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How the amazing Kress Collection got to El Paso

Kress building in downtown El Paso

What does a vacant building in downtown El Paso have to do with a stunning collection of European artwork at the El Paso Museum of Art? The answer lies with this man: Samuel Kress, a businessman and philanthropist and founder of the Kress Five and Dime retail chain. At one point, there were more than 200 Kress stores across the country, including the one next to San Jacinto Plaza. All the while, Samuel Kress was amassing an exceptional collection of European art, most of it from the Italian Renaissance .

“It’s very special that we own one of these,” said Elizabeth Dwyer, a Kress Foundation fellow who has been helping to orchestrate the redesign of the Kress Galleries at the El Paso Museum of Art. “Our collection of 59 paintings spans five centuries covering every major artistic period from roughly 1200 to 1780s, it’s phenomenal.”

One of the wealthiest men in America in his time, Kress never married and didn't have any children. In 1951, he gave a significant donation from his collection to National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Later, he decided to donate the rest of his collection to the cities where his stores had earned him his fortune. He established the Kress Foundation and after his death in 1955, 776 works of art were given to 18 museums throughout the country. That's how El Paso's Museum of Art ended up with dozens of priceless creations by some of the most celebrated painters of all time.

“It’s been variously called the Kress gift to the nation or the Great Kress Giveaway, by different institutions and publications," said Dwyer.

When it came time to deciding where all of his art was going to go, Samuel Kress decided to give his art to the cities where his most successful stores were located. And El Paso’s store was one of his most successful locations. So that means we got some of the best art in his collection.

“It’s really just the jewel in our crown that we can wear very proudly," said Victoria Ramirez, the director of the El Paso Museum of Art.. “Works of art like the Kress Collection don’t come on the market. And when they do they’re so extraordinarily expense, it would be beyond nearly any museum’s means to invest in 59 works of art.”

And now El Paso's Kress Collection is back on display, in a newly restored gallery that opened to the public last week. A new setting worthy of its inhabitants, in a museum that owes much of its legacy to a now-vacant store in downtown El Paso.

“When they say the Kress Collection is a gift, it truly is one of the most significant gifts that’s ever been given to El Paso," said Ramirez.

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