Selections from Wayne Thiebaud’s personal art collection come home to UC Davis, honoring family’s legacy

By Laura Compton | March 28, 2024

Art works by world-renowned 20th century luminaries Willem De Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Giorgio Morandi, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso will elevate the Fine Arts Collection at the University of California, Davis, thanks to the generosity of Wayne Thiebaud’s family in carrying on his legacy.

The gift from the Wayne Thiebaud Foundation comprises 12 works that originated in the personal collection of Thiebaud (1920-2021), a UC Davis professor emeritus. The foundation is run by Thiebaud’s stepson, Matt Bult ’82, who serves as chairman; Bult’s sons, Alex, president, and Nick, archivist; and wife, Maria Bult, ’92, secretary.

Some of the works were on display in the Thiebaud home while Bult was growing up. “Wayne learned from and got a lot of joy from these paintings,” Bult said. “This particular Morandi, ‘Natural morta,’ my parents had in their dining room. My mom loved this painting as well.”

This gift honors Bult’s alma mater as well his late father, who taught in the UC Davis art department for 40-plus years and believed students learned best when they were able to study great art in person.

“That was Wayne’s most important point: That his work and his collection of other work would carry on so that it could be used as a teaching tool,” Bult said. “The foundation is fortunate enough to have a good amount of holdings of other people’s works that Wayne was able to collect, trade for and buy during his career, being associated with the Allan Stone Gallery in New York for 50 years, and as of late, the Paul Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco and Acquavella Galleries in New York.”

Collectively valued in the millions of dollars, the gift includes five paintings, five prints and two sculptures by European artists including Picasso, Matisse, Frank Auerbach and Arshile Gorky, and California sculptors Mark di Suvero and Manuel Neri. Professor Emeritus Neri, who died in 2021, served on the art faculty with Thiebaud.

“These signature works are truly a transformational gift,” said Manetti Shrem Museum Founding Director Rachel Teagle. “Matt Bult’s initiative and commitment to the museum’s mission ensures generations of students and scholars will be able to draw first-hand inspiration from some of the most important and influential artists of the modern era.”

A lifelong Sacramento resident, Bult is an accomplished artist and musician. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in art history at UC Davis, he studied Italian Renaissance art and painting in Cortona, Italy. He has had more than 35 solo exhibitions and is the recipient of over 18 show awards and the Grumbacher Gold Medallion Award. He joined the Manetti Shrem Museum’s Advisory Board and collections committee in fall 2023, and immediately reviewed the museum’s “wish list” of strategic works focusing on particular periods or styles underrepresented in the Fine Arts Collection. Bult recalls being struck by a description of the collection, which was founded in the 1960s as a collection of Old Master prints purchased by the university’s art department’s founding faculty, including Thiebaud. It has since grown to 5,200 objects that tell the story of UC Davis’ achievement in the arts through works by faculty and alumni who have risen to prominence over the decades, as well as recently exhibited artists, to develop a diverse context.

“What really prompted me was a phrase: ‘It is not a typical museum collection intended to showcase extraordinary works of art. Instead, its strength is in its breadth as befitting a teaching collection.’ And I instantly thought, ‘Why not be both? Why exclude yourself from showcasing extraordinary works of art?’”

Bult purposely chose a varied group that would allow students to see different types of printmaking, as well as the details of paintings and sculptures up close. “Having some of these works like Frank Auerbach, where the painting’s really thick impasto — a student can walk over and see that,” Bult said. “Or to be able to see a Morandi and see the nuance of his brushstrokes in person, see the subtlety of the colors. It’s a lot different than seeing what students are used to, which is reproductions in books.”

The Wayne Thiebaud Foundation preserves and promotes Thiebaud’s artistic legacy through donating and loaning works to museums and institutions with the purpose of education and study. While not the first works from the foundation to enter the collection — Bult had given 24 Thiebaud prints in 2021, in addition to the many teaching prints and paintings Thiebaud personally donated — this gift opens up new possibilities for the collection, scholarship and future exhibitions.

The gift also supports UC Davis’ comprehensive fundraising campaign, Expect Greater: From UC Davis, For the World, the largest philanthropic endeavor in university history. Together, donors and UC Davis are advancing work to prepare future leaders, sustain healthier communities, and bring innovative solutions to today’s most urgent challenges.

Thiebaud influenced countless students and artists over his long life and tenure, but perhaps none more than his own family, who continue to share his artistic legacy with future generations.