A board member for Sarasota Museum of Art, Flora Major talks with FEMME ROUGE about her commitment to the arts and Sarasota.
Flora Major is not what you might expect of an important patroness of the arts. The lovely Hungarian-born philanthropist is a breath of fresh air – warm, charming, unpretentious, outgoing, and very, very funny – oh, and did we mention quite generous? It was our delight to speak with Flora – one of those rare people who puts you immediately at ease, making you feel as if you have known her for years – and learn more about her fascinating life and passion for the arts.
Born in Budapest in the then-communist Hungary, Major grew up surrounded by the arts. “We got a good education, and part of that came from my home – museums, opera, concerts, ballet – whatever was available,” recalls Major. “We had a beautiful apartment – no money, because of the communist regime, but the remnants of the beautiful apartment were still there.” Her parents were art lovers, but Major explains, “That was the norm back then – you had Persian rugs and old paintings on the walls. Not any artists you would recognize, but they were good paintings, and I learned about art. I have always had an affinity for art.”
Immigrating to the United States in 1970, Major settled in New York, where she started the first ever retail store specializing in telephones and related accessories, Phone-Tique Gallery, on Madison Avenue. Major sold the business to Tandy Corporation in 1979.
While in New York, Flora met Andrew Major, a textile pioneer, on a blind date. They married in 1977. “You see, blind dates do work sometimes! We had a wonderful, long marriage,” says Flora. “When I married my husband, who was interested in art, it seemed like a wonderful thing to do together – to go to museums and enjoy the art, and go to galleries and buy something. That was how we got our meager little collection started.”
“I love the early pieces of famous artists, and so did Andrew, especially since we couldn’t afford the later works,” Major explained. “For example, we bought a Mondrian from 1898, one of his early paintings. Without intending to, we began specializing in famous painters’ and sculptors’ early works – before they became famous. It is fascinating to see how they evolved.”
When asked about acquiring art, Major says, “It’s nice if you can afford somebody who is really famous, but even in local art shows, you can find some fantastic things. As long as you love it – that’s what’s important – not because it’s fashionable. I feel that way about clothing, furniture, and certainly about art. I feel that way with friends and lovers, too… life is short and art is long, so surround yourself with people and things you love.”
Among Flora’s favorites are sculptors Gaston Lachaise, Auguste Rodin, and Arnaldo Pomodoro and painters Piet Mondrian, André Derain, Edmund Greacen, and Milton Avery. Recent acquisitions include a work from Alberto Biasi (Major will be back in New York to meet the Italian artist) and a piece called Queen of Poetry from Brooklyn sculptor, Lesley Dill, whom Major met through a SMOA Art Muse event. “I also have some fabulous paintings from unknown artists. One I bought in an Atlanta flea market – it’s gorgeous – and it’s hanging next to a Picasso.”
“In local art shows, you can find some fantastic things. As long as you love it – that’s what’s important – not because it’s fashionable.” –Flora Major
The Majors lived in North Carolina together for twenty-two years, as his textile business was located there, but they always kept their apartment in New York. Flora worked alongside her husband, establishing and heading up the international sales department and later running the export sales for Cone Jacquards.
Always interested in philanthropy, Flora has served on numerous boards, both in North Carolina and New York, among them, the Art Society Board of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Friends of the Duke University Museum of Art, and the Advisory Board of Lenox Hill Hospital (NYC). She remains active in both the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States (NYC), and the Council for the Arts at MIT (Cambridge).
When Andrew decided to retire in 1998, they moved back to New York City, donating much of their art, and taking a few precious pieces with them. They remained there until Flora was widowed in 2004. It was during a visit to a friend in Sarasota that Flora decided to make it her home. Her community involvement followed naturally, serving on the board of the Sarasota Orchestra, the Asolo Repertory Theatre, and Designing Women Boutique’s Friends of Arts and Humanities. She was asked to join the board of SMOA in 2006. “It’s very a satisfying thing to see it come to fruition,” Major says of her involvement with SMOA. Flora’s capstone gift to the Museum has allowed the vision to become a reality.
What’s next for Major? “I’m back and forth from New York, and like to travel quite a bit. But you know what they say … ‘It’s hard to hit a moving target!’” Flora Major “In local art shows, you can find some fantastic things. As long as you love it – that’s what’s important – not because it’s fashionable.” –Flora Major