DMA Insight

David T. Owsley

One of the most interesting aspects of the Dallas Museum of Art's collecting in the last decade has been the involvement with the Museum of David T. Owsley. Owsley's parents, Colonel Alvin and Lucy Ball Owsley, were well-known Dallasites. Colonel Owsley's diplomatic career led young David to live in various parts of the world, which no doubt contributed to his wide-ranging artistic and intellectual interests. The senior Owsleys gave an important Indian marble figure of a dancer to the Museum in the 1970s.

Unlike many collectors who work with museums, David Owsley was academically trained in art history at Harvard and NYU and has worked in museums himself, notably at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Between 1978 and 1988, he was Curator of Antiquities, Oriental and Decorative Arts at the Carnegie-Mellon Institute , Pittsburgh. Although he presently lives in New York, Mr. Owsley has maintained ties with Dallas.

In 1985, David Owsley wrote the decorative arts section of the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection catalog produced by the Dallas Museum of Art. This led to discussions about an exhibition devoted to the treasures of his large collection, which crowded his fascinating apartment in Manhattan. In 1992, the Museum mounted East Meets West: Selections from the David T. Owsley Collection. The show presented major pieces of South Asian art, as well as ancient bronzes, Renaissance medallions, and European decorative arts and sculptures from the 17th to the 19th century. Following the success of the exhibition, David Owsley arranged with Dallas Museum of Art Director Jay Gates to leave his South Asian collection, as well as some European works, on loan at the Museum. Meanwhile, he had generously given the Museum works of South Asian art, including the Uma Maheshvara, the majestic Gandharan Buddha head, and a number of Tibetan pieces.

In 1996, the reinstalled galleries devoted to Africa, Asia, and the Pacific revealed how impressively David Owsley had changed the character of the Dallas Museum of Art's collections. In only a few years, the Museum went from showing a handful of good Indian sculptures to having a gallery displaying most of the major South Asian art traditions. Leading scholar Pratapaditya Pal, when giving a lecture on those galleries, remarked that he never expected to see this array of Indian art in Dallas.

For the opening of the galleries, Owsley donated a spectacular silver-over-wood shrine, complete with birds, dancing girls, and courtiers on elephants - a mini Taj Mahal. This popular work dominates the landing leading to the Asian galleries. Over the past six years, Owsley has continued to buy important works for the Museum, ranging from a Tibetan stupa to a great Nepalese Bhairava mask to a majestic Thai seated Buddha subduing Mara. The Tibetan area in particular has expanded with the addition of several fine gilt-bronze ritual sculptures and other Buddhist objects. Most recently, Owsley has given a major 10th-century Hindu sculpture of the god Vishnu as the boar-headed Varaha, and important 2nd-century Kushan yakshi. So generously have David Owsley and the Owsley Family Foundation endowed the Museum that we were running out of gallery space. Fortunately, in December 2002 the Museum's South Asian collections were newly installed in the large space once used for a long-term loan of Egyptian art from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. At last there is room and opportunity to display and interpret these rich holdings properly. Given the popularity of Buddhism and Hinduism in the United States and the growing South Asian community in Dallas, these will no doubt be popular spaces in the Museum. Appropriately, the new galleries have been named for David Owsley, a development that the Museum celebrated on April 7, 2003.

In 2000, as a testimony to the importance of David Owsley's collecting for the Dallas Museum of Art, several longtime Museum supporters joined to purchase one of the most significant works in the entire permanent collection, a superb sculpture of Shiva Nataraja from the Chola dynasty in south India. This graceful and powerful version of one of the most important iconic images in Hinduism seals the importance of South Asian art at the Dallas Museum of Art.

David Owsley's life has been one of committed passion for the arts. His keen intelligence, fine eye, curatorial connoisseurship, and fascination with acquiring art has not only been a personal pleasure for him but also a major opportunity for the Dallas Museum of Art to grow in an area few people would have imagined ten or twelve years ago. Like all great collectors, Owsley sees art collecting as an investment in the future. Generations of Dallasites will reap the rewards of his generosity.

Excerpt from

  • Anne Bromberg, "David T. Owsley" in Dallas Museum of Art 100 Years, eds. Dorothy Kosinski, et al. (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), 93.