Sydney and Frances Lewis

A Guide to the Sydney and Frances Lewis papers, ca. 1950-2003.
Call Number Mss1 L5888 b FA2

Administrative Information


Collection is open for research.


Use Restrictions

There are no restrictions.


Preferred Citation

Sydney and Frances Lewis papers, ca. 1950-2003 (Mss1 L5888 b FA2), Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va.


Acquisition Information

This collection arrived in three parts as gifts from Frances A. Lewis. The first donation consisted of theater pamphlets, and was donated in 2002. This segment included programs from a variety of performances, including drama, comedy, musical, and dance. A second group of theater pamphlets and personal and business papers were donated 2003. The third segment, consisting of artist correspondence, was given in 2005. The three segments were then integrated into one collection. Accessioned 2005.


Descriptive Summary


Collection Number:Mss1 L5888 b FA2
Collection Name:Sydney and Frances Lewis papers, ca. 1950-2003
Size:3,200 items
Abstract:Correspondence and other papers concerning the Lewis’s support of the arts and artists, and other philanthropic activities.


Scope and Content Information


Includes alphabetical files of correspondence and other materials concerning the Lewis's support of and friendship with a number of artists; records concerning a large financial gift to Washington and Lee University; more general correspondence reflecting other philanthropic activities; speeches made by Sydney Lewis while serving on the Board of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; and also an extensive collection of performance programs reflecting the Lewises' interest in theater, music, and dance. Many programs include post-performance annotations by Mrs. Lewis. The Best Products Foundation and the Sydney and Frances Lewis Foundation supported many of the events they attended.


Biographical/Historical Information


Sydney and Frances Lewis founded the Best Products Co., Inc. in 1957, in Richmond, Virginia. The catalog retailer started as a mail order business, but when customers wanted to see the merchandise, the idea of a catalog showroom was born. By 1982, Best Products reached sales of 1 billion and had showrooms throughout the United States. The company's owners took their commercial success and tried to effect change in society through the causes and institutions they supported. For example, Sydney and Frances Lewis encouraged cultural enrichment through their support of the arts. The Lewises' bartered with their company's products for art, giving artists refrigerators, hair dryers, and lawn mowers, and also allowed the artist's works to decorate Best Company offices and showrooms. The Lewises', both as individuals and through the Best Products Foundation, supported many institutions with their time and their money. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Washington and Lee University were particular favorites. As much as the Lewises enjoyed funding the arts, they also enjoyed attending cultural events, regularly traveling to New York City to attend plays and musicals.




The papers of Sydney and Frances Lewis are arranged into five series: Series 1. Artist files (arranged alphabetically); Series 2. Washington and Lee University; Series 3. Correspondence; Series 4. Speeches; and Series 5. Theater and Musical Programs (roughly sorted alphabetically).


Index Terms


Art -- Virginia -- Richmond -- History -- 20th century.
Art Collectors and collecting -- Virginia -- History -- 20th century.
Art museums -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Art museums -- Virginia -- History -- 20th century.
Art partronage -- Virginia -- History.
Art patrons.
Artists -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Arts and society -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Ballet -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Best Products Foundation.
Charity organization -- Virginia -- History -- 20th century.
Community theater -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Lewis, Frances, 1922- -- Art patronage.
Lewis, Sydney, 1919-1999 -- Art patronage.
Modern dance -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Musical theater -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Musicals -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Performing arts sponsorship -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
Philanthropists -- Virginia -- History -- 20th century.
Richmond (Va.) -- Intellectual life.
Sydney and Frances Lewis Foundation.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Washington and Lee University -- History -- 20th century.




Series 1. Artist Files, ca. 1965-1998.

This series consists of correspondence between artists and Sydney and Frances Lewis. The artists would often write about personal issues in the letters. Theodoros Stamos’s correspondence discusses his problems stemming from being an executor of the famous artist Rothko’s estate and accused of fraud. Sometimes the artists included drawings and slides of art they were working on. The George Bireline file is particularly interesting in that respect. Files also include letters written by wives and close associates of artists who maintained correspondence with the Lewises. Many of the files include thank you notes for weekend parties at Virginia Beach, Va., where the Lewises maintained a vacation home. The other files represent art offered to the Lewises from auction house Christie’s, art loan files from the early years of their collection, and a promotional packet from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts presenting the new West Wing, which was funded in part by the Lewises. Some of the artists that are represented in this collection have files in an earlier collection of Sydney and Frances Lewis Papers (See Mss1 L58888 a FA2, especially correspondence of Theodoros Stamos and Jack Beal).

Box 1

Folder1Adams, Alice                                                                                                                        
 2Ambrose, Allen
 3Antonakos, Stephen
 5Armstrong, Tom
 6Arneson, Robert
 7Aronson, David
 8Artist Choice Museum
 9Artschwager, Richard
 10Avedon, Richard
 11Avery, Milton
 12Aylon, Helene
 13Baeder, John
 14Barrett, Bill
 15-16Beal, Jack (2 folders)
 17Bireline, George
 18Botero, Fernando
 19Braque, Georges
 20Brusca, Jack
 21Budd, David
 22Burton, Scott
 23Caulfield, Patrick
 24Clarke, John Clem
 25Close, Chuck
 26Coates, Kevin
 28Cottingham, Robert
 29Crile, Susan
 30Cummings, Angela
 31Dalglish, Jamie
 32D’Arcangelo, Allan
 33Deem, George
 34DeForest, Roy
 35Diamond, Martha
 36DiGiorgio, Joseph
 37Dinnerstein, Simon
 38Edwards, Stanley
 39Escher, Fred
 40Estes, Richard
 41Ferrer, Rafael
 42Fish, Janet
 43Freckelton, Sondra
 44Gelfman-Pereira, Marilyn
 45Georges, Paul
 46Gillespie, Gregory
 47Gingerich, Jim
 48Gold, Sharon
 49Goodman, Sidney
 50Goodnough, Robert
 51Gray, Eileen
 52Grigoriadis, Mary
 53Grossman, Nancy
 54Hammond, Harmony

Box 2

Folder55Hanson, Duane                                                                                                                       
 56Harper, William
 57Held, Al
 58Hinman, Charles
 59Holzman, Malcolm
 60Hucleux, Jean Oliver
 61Humphrey, Ralph
 62Jasper, Johns
 63Katz, Alex
 64Keever, Kim
 65Kelly, Ellsworth
 66King, Tony
 67Kraft, Grace A.
 68Krushenick, Nicholas
 69Leslie, Alfred
 70Levine, Marilyn
 71Lichtenstein, Roy
 73Marden, Brice
 74Merkin, Richard
 75Milder, Jay
 76Morris, Robert
 77Nesbitt, Lowell
 78O’Donnell, Hugh
 79Oka Doner, Michele
 80Owen, Frank
 81Paschke, Ed
 82Pearlstein, Philip
 83Pepper, Beverly
 84Perlman, Joel
 85Pesce, Gaetano
 86Plagens, Peter
 87Pye, William
 88Quaytman, Harvey
 89Rosenfeld, Leonard
 90Saari, Peter
 91Salt, John
 92Samaras, Lucas
 93Schonzeit, Ben
 94Sedgley, Peter
 95Segal, George
 96Sizemore, Wiley Eugene
 97Smith, Richard
 98Smith, Tony
 99Snyder, Joan
 100Solomon, Jack
 101Sottsass, Ettore
 102Soussa, Emilio
 103Stamos, Theodoros
 104Steir, Pat
 105Stone, Sylvia
 106Strider, Marjorie
 107Tilson, Joe
 108True, David
 109Twombly, Cy
 110Twyford, Christopher
 111Valadon, Suzanne
 112Valentine, De Wain
 113Venturi, Robert & Denise Scott Brown
 114Warhol, Andy
 115Webster, Meg
 116Wesselman, Tom
 117Wilson, Robert M.
 118Wines, James
 119Wurtzel, David
 120Yankowitz, Nina
 121Youngerman, Jack
 122Unidentified Artists
 125Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, “The West Wing”

Series 2. Washington and Lee University.

These files concern the donation of nine million dollars to Washington and Lee University in 1972 to create the Frances Lewis Law School.

Box 3

Folder1261972 Gift Correspondence                                                                                                         
 1271972 Gift Articles
 128Commendation Correspondence, 1972-1995

Series 3. Correspondence.

Many people admired the Lewises and what they did for their company and state and wished to commend them. Mrs. Lewis's philanthropic activities included serving on the Richmond City Board of Education and the Virginia Board of Education. The Lewises were also frequently solicited for their support of many causes.

Folder129Best Products Commendations, 1982-1991
 130Frances Lewis Board of Education (Richmond City and Virginia) Commendations, 1980-1991
 131Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Commendations, 1976-1991
 132Miscellaneous Commendations, 1982-1994
 133Solicitations, 1991

Series 4. Speeches to the Board of Trustees, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Mr. Lewis was very involved in the Board of Trustees for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He was president of the Board of Trustees in the 1980s. This series contains examples of the speeches he made in that capacity.

Folder134Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1984-1988                                                                 

Series 5. Theater and Musical Programs, 1978-2003.

Programs and other printed materials, 1978-2003, documenting cultural events attended by Sydney and Frances Lewis, mainly in Virginia, New York City, and other places they visited. The Best Products Foundation and the Sydney and Frances Lewis Foundation provided support for many of the events represented in this series. Materials include a wide array of musical, dance, and theater performances at varied venues, including art museums. Many programs feature annotations of post-performance commentary from Mrs. Lewis. Mrs. Lewis's nephew, Frank Rich, was the theater critic for the New York Times from 1980-1994, and he may have contributed to her prolific attendance at Broadway shows.

Folders135-138A (4 folders)                                                                                                                                    

Box 4

Folders139-141B (3 folders)                                                                                                                                 
 142-143C (2 folders)
 144-145D (2 folders)

Box 5

Folders146-147E (2 folders)                                                                                                                               
 148-149F (2 folders)
 150-152G (3 folders)

Box 6

 157-158L (2 folders)
 159-162M (4 folders)

Box 7

Folders163-164N (2 folders)                                                                                                                                
 165-167P (3 folders)
 168-169Q-R (2 folders)

Box 8

Folders170-172S (3 folders)                                                                                                                               
 173-175T (3 folders)

Last updated: October 1, 2008