Of Florida, For Florida
Of Florida, For Florida
The Original Florida Art Collectors: Sam and Robbie Vickers
He is a successful businessman and amateur historian with a hawk-like eye for detail. She is a singer and painter with a flawless color sense and a lively wit.
Together they are Samuel and Roberta Vickers, better known as Sam and Robbie — the dynamic art-collecting duo from Jacksonville whose recent gift of 1,200 Florida works to the Harn Museum of Art has sent ripples through the art world.
Recognized as the first serious collectors of Florida art, Sam and Robbie are as fascinating as the works of art they meticulously amassed over 40 years while raising two children (they now have six grandchildren).
Sam was born in Miami in 1937; Robbie said hello to the world three years later in Palm Beach. The two met while high school students in Georgia, and when Sam was offered a football scholarship to the University of South Carolina, Robbie soon followed. There, she was a cheerleader; Sam was the Gamecocks’ quarterback. The pair married in 1957, back when “Florida art” often meant driftwood knickknacks and acrylic mermaids dabbed on black velvet.
Sam became CEO of a specialty packaging company in Jacksonville, and the couple enjoyed traveling around the world on his business ventures. But in the early 1980s, marvels closer to home caught their eye — little-known paintings of Florida by great 19th- and 20th-century artists. That sent them on hunts through ramshackle yard sales, hidden antique stores and major art galleries, whose owners began referring to Sam and Robbie Vickers as “the” collectors of Florida art.
“We’ve had some wonderful experiences along the way as we’ve acquired pictures,” said Sam.
Slowly and surely, they filled their house with sublime art, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s, when the state asked them to loan pieces for a traveling exhibit celebrating Florida’s sesquicentennial, that the Vickers realized their pastime was more than a hobby.
Curator Gary Libby’s reaction, when he walked into their art-filled home to choose among its treasures, cemented the couple’s understanding that they were serious collectors, Sam remembered: “When [Libby] walked in the front door, he stopped and said, ‘This is not to select some paintings for the [sesquicentennial] collection, this IS the collection.’”
Since then, the Vickers Collection has grown from 200 to 1,200 works with a distinct point of view. Although neither Sam nor Robbie formally studied art appreciation, they quickly trained their eyes to spot a masterpiece, specialists say, seeking out art that is intellectually challenging and captures the soul of its subject matter.
Finding a permanent home for their beloved collection took years of visiting institutions around the state. What persuaded the couple to choose UF, in the end, was the university’s commitment to making the collection central to research and teaching efforts, as well as regular exhibitions at the Harn.
“The educational part of it is very important to us,” Robbie said of the couple’s gift. “Even though we know a great deal about the artists and the works of art, students and faculty and scholars can research and find out more. We wanted [the collection] to go to a place where that’s going to happen.”
“It was pretty clear early on the UF would be the greatest home for the collection,” Sam agreed.