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Blake was an incredible human being and extremely generous to the Nasher, in gifts of art, financial support and service. He was the founding chairman of the Nasher Museum’s Board of Advisors, and has been on the board since the very beginning. We were privileged to be able to work so closely with this wonderful man. He was very wise, with the best sense of humor, and the greatest laugh on Earth. He will be greatly missed.

Sarah Schroth, Mary D.B.T. and James H. Semans Director Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University

Biography, Memorial Celebrations, Donations in His Honor

Duke graduate E. Blake Byrne (T’57), a passionate collector, longtime supporter and dear friend of the Nasher Museum, died in Los Angeles on March 23, 2019, at the age of 83.

Blake Byrne earned a bachelor of arts degree from Duke University in 1957 and an MBA from Columbia University in 1961. He married Mary Frances Bowden (Duke Class of ’58) in 1960. They raised two children together, John and Jocelyn.

Blake spent 35 years in television broadcasting beginning at CBS in New York, with interim stops along the way at Chris Craft Broadcasting in Portland, Oregon; Outlet Broadcasting in Providence, Rhode Island; LIN Broadcasting in Ft. Worth-Dallas and New York; and Disney in Los Angeles, before becoming Co-Founder and President of Argyle Television in Los Angeles and San Antonio, Texas. Most recently, he was Chairman of the Byrne Acquisition Group (his son John Byrne’s company) with television stations in Madison, Wisconsin, and Hilton Head, South Carolina, and radio stations in Myrtle Beach and Clemson, SC.

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    Building a Collection
    Art was always a passion for Blake but he began collecting in earnest in 1988 when his focus shifted to cutting-edge contemporary art. He was living in New York and met Jack Tilton, his long-time mentor and friend, while visiting his gallery. When he asked Tilton how one starts to learn about art and collecting, Jack advised him to attend Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland, where galleries from all over the world converge. He suggested that Blake spend several days touring the fair, looking at the art and finding artists he liked in order to start developing his own taste. Blake went to Basel that summer with a budget and came away with his first purchases which included works by Marlene Dumas, Juan Muñoz, Cristina Iglesias, Richard Tuttle, Mario Merz and Martin Disler.

    From there, he has built a collection that is both expansive and focused, maintaining strong commitments to certain artists including Marlene Dumas, Martin Kippenberger, Rita McBride, Jim Shaw, Iva Gueorguieva, Mark Bradford, Paul P, Alexander Kroll, Richard Tuttle and Kehinde Wiley. He continued to actively acquire works by emerging artists. His primary residence was Los Angeles but he lived in Paris part-time for 20 years, so the collection reflects a broad awareness and perspective.

    Passion for Philanthropy
    Blake Byrne’s passion for art was paralleled by his passion for philanthropy. In 1997, he founded The Skylark Foundation, a philanthropic family foundation that is committed to encouraging innovation, striving for social justice and supporting diversity. He was a trustee of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) since 1999 and in 2011 was made a lifetime trustee.

    His involvement with his alma mater, Duke University, includes serving as co-chair of development for the Nasher Museum from 2002-2005, which helped raise the funds to build the museum. He also served as chairman of the Nasher’s Board of Advisors from 2005 to 2014.

    Giving Back
    In celebration of his 70th birthday in 2005, Blake Byrne made a gift of 123 works of art to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles—the largest private donation in the history of the museum. The event was celebrated by an exhibition and documented by a catalogue.

    In 2007, on the occasion of his 50th reunion and in honor of Raymond D. Nasher, he made a promised gift of art to the Nasher Museum. In 2017, it was converted into a full gift and consists of 38 pieces comprised of 284 individual works of art. He has also made gifts to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, as well as the Ft. Worth Art Museum. 2015 marked the year of his 80th birthday and was celebrated by the traveling exhibition Open This End. Curated by Joseph Wolin, it featured a selection works from his collection and from partial and promised gifts to Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and the Nasher Museum. This teaching exhibition was shared with students and the surrounding communities at Duke University, Ohio State University, Columbia University and Lewis & Clark College.

    Special Honors
    Blake had a life-long love affair with France. Since the mid 1990s and for 20 years, he split his time living between Los Angeles and Paris. His involvement with the French community included his participation as the first American on the selection committees for the Duchamp and Guerlain prizes. In 2012 he was honored with a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, an honor given to those who have made a significant contribution to the arts, literature, or the propagation of these fields in France. In 2015, Blake received the Distinguished Alumni Award at Duke , an honor reserved for just 33 alumni to date.

    Blake is survived by his son and daughter-in-law John and Charlotte Byrne; daughter Jocelyn Byrne; six grandchildren, John Morris, James, Lily, Oliver, Benito, and Diego; and his partner Justin Gilanyi.

A memorial service and celebration will be held on Saturday, March 30, 2019, at 3 PM. All Saints Episcopal Church, 540 N Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90210.

    Future celebrations at MOCA Los Angeles and Duke University and also in Paris, France, are in the works. More information will be available at a later date.

    In lieu of flowers: Donations in on honor of Blake can be made to the Skylark Foundation, 1880 Century Park E Suite 1404, Century City, CA 90067.

Featured Featured exhibition

Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne

February 19 – July 12, 2015

An exhibition of both iconic and lesser-known works from some of the most significant and compelling artists of the last 50 years, Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne traced a number...

My time at the Nasher is marked by the first time I saw the Kehinde Wiley piece in the Blake Byrne collection. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find when I crossed the Great Hall to see the collected works of a Duke alumnus, but a life-sized oil painting of a black man in present day attire rendered with the regalia of a 17th-century monarch was not it. I could feel a shift in my perceptions just from looking at the work and I knew this was art. I’m grateful to the Nasher for giving me that experience.

Kay Hubbard (T’07)
Featured Featured exhibition

Collected Identities: Gifts from the Blake Byrne Collection

April 19 – September 30, 2007

Blake Byrne, class of ’57, promised a gift of 33 works of art worth $1 million to the Nasher Museum, doubling the museum’s collection of cutting-edge contemporary art. The 2007 exhibition Collected Identities: Gifts fr...

Featured Featured Articles

Gift from Blake Byrne Strengthens Nasher’s Contemporary Collection

Duke graduate E. Blake Byrne (T’57) made a gift of 284 works of art to the Nasher Museum in spring of 2017, on the occasion of his 60th reunion at Duke. The gift strengthens the Nasher Museum’s growing collection of contem...


Featured Featured Nasher in the News

Founders’ Day Praise for Contributions to Duke

Distinguished Alumni Award: Blake Byrne Established in 1983, the Distinguished Alumni Award is the highest award given by the Duke Alumni Association. It is presented to alumni who have made significant contributions in...

view article on DukeToday | Published October 04, 2013

What is my favorite memory from the Nasher after 10 years? Probably the use of my Mark Bradford in the exhibition that Trevor put together along with william cordova and Robin Rhode. That was one of the earliest Nasher exhibitions. At the time, Mark Bradford was not well known. It’s extraordinary that Trevor was able to do that! Another highlight is the Barkley Hendricks show that was right on the heels of the Bradford show. It introduced Barkley Hendricks to just about everybody on the advisory board. And then, how do you forget "El Greco to Velázquez?" Can’t forget that! It’s been an extraordinary 10 years and I am humbled by the fact that you all saw fit to accept the "Open This End" exhibition for viewing and use in the curriculum. What a thrill for me and I’m so happy that it’s turned out to be a great success as well. What a wonderful 10 years at the Nasher!

Blake Byrne (T’57)

Quotes from Friends and Colleagues

“Blake Byrne was a great friend, generous philanthropist, dedicated activist and passionate art collector. He was a tremendous supporter of the Nasher Museum and you can see his imprint all over the collection. You could always count on Blake for an honest answer, an open mind and a great sense of humor. Miss you, Blake. RIP.”
— Trevor Schoonmaker, Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs and Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art, Nasher Museum



“As the youngest member of the Nasher board, being in meetings with Blake was truly learning from the best. His ideas, his care for the stewardship of the place, his deep responsibility to the museum, his outspoken comments … all a true privilege to have been exposed to. He will be so greatly missed by so many but his legacy will live on through his lasting impact on the Nasher.”
— Katherine Thorpe Kerr (T’04)



“In 1987 I was on a trip to Venice, Italy, and I heard this voice that I recognized as being Blake’s at the bar at the Cipriani Hotel. We struck up a conversation and reminisced about Duke days. As you know, I am a Republican and Blake is a Democrat. I mentioned to Blake that I was raising money for George H.W. Bush for his election—Bush 41—and we struck up a deal that he would write a check for me to elect George H. W. Bush (I’m sure the only Republican contribution he ever made in his life ) and I would write him a check for the Duke Art Museum. It was not yet called the Nasher Museum of Art or indeed even built. Blake has often reminded me of this meeting-by-accident in Venice and the fact that he actually wrote a check for a Republican. We had many laughs together and always joked in a very friendly way about political differences. Blake was a marvel for Duke and the Nasher.”
— Ambassador Brenda LaGrange Johnson


“It was a privilege to know and to work with Blake. His inspired leadership of the Board of Advisors in the first years of the Nasher Museum set the tone for its uncompromising commitment to excellence. His warmth, generosity, and determination helped me in more ways than he knew. My condolences go out to his family and loved ones.”

— Scott Lindroth, Professor of Music, Vice Provost for the Arts at Duke



“Blake was an inspiration in so many ways, from an outstanding board chairman to a passionate art collector to the consummate Duke fan. I will truly miss his company as a friend.”
— Derek M. Wilson (T’86, B’90)



“During my second year on the Friends Board, Blake gifted Nasher with works from his personal collection. In addition to increasing the Nasher’s holdings, this and subsequent gifts served as necessary bridges to the diversity found in Durham. Blake made a lasting difference and will be sorely missed.”
— Angela Terry, former President, Nasher Museum Friends Board, and member, Durham Chapter of the Links, Inc.



“For over a decade I have had the privilege of travelling with Blake as a partner, mentee and companion. His work has impacted me and so many others in ways that are not fully realized. Blake’s unwavering loyalty to our alma mater was the same loyalty he showed me year after year, both of which are evident in the experiences, art works and love he left behind. He will continue to be a part of me and a part of all of us through his philanthropic spirit and passion for people and projects.”
— Justin Gilanyi


“For me personally, Blake served as an influential teacher and mentor, roles that came naturally to him. When I arrived at the Nasher, I knew a bit about contemporary art, but, with a PhD in 18th-century European art, I had not spent a great deal of time immersed in the contemporary art world. Blake took me under his wing and helped me negotiate the teeming and ever expanding world of contemporary galleries, biennials and fairs—from Los Angeles to New York, from Miami to Basel to Venice. In many ways, Blake helped me advance my knowledge of contemporary art. Blake told me that he preferred to get to know an artist’s work and form an opinion of it before meeting the artist. He feared that if he met the artist first he might take a liking to him or her as a person, which could cloud his judgement about the work. That observation has stuck with me, and I have often found it useful, but most of all, it gave further insight into Blake’s sunny and generous disposition and his friendly and open manner, which always put anyone who met him immediately at ease. Blake’s vision, warm heart and generosity of spirit and deed have always inspired me. I am very sad to lose Blake.”

— Kimerly Rorschach, founding director of the Nasher Museum, 2004-2012

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