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A Commitment to the Preservation of Latin American Folk Art

A Commitment to the Preservation of Latin American Folk Art 
The Story of Irving and Ele Tragen

Irving and Ele Tragen with pieces of their Latin American Folk Art Collection


When Irving and Elle Tragen married in 1947, they began an adventure that would take them through every one of the countries in Latin America and instill in them a  life-altering passion for the folk art of the region.

Irving began a career with the State Department and his first post was in Mexico.  He and Ele would go to market (mercado) each week to buy fruit and vegetables.  It was there that they began to see the fascinating pottery, textiles, silver and gold work, and other folk art.

"We started buying little things that were attractive," Irving recalls.  They were moved by the workmanship which was unlike any they'd ever seen.  Ele was wise to foresee the investment value of the pieces, predicting that with mass manufacturing and the move to industrialized plastics these works of art would become increasingly rare.  In addition to the mercado, the two began attending art shows each Sunday morning and buying paintings ranging from $10 to $30.

Irving's position would take the couple to Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.  In each place he and Ele continued to acquire art work, which accumulated to hundreds of pieces, some priceless.

After Irving's retirement, the two had plans to return to California, settling with their vast collection of art into two adjacent houses in Tulare left to them by Ele's family.  As is so often the case, the couple's plans would not come to be.  Ele became ill in the late 1990's and the couple made plans to house their beloved collection permanently.  They looked at many options.  The Smithsonian was interested, but Ele feared the art would simply sit in a closet.  They weighed other options and came to select the Museo de las Americas in Denver.

"I felt that the organization's mission to build a bridge between Anglo and Hispanic cultures through art was in sync with ours," Irving stated.  The couple was also impressed with the museum's staff and had family in the area.

So Museo it was.

Irving and Ele were interested in the long-term financial viability of the Museo.  "We wanted to ensure that there would be a source of funds over the long term, so we needed a very sound organization to steward our endowment gift to the Museo."  The organization they chose to manage that endowment: The Denver Foundation.  The museum would receive a distribution each year from the fund.  Gary Meyer, Irving's nephew and co-trustee, serves on the Museo's board and continues to be very involved with Irving's plans for the collection.

Late last year, Irving made the decision to put further trust in the Foundation by becoming a Community Legacy Society donor.  After his lifetime, his estate will go to the endowment and be designated for the continued maintenance of the collection.  Irving said, "We have a warm, easy relationship with the Foundation.  They offer sound financial management and good accounting controls."

"It makes a great deal of sense that nonprofits like Museo can concentrate on the day to day operations because they have a partner to invest the funds safely and solidly," Irving stated.  The Museo, like The Denver Foundation, is very grateful for the passion and commitment of the Tragens.