broadway shows.

Folders 135-138 A (4 folders)                                                                                                                                    

Box 4

Folders 139-141 B (3 folders)                                                                                                                                 
  142-143 C (2 folders)
  144-145 D (2 folders)

Box 5

Folders 146-147 E (2 folders)                                                                                                                               
  148-149 F (2 folders)
  150-152 G (3 folders)

Box 6

Folder 153 H                                                                                                                                   
  154 I
  155 J
  156 K
  157-158 L (2 folders)
  159-162 M (4 folders)

Box 7

Folders 163-164 N (2 folders)                                                                                                                                
  165-167 P (3 folders)
  168-169 Q-R (2 folders)

Box 8

Folders 170-172 S (3 folders)                                                                                                                               
  173-175 T (3 folders)
  176 U-V
  177 W
  178 X-Z
  179 Miscellaneous

Last updated: October 1, 2008

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