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The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection

The Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Collection is among the best of a number of fine private collections of outsider art in the United States. The couple has been pursuing work by self-taught artists for three decades, focusing on American material, and they buy only pieces that they love, without attempting to form a "historically" complete holding.

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Outsider art can speak in interesting ways to twentieth- and twenty-first-century collections, as self-taught artists adopt many of the same approaches and strategies used by their mainstream counterparts—such as collage, assemblage, and the use of found materials; a tendency to render figurative images abstractly; excursions into the surreal, dreamlike, or otherworldly; and the incorporation of text into imagery. Only a handful of large, general museums in the United States collect outsider art in depth, and none genuinely integrates work by the self-taught with that of mainstream artists in installations of its permanent collection. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has been collecting in this field for twenty years, welcomes the promised gift of the Bonovitz Collection as a splendid contribution to the strength and diversity of its distinguished modern and contemporary holdings.

Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz

"It resonates with us" is a phrase Sheldon Bonovitz often uses to describe what he and his wife Jill have found compelling, from works of art to ideas. The phrase also well describes the couple themselves. Their shared passions, including collecting and promoting the works of many American self-taught artists, are amplified by the interplay of their seemingly incongruent vocations and personalities.

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Sheldon was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1937. Growing up he worked in his family's wholesale fish business, held a variety of odd jobs, and, in his own words, lived "at the edge." Yet these experiences ignited his passionate conviction that society's divisions do not delimit human creativity and individual potential. Sheldon first came to Philadelphia to attend the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, receiving an undergraduate degree in 1959 followed by a degree from Harvard Law School in 1962. After a judicial clerkship in Washington, DC, he returned to Philadelphia in 1964 to join Duane Morris, a Quaker law firm with a strong social conscience that well matched his own beliefs. In 1967 Sheldon married Jill Fleisher, and the couple soon had two sons. Sheldon practiced law at Duane Morris throughout his career. In 1998 he became the firm's chairman and chief executive officer. During the ten years that followed, he created and implemented an innovative business model that tripled the firm's lawyer force and increased its revenue five-fold. He is now the firm's chairman emeritus. Sheldon, like many of the self-taught artists whose works have lined the Duane Morris offices, has often been called a visionary by his peers. Sheldon serves on the boards of a number of not-for-profit and for-profit organizations. He has taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Harvard Law School, and, most recently, in 2011, at Columbia Law School.

Jill grew up in Philadelphia, where her mother, Janet Fleisher, owned a premier contemporary art gallery. Exposed to the visual arts as a child, Jill went on to study psychology at Columbia University. After receiving a bachelor's degree there, she continued at Columbia Teacher's College while teaching children with special emotional needs in New York. During this time she met and married Sheldon, and after the younger of their two sons was in school, she returned to the arts, earning a degree in ceramics at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. In 1974 Jill cofounded The Clay Studio, an institution that has become a vital and material center for the ceramic arts and played a key role in promoting the medium and the work of emerging artists worldwide. Jill is today an internationally acclaimed ceramic artist with work in private and public collections, including the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her works in porcelain, mostly within the boundaries of the vessel form, explore the intersections of line, shape, translucency, and aestheticism. Jill's process is intuitive, drawing from her past work, using restrained mark-making, and searching for the essence in the work itself. Her wire sculptures share the same aesthetic concerns as her ceramics, especially the quality of fragility. In wire she creates the edges of what is not there; in clay she creates the essence of what is.

Jill and Sheldon's joint effort to extend the reach and scope of the visual arts has also resonated with the mission of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on whose Board of Trustees Sheldon serves. The Bonovitzes played a crucial role in realizing the Museum's 2008 exhibition James Castle: A Retrospective—the first comprehensive exploration of this powerful and enigmatic self-taught artist—as well as the 2009–10 exhibition Kantha: The Embroidered Quilts of Bengal from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz and the Stella Kramrisch Collections.