The Kemper family has a longstanding presence at Washington University. David Kemper has been a trustee for many years and chair of the board, while his sister Julie and their late father James have been very involved with the visual arts at the university.
At the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, we know them best as patrons of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. The family first became involved with the museum — the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi, with roots back to 1881 — “because of my brother David’s enthusiasm,” Julie Kemper Foyer said. “He was the spark that got the whole family interested in the project.”
“Our family has been interested in supporting visual arts over many years,” David Kemper said. “My father, James Kemper Jr., decided in the 1960s to create a collection for the bank which we could display for the public and our customers to enjoy. He and my late sister, Laura, built a significant post-war American collection,” he said.
When David became chair of WashU’s Board of Trustees in 2004, the university was in the midst of a capital campaign including building a new art museum. “We supported the campaign by contributing and naming the new museum after my mother, Mildred Lane Kemper,” David said. “She wasn’t as passionate about art as my dad, but she was very involved in higher education. My mom was a graduate and long-time trustee of Wellesley College, she chaired their buildings and grounds committee and was very proud of its beautiful campus. We felt naming the museum was a wonderful way to commemorate her.”
David remembers seeing WashU’s collection in Steinberg Hall in the 1990s. “It was a great collection hidden in the basement,” he said. “We needed to liberate it!”
Julie became her father’s voice on the collections committee, which she currently chairs. “The newly expanded museum allows for more of the permanent collection to be shown while providing great spaces for temporary exhibitions; there is a nice interaction between the architecture and the works of art,” she said. “The entrance now glows and shows some amazing contemporary pieces enticing people to come in.”
“Art museums and particularly university art museums are such a great way to bring people together and bring new ideas forward,” David said. Julie agrees, noting how “university art museums can raise the bar, they can explore topics that may not be popular at public museums, with an assurance of scholarly integrity.”
For the Kempers, contributing to the vibrant artistic fabric of St. Louis is one of the key roles of the museum. “It’s important to provide different access points and ways to understand art and history in general, for the benefit of students and the larger academic community” Julie said. David views the East End Transformation “as transformational for the university,” and is delighted that his family has been a part of that tradition.
“We’re very proud to receive this honor,” David said, “and I want to underscore that this is a team effort. The more of us who can come together and set new goals for the university and museum, the more we will achieve.”
Foyer of Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum featuring Tomás Saraceno’s Cosmic Filaments (2019) and Ai Weiwei’s Illumination (2019).
Photo by Alise O’Brien Photography.
The members of the Kemper family are longstanding supporters of the arts, education, and museums. They have supported Washington University in St. Louis for generations.
In 2004, David Kemper — then the chair of WashU’s Board of Trustees — along with his father James M. Kemper, Jr. and the William T. Kemper Foundation (founded by James’ uncle), made a gift to advance the study and appreciation of art at WashU. Two years later, the university named its new museum building in memory of James’ wife and David’s mother, Mildred Lane Kemper.
A series of subsequent gifts from the family and foundation have helped the museum, an integral part of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, to advance its reputation as a leading university art museum. The Kemper family provided funds to endow the museum’s directorship and for the acquisition of artwork.
As chair of the oversight committee focused on transforming the east end of the university’s campus, David worked with landscape architect Michael Vergason to create the new entrance foyer and add the James M. Kemper Gallery. This has provided a greater opportunity to display the exceptional permanent collection, while also increasing flexibility for temporary programming.
Julie Kemper Foyer, David’s sister, has been active as a member of the Sam Fox School’s national council, as well as a member of the art collections committee which she currently chairs. Recent acquisitions funded through the William T. Kemper Foundation include Tomás Saraceno’s Cosmic Filaments and Ai Weiwei’s Illumination.