Maria Manetti Shrem receives UC Davis Medal

By Ashley Han | June 22, 2023

Updated June 23, 2023

Maria Manetti Shrem wears her university medal in commencement regalia while holding onto her black grad cap and stands next to Chancellor Gary May in blue and gold faculty regalia.
Maria Manetti Shrem and Chancellor Gary May at the commencement ceremony.

Chancellor Gary S. May presented the 2023 UC Davis Medal, the university’s highest honor, to international arts patron and philanthropist Maria Manetti Shrem at a UC Davis commencement ceremony on Saturday, June 18.

Manetti Shrem is the largest supporter of what is known as the UC Davis arts renaissance, funding visionary projects such as the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, artist residencies and new arts curricula in the College of Letters and Science.

“Maria’s profound arts legacy and passion for creating opportunities for exploration, learning and engagement with art and artists has enriched the lives of everyone in our community, and will continue to do so over the years to come,” May said. “We’re thrilled to honor her with this exclusive award.”

The medal puts Maria Manetti Shrem in company with 2020 Nobel Laureate Charles Rice, artist Wayne Thiebaud, former President Bill Clinton, and fellow philanthropists Robert and Margrit Mondavi in recognition of extraordinary contributions that embody UC Davis’ vision.

“It means the world to me. I am elated and humbled to receive such a high honor and recognition from UC Davis,” Manetti Shrem said. “I owe this connection to my very much missed great friend and mentor, Margrit Mondavi. The Manetti Shrem Museum and the College of Letters and Science are groundbreaking institutions. I am very proud to consistently support them.”

Maria Manetti Shrem dressed in a black dress with silver sparkles, wearing a statement necklace and ring, and bedazzled cat eye sunglasses stands at the tree planting dedication at UC Davis campus.
Maria Manetti Shrem at the ceremonial tree planting in her honor.

After the commencement ceremony, Manetti Shrem gathered with more than 50 of her close friends at the Margrit Mondavi Art Garden on the Davis campus for a ceremonial tree planting of a golden mimosa, honoring her commitment to support the expansion of university programs and student growth. The golden mimosa’s flower symbolizes strength, sensibility and sensitivity, and is universally associated with the annual celebration of International Women’s Day.

Artistic inspiration

Maria Manetti Shrem and her husband, Jan Shrem, have long given to philanthropic causes supporting education, fine arts, performing arts, medical research and cultural organizations in the U.S., Italy and the United Kingdom.

The couple achieved their dreams through independently successful careers: Maria Manetti Shrem as the principal force behind Gucci’s integration into American department specialty stores, and Jan Shrem as the founder of an international book publishing firm and Clos Pegase winery.

Their shared love of the arts inspired the couple to connect to UC Davis, with its legacy of excellence as the home to world-famous artists such as Thiebaud, Robert Arneson and William T. Wiley.

In the years since, the Manetti Shrem couple have become increasingly involved, expanding the vision for and reputation of UC Davis arts programs. Dean Estella Atekwana of the College of Letters and Science adds that Manetti Shrem’s support means even more because of Maria’s personal love for the university.

“Maria is an Aggie, full stop. She has a deep affinity with UC Davis and refers to us as ‘our’ or ‘my university’ when speaking with others,” Atekwana said.

A museum for all

The Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis was funded by a $10 million naming gift from the couple in 2011, one of the largest gifts to the arts in UC Davis’ history. Manetti Shrem’s giving has continued to grow over the last decade, doubling the initial fund. In addition, her international influence and advocacy have raised the visibility of UC Davis’ arts programs worldwide.

“Jan and I have always loved art. We feel so happy and thankful to contribute to the realization of the Manetti Shrem Museum, where we are bringing art to everyone, providing free activities for all, giving voice to all kinds of diversity and freedom of expression,” she said, noting that the museum is California’s only listing on ARTNews’ “world’s 25 best museum buildings of the past 100 years.”

As the museum has opened and grown into a hub of creative practice for today’s thinkers, makers and innovators with programs and exhibitions reflecting and serving the community, Manetti Shrem has provided ongoing support, including more than $6 million in endowment matches to inspire community engagement. She also serves on the advisory board, playing a leadership role in raising UC Davis’ reputation in the arts.

“Maria is our greatest champion. From the very beginning, she and Jan saw the potential of what this museum could be and have actively contributed their time, talent and resources to bring the vision to life,” said Rachel Teagle, founding director of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.

“Maria invests in success and is dedicated to ensuring that our exhibitions remain dynamic, and that the museum remains daring, now and for future generations.”

Maria Manetti Shrem with then-Acting Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter outside the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art in 2016.
Maria Manetti Shrem with then-Acting Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter outside the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art in 2016. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

World-class arts education

Maria Manetti Shrem has also made a significant impact in the College of Letters and Science’s Department of Art and Art History by creating the Manetti Shrem California Studio. The program brings leading contemporary artists to UC Davis to teach and inspire experimentation and innovation among students.

Established in 2020, the studio has brought top-level talent to UC Davis — including artistic powerhouses Xu Bing, Ann Hamilton and Jennifer Packer — all through programs with open access. Visiting artists receive a generous stipend and institutional support thanks to Manetti Shrem’s gift.

“Maria has a keen business sense and understood that this initiative would relaunch us onto the world stage, and it has been an unparalleled success,” said Atekwana. “When our students see how the artists Maria has helped bring to UC Davis push their boundaries, we know they feel encouraged and empowered to do the same.”

Maria Manetti Shrem has also been key in establishing a relationship between UC Davis and the Royal Drawing School in London. She has fostered communications and exchange between faculty and administrators and supported multiple scholarships for UC Davis graduates to go on to study at the Royal Drawing School.

“We’re also so happy to support the Manetti Shrem California Studio programs which bring renowned artists to teach at UC Davis. Also, thanks to our annual scholarship, four graduate art students can study for 12 weeks at the Royal Drawing School of His Majesty King Charles III,” she said. “We are contributing to strengthen relationships between the two continents.”