In1936, Algur H. Meadows founded the General American Oil Company (GAO). By 1952, as president and chairman, Meadows began frequent business trips from Dallas, Texas, to Spain’s capital, Madrid.
Through an exclusive arrangement with the Spanish government, GAO was allowed to search for oil. Interestingly, the only oil Meadows ever discovered was the oil on the canvases of the Prado Museum.
Following the death of his wife, Virginia, Meadows donated his impressive collection of Spanish art to Southern Methodist University (SMU) in 1962. Through the Meadows Foundation, he gave a million dollars to start the Meadows Museum, in Virginia’s memory. In 1965, it opened at SMU’s new art center.
Now, after 45 years of showcasing the largest and most comprehensive collection of Spanish artworks outside of Spain, members and museum patrons still marvel at the Texas oilman who dreamed of having a “Prado on the Prairie” in Dallas.
“I saw an article in the Houston Chronicle where Mr. Meadows said he actually wanted to build a small Prado in Texas,” said Mark Roglan, who has a Ph.D. in art history and has been the museum director since 2006.
“This kind of vision, right from the start, is part of the American dream of entrepreneurship that made him a larger-than-life character,” said Roglan, a Madrid native whose leadership has helped enhance the museum’s international image.
William B. Jordan, the museum’s first director, agreed that Meadows was indeed larger than life – a charming and sophisticated gentleman who wanted to distinguish his museum from other campus museums nationwide.
“There are certainly other universities that have museums. Some examples of museums at Ivy League schools are Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Michigan. But the Meadows is the only one I know of that specializes in Spanish art,” said Jordan, who also holds a Ph.D. in art history.
In 1967, Jordan was 26 years old and finish-ing his doctorate when he accepted the post of museum director. Meadows was 67, and deter-mined to realize his vision of building a first-rate museum.
Born in Vidalia, Ga., in 1899, Algur H. Meadows was a self-made multimillionaire by the time he was in his 40s. He was an accoun-tant who earned a law degree before starting GAO with two associates in 1929. Shortly after, Meadows moved the company and established its headquarters in Dallas.
With 3,000 oil wells in 15 states, and GAO listed on the New York and Pacific Coast Stock Exchanges, Meadows thought there had to be oil in Europe. So in 1952, he set out to search for oil in Spain.
Meanwhile, he and his wife Virginia had begun spending months at a time as guests of the Ritz Hotel. Their leisurely walks along Madrid’s tree-lined boulevard led to el Museo Nacional del Prado. Founded in 1819 by King Fernando VII, Spain’s repository of artworks by the old masters inspired Meadows.
Imbued with a newfound passion for art, and enchanted by Goya, Velázquez, Murillo and Domenikos Thetokopoulos – “El Greco,” Meadows began buying and collecting artworks when his search for oil did not pan out.
At a time when few Americans braved Francisco Franco’s Spain, the couple became part of Madrid’s high society. Meadows had also blazed the trail for Spain’s infant oil industry, and obtained security clearance to export his artwork back to the United States.
In 1963, the Spanish government bestowed on Meadows the title of “caballero” with la Gran Cruz de la Orden de Merito Civil. The award rec-ognized his business acumen and generous gifts to the museum.
Despite the award and admiration for the Prado, Meadows continued dreaming of his “Prado on the Prairie.” His vision led him to buy what he thought were authentic artworks by Goya, Ribera, Murillo and three works by El Greco.
Regarding his desire for Spanish artworks, Meadows said: “I thought I was creating some-thing of immortal value. I kept thinking, what if I could have in Dallas, Texas, a collection of art that could be considered a tiny Prado?”
After Virginia died of cancer in 1961, Meadows married a woman interested in French art and sculpture. By 1962, he had donated his Spanish collection and money to SMU to start the museum.
Being a virtuous man from humble begin-nings, Meadows trusted those with whom he had business dealings. Indeed, he often sealed a deal with a handshake. So when the museum opened to the public in 1965, Meadows did not suspect that he and Virginia had bought thousands of dollars in fake art.
Meadows remained unaware of the problem until 1967. That’s when two swindlers began traveling to Dallas to sell Meadows additional artworks. This would be the second time he was duped. The difference this time was that the fraud occurred in Dallas.
The scam made national and international headlines. And at least for the moment, Meadows’ dream of a Prado on the Dallas prairie became the Texas oilman’s most embar-rassing and costly nightmare.
Articles in The New York Times, Life and Time magazines published the story and chroni-cled myriad examples of U.S. art collectors being duped. The ramifications were felt across the nation and the world.
Scrutiny by art experts revealed that the ini-tial pieces acquired by Meadows while in Spain were fakes. Among those found to be forgeries were a Picasso, Goya, Murillo and Ribera.
In addition, more than 70 artworks acquired in Dallas from swindlers who hailed from France and Canada were also deemed to be forgeries. And 41 paintings were judged to be fakes.
The bittersweet saga of Meadows and his fledgling museum brought fame as well as infamy to both.
The story became an international incident dubbed the “scandal of the century” by the media.
As the art world reeled, Meadows character-istically rose to the challenge. With courage and honesty that had made him a legend in the oil industry, Meadows vowed to rebuild his art col-lection. Undaunted, he survived the onslaught of media coverage and hired Jordan as the muse-um’s director in 1967. For the next 11 years, with Jordan at his side, Meadows rebuilt the col-lection.
Today the museum holds more than 125 paintings and sculptures, and some 450 works on paper.
“As someone who learned about collecting by his side, and through the unprecedented opportunity he gave me, I remember and value the man’s character most,” said Jordan, a gradu-ate of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
Tragically, Meadows died in a car accident in 1978 in Dallas. But the Meadows Foundation continued to provide financial support for the ongoing educational programs and development of the museum’s permanent collection.
From 1965 until the 1990s, SMU’s arts build-ing had housed the Meadows Museum. In 1998, through a $20 million gift from the Meadows Foundation, construction of a freestanding art museum began.
In 2001, a new Meadows Museum was inaugurated with a personal visit from King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain. The two-story museum is now a vital resource for the Dallas community. The museum has a litany of ongoing programs open to students from grade school to college and beyond.
At the museum entrance, visitors are greeted by a giant sculpture of a human head created by famed Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. The “wave,” a movable structure by renowned engineer/architect Santiago Calatrava, also graces the front of the new building. Calatrava’s futuristic bridges are appearing in Dallas as well.
In 2006, the foundation gave $33 million –the largest gift ever made to SMU – to the Meadows School of the Arts. Of that sum, $25 million was earmarked to fund further acquisi-tions, exhibitions, educational programs and curator and director positions.
More than 50,000 art lovers visit the Meadows each year. The museum houses art-works dating from the 10th to the 21st century from Renaissance to Baroque. Works by some of Spain’s Golden Age and modern masters, includ-ing Picasso, Goya, Miro, Velázquez, Sorolla and others, adorn the museum walls.
Recently, the Meadows and the Prado signed a three-year partnership. It’s the first interna-tional program of its kind for the Prado. The his-toric union has thus far led the Prado to lend the Meadows El Greco’s famous Pentecost. The groundbreaking exhibit is one of three planned through 2012.
Another unprecedented exhibit, Jusepe de Ribera’s Mary Magdalene, is scheduled for fall of 2011. And in 2012, the Prado will lend the museum a full-length portrait of Philip IV by Diego Velásquez. That same year, the Algur H. Meadows Prado Curatorial Internship Exchange will be initiated.
“The Meadows and the Prado signed an agreement without precedent, which says a lot about Mr. Meadows. He really was determined to have a Prado on the Prairie in Texas,” said Roglan, who spearheaded the historic agreement between the two museums and also brokered recent groundbreaking exhibits at the Meadows.
In addition, the museum is the only U.S. venue for “The Lost Manuscripts from the Sistine Chapel: An Epic Journey from Rome to Toledo.” The historic exhibit, which runs through April 23, is by a special agreement with the Center for European Studies, National Library of Castilla-La Mancha, Cathedral and Archbishop’s Palace of Toledo and the National Library of Madrid. The library held the first public exhibit of the manuscripts in October 2010.
The manuscripts, illuminated sacred codices dating from the 11th to the 18th century, were rescued by the archbishop of Toledo after Napoleon’s army looted the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Rediscovered in the 1990s, the manu-scripts will return to their home in the Cathedral of Toledo after the Meadows exhibit.
The museum anticipates more acquisitions and unparalleled exhibits. But Carmen M. Smith, director of education, said the museum could not meet the public demand without a bevy of dedicated docents.
“We usually have about 50 active docents during the year. They make possible so much of what we do beyond giving tours. They’re involved in so many areas that we couldn’t do anything without their help,” Smith said.
Since 1983, people from virtually every walk of life have enrolled in the docent training pro-gram. Some want to learn about Spanish art, and donate their time to teaching visitors about art and history.
“The Meadows is a special place to give tours. There’s a connection between history and culture in every gallery and in every piece of art,” said Aleta McGhee, a docent since 2001.
“I was immediately smitten when I joined the training program. Would I encourage someone to join?
“Absolutely. ... Can you apply what you’ve learned elsewhere? Without a doubt,” McGhee added.