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Xenia Miller, the late philanthropist and art aficionado, felt substantial satisfaction in the fact that she could find Christmas creativity nearly anywhere.
That included the day years ago when the Columbus resident purchased a folk-art nativity scene at a small roadside stand near some Roman ruins while accompanying her now-late industrialist husband, J. Irwin Miller, on a Cummins Inc. European trip.
“Then I realized,” she said in a 1999 Republic interview, “that I didn’t know who was going to carry it home since it didn’t fit in a briefcase.”
But she put it in a container on the private Cummins plane.
Shortly afterward en route home, she heard a crunch and grew concerned.
Fortunately, the art was unharmed and intact.
Fifty-nine of Xenia Miller’s pieces from her often-displayed crèche collection will be the feature of an online auction, “It’s a Small World,” benefiting a planned endowment fund for the United Way of Bartholomew County. The event will run Nov. 10 to Nov. 24 at bidding
creche. Photos of the creches can be seen at biddingforgood.com/unitedwaycreche.
The pieces, ranging from ceramic to corn silk, represent the last work of a collection that once numbered more than 350 pieces from all over the globe. Poland to Portugal. Sweden to Sri Lanka.
When Miller died in February 2008 at age 90, part of the collection went to family. Part went to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where she served as a staunch supporter and board member while launching the former Indianapolis Museum of Art-Columbus Gallery here. Part of the collection went to the Bartholomew County Historical Society. And part went to United Way to support its wide-ranging, social service work, from jobs programs to mentoring efforts.
Miller said during a speech at the former Commons in 2000 that she began collecting crèches in 1956 after Clementine Tangeman, her sister-
in-law, presented her with an artist’s handmade scene of a baby Jesus, plus Mary and Joseph, as a gift. She soon became fascinated with similar works, and loved how they reflected various countries’ culture and perspective.
For instance, a ceramic crèche from Peru offers a festive feel. A Nigerian one in the original collection featured a thatched-roof stable with several African figures bending low in admiration and adoration before the Christ child. An Asian scene that is part of the auction offerings highlights Mary wearing a pointed, caping hat like those seen in rice paddies.
Miller loved sharing the collection with the public in Columbus, with visitors to Indianapolis’ Christian Theological Seminary and others, including holiday visitors to her home that is now an IMA architectural showplace. During one three-week stretch in late 2007, more than 2,400 people saw her pieces displayed at the local gallery at the former Commons.
She was a board member with her husband for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and liked a variety of styles, from works by noted artists to pieces by everyday citizens. She educated herself about everything from painting to sculpture by starting with a book, “Twelve Artists” and later added elements such as an art history class at Indiana University.
The Miller home was filled with the finest classic and contemporary art, from Claude Monet to Pablo Picasso to Andy Warhol.
“I think these creches are awesome,” said Jan Harris, United Way’s director of resource development. “For some people, they would have artistic value. For me and others, it might be more religious value.”
United Way has sold about 60 other creche pieces since as part of other fundraisers. They have been sold for prices ranging from $45 to $1,000.
“I remember when we first unpacked them, I just thought they were very beautiful,” said Courtney Kinnick, a United Way resource development staff member organizing the auction.
The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Bradley Brooks, who is familiar with the collection, said he could see Miller’s link to the pieces boosting interest, and possible prices, for them. But he also said serious collectors always are on the lookout for works to add to their
“When there is a market for creches,” Brooks said, “people will find them.”
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