How are you ForeverDuke?

Sterly Wilder ’83, associate vice president for alumni affairs, talks with Blake Byrne ’57, the Alumni Distinguished Award winner for 2013. Byrne recently stepped down as chair of the advisory board of the Nasher Museum of Art.

Sterly Wilder. Credit: Chris Hildreth.

SW: How did Duke contribute to your art interest?

BB: I did go to the museum a little bit when it was on East Campus. But I never took a course in art history. Well, I sat in for about three meetings of the class, but it was to be graded on a curve, and I thought I’d get pummeled. The more direct influence was my classmate Peter Fisher [’57]; he was getting his law degree when I was getting my M.B.A. at Columbia, and visiting his apartment, which was filled with art, really fueled my interest.

SW: When did you start collecting art?

BB: I started collecting seriously in 1988, after I moved to New York. From there I went to my first Art Basel fair, visited every booth, and wrote down the name of every artist I liked.

SW: Were you a campus leader?
BB: I did work on the Union’s Major Attractions Committee with Bill Griffith [’50, then a student-affairs administrator]. But I guess it was after I graduated that I began to see myself as a leader. I also didn’t come across as the most accomplished student, though several professors in economics really impressed me. My French professor told me if I promised never to take a French course again, he’d pass me. As it happens, I ended up living in France.

SW: Talk about your volunteer leadership for Duke.

BB: My mother had a great influence on my life, and I learned about the tradition of philanthropy from her. So I contributed something like $50 in my first annual-giving gesture, and I’ve kept it up. I just assumed you did that. When I was president of my class, we set a then-record of

$50,000 for reunions giving. And I said, that’s too much work for just $50,000, and we have to find a way to raise expectations. And we did.

SW: Of course, you’ve had a lot of service on Duke boards.

BB: Being on the Trinity board of visitors was a perfect way to keep up with Duke and Duke people, including [longtime history professor and dean] Bill Chafe. And from there it was the Nasher board. What a wonderful eight years that was. To this day that building seems so extraordinary, so beautiful, and so accommodating of art.

SW: Even as a Californian, you enjoy lots of opportunities to return to campus, don’t you?
BB: This past spring, it was a great honor to be the speaker at the Lavender Graduation [for LGBT students]; there were thirty-one graduates at the ceremony, and it was just wonderful. In the fall, I’m back for the DEMAN weekend [the culminating weekend of the Duke Arts Festival], a Nasher board meeting, and a Duke Forward event. We’re having this conversation in May; next month, I’m back to watch my grandson for the last two days of Coach K’s basketball camp.

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