Robert James, Quilt Museum co-founder, remembered for impact on art of quilting

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Robert James, Quilt Museum co-founder, remembered for impact on art of quilting

Headshot of Robert James
Robert James

Robert G. James, 98, co-founder of the International Quilt Museum and Nebraska native, died Jan. 21.

Robert and his late wife, Ardis James, who passed away in 2011, had a tremendous impact on the world of quilting, including the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s International Quilt Museum.

“It is an honor and privilege to have known Bob, and he will be missed. Bob and Ardis lived a wonderful life, and gave so much back to the communities and organizations they believed in,” said Leslie Levy, Ardis and Robert James Executive Director of the museum. “Bob and Ardis loved Nebraska, and their legacy and philanthropic impact will be felt for generations by those in Nebraska, throughout the U.S. and across the globe.”

The first iteration of the International Quilt Museum was founded by Robert and Ardis through a donation of nearly 1,000 quilts in 1997. At the time, the vast collection was valued at more than $6 million, including modern studio art pieces and quilts of historic significance. In a Harvard Magazine article from 2014, Robert talked about the shared experience of quilt collecting with his wife as empty nesters.

“Starting this, we fell in love again,” he said. “It was a 50-50 endeavor all the way.”

Chancellor Rodney D. Bennett said the university shares in the mourning of Bob’s death.

“UNL and the larger Lincoln community are among the many beneficiaries of philanthropic gifts from Bob and his late wife, Ardis,” Bennett said. “Their vision and support of the International Quilt Museum through the Robert and Ardis James Foundation established a dynamic center of formal and informal learning and discovery for students, teachers, scholars, artists, quilters and visitors to Lincoln.

“Their generosity in many areas will be missed, but their legacy will continue for generations to come.”

Robert and Ardis’ support was instrumental in commissioning the museum’s current building, constructed in 2008. Designed by world renowned New York-based architecture firm Robert A.M. Stern Architects, the building features several structural tributes to the art of quilting. The windows resemble the top layers of a quilt with frosted panes mimicking quilt stitches, the reception hall is shaped like the eye of a needle, and the brickwork brings to mind quilt blocks.

Almost immediately, the needs surrounding the museum’s growing collection were noticed. Through the Robert and Ardis James Foundation, the James family donated $7 million for an expansion of the museum. The project — completed in 2015 — doubled the museum’s state-of-the-art collection storage and exhibit space.

“Robert James was a proud Nebraskan with a deep appreciation for the cultural and artistic significance of quilts,” said Brian Hastings, president and CEO of the University of Nebraska Foundation. “Because of the vision that he and his wife, Ardis, had, the University of Nebraska is now home to the world’s largest publicly held quilt collection. Their philanthropy ensures that generations to come will have the opportunity to learn about and experience this beautiful art form at the International Quilt Museum.”

Even after their initial collection was donated, Robert and Ardis remained pivotal in acquiring new pieces for the museum.

“We have developed an encyclopedic collection due to the James family’s commitment,” said Carolyn Ducey, the Ardis B. James Curator of Collections at the museum. “We’ve followed the spirit of the original Ardis and Robert James Collection — it spans multiple generations and genres, while championing the artform.”

Robert was born in Ord, Nebraska, in 1925. His life featured diverse interests and successes, including service in the U.S. Navy during World War II (1943-1946); attending the University of Nebraska, Northwestern University and Harvard University; teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and working as a branch chief in the Central Intelligence Agency, overseeing trade and finance intelligence on the Soviet Union and China.

He was an active squash player, skier and gardener throughout his life. And, his strong affinity for quilts, which started as a hobby, grew into a legacy for Robert and Ardis James.

“Our condolences to the James family,” Levy said. “Bob and Ardis’ collection and contributions have had a life-changing impact on many artists both nationally and globally.”

Services for Robert James will be announced. Access the family obituary.

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