His gaze sweeping the walls displaying works by Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning and other masters of 20th-century art, he declares, "It's a room where you can have a feast without having a meal."
Anderson and his wife, Mary Margaret Anderson — widely known as Hunk and Moo — opened the doors of their Midpeninsula home one recent morning to allow a cadre of arts journalists a peek at some of the paintings and sculptures destined for a new home on the Stanford campus. Construction of that home, to be called The Anderson Collection at Stanford University, is scheduled for completion in fall 2014, and the contemporary-design building will be a neighbor of the Cantor Arts Center in the university's expanding arts district.
The Andersons, who began collecting art in the mid-1960s, announced in 2011 that they are donating the core of their collection of modern and contemporary American paintings and sculptures, representing 86 artists, to Stanford, with the university in charge of providing and raising funds to construct the free-standing building that will house the collection.
"The new building is dedicated to the display of these works, and to future loans of works from the Andersons' remaining collection, which includes related objects as well as works on paper and earlier European works," Jason Linetzky, director of the Anderson Collection at Stanford, explained in an email.
When the new space opens, the public will be able to view, free of charge, artwork that is now spread among various locations — including the Quadrus campus on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park and the Andersons' home. And the collection will serve an important function on campus.
"It will be an incredible resource for our scholars and students of art history, a source of great inspiration for our artists, and a catalyst for new arts connections across the university and beyond," said Matthew Tiews, executive director of art programs at Stanford.
The Andersons at one point owned more than 1,200 pieces of art, and over the years have donated groups of the artwork to various museums, including the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
In 2000, when the collection numbered around 800 works, SFMOMA mounted a stunning exhibition of 330 pieces. In the exhibition catalog, David A. Ross, then the museum's director, called the Anderson Collection "one of the most extraordinary private collections of twentieth-century art in the world."
Considering their backgrounds, the Andersons are unlikely bearers of the title "Art Collectors Extraordinaire." As Mary Margaret Anderson put it at a Menlo Circus Club luncheon after the tour of their home collection, before 1964, "Art was someone we played golf with."
It was in 1964, during a visit to the Louvre in Paris, that they were struck, as if by lightning, by the force of art — primarily the French Impressionists. The power of that experience didn't diminish when they left the museum. "I guess we had a couple of extra drinks on the plane coming home," Harry Anderson recalls, and they started talking about starting their own art collection. Nearly 50 years later, he adds, "our plate runneth over," he says.
When the couple began collecting artwork on their own, he was still working at Saga Corporation, a food-service company he co-founded with two friends when the young men were attending Hobart College in New York. That's the work that brought the Andersons to the Peninsula in 1962, when the company moved its headquarters to Palo Alto, then to Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, where Quadrus is now located and Mr. Anderson still has an office. (At 91, he still spends time there in rooms filled with art.)
Realizing that their new pursuit could benefit from more knowledge of the art world, the Andersons set about educating themselves. Mary Margaret Anderson began sitting in on a class taught by Stanford art history professor Al Elsen, and around 1968, Elsen became a tremendous resource to the new collectors as he introduced them to important figures in the field, including collector and dealer Eugene V. Thaw and Museum of Modern Art curator William Rubin.
Also during that period, they met painter, sculptor and Stanford professor Nathan Oliveira, who introduced them to Bay Area artists and, according to Linetzky, also helped them understand the creative process by letting them see active studio work.
With these dynamics in place, the Andersons' focus on their collection began to shift from art by painters such as Monet, Renoir and Georgia O'Keefe to post-World War II art, including California artists such as Richard Diebenkorn and David Park. They also hired their first collection manager, a position held later by Linetzky until his recent appointment as director of the Anderson Collection at Stanford.
Meanwhile, the Andersons involved themselves in arts education efforts, and in 1975, with the encouragement of Professor Elsen, they initiated an internship program at Stanford, which through the years has enriched the education and career opportunities of about 35 participants, Linetzky said.
Before that program, Mary Margaret Anderson started and ran the Art Corridor program at Sacred Heart Schools in Atherton, which displayed work by artists including Robert Motherwell and Frank Stella. That program ended in 1988.
Meanwhile, the Andersons' daughter, Mary Patricia "Putter" Anderson, was growing up steeped in the world of art. Now Mary Patricia Pence, she for a time operated a gallery in Santa Monica that specialized in emerging Los Angeles and New York artists, and the network with contemporary artists expanded.
Stanford chose Ennead Architects, who designed the Bing Concert Hall on campus, to design the Anderson Collection home on its campus. The two-story, 33,327-square-foot building will include a clerestory roof element that will allow diffused natural light into the galleries from above.
Linetzky said the inaugural exhibit in the new building will display 90 to 100 works in the collection, and that the artwork will shift periodically to display all 121 works over time.