Jane Fortune, portrait of a philanthropist


Photo by Scott Walker

Photo by Scott Walker

By Kathleen Stocking
Sun contributor

Best known locally as the co-owner with Bob Hesse of Leelanau County’s new Bella Fortuna Restaurant in the center of Lake Leelanau, Jane Fortune, a long-time Leland summer resident, has been working quietly for years to rescue the works of female artists languishing in storage in the more than 40 museums in Florence.

Her book, Invisible Women, an account of her six-year effort to find and restore art that had been made by women from the 15th to 17th centuries, has inspired a just-released PBS documentary of the same name. Awarded an Emmy by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in the Cultural and Historical Program category, the special will be aired nationally beginning this month.

Jane Fortune sits with Bob Hesse in Bella’s where they often have lunch, talking to staff, arranging for the events the restaurant will host including Fortune’s up-coming “Lunch and Learn” series about women artists. The restaurant was born, Hesse says, one evening when they felt homesick for Italian food and couldn’t get a reservation at a local restaurant. Although “Bob is the cook in the family,” according to Fortune, they mostly eat out and, now that they have Bella Fortuna, they are often there. Gardens surround the restaurant and all the flowers are in bloom.

“I love Lake Leelanau,” Hesse says, “It reminds me of a small, Tuscan village.” He says he loves the hills, the people and the cobblestone buildings around St. Mary’s School. Hesse says he can envision great things for this village in the center of the peninsula. Lake Leelanau was once the major crossing point to get to Leland; people crossed by raft and also sometimes waded across holding their belongings above their heads.

InvisibleWomen-JaneFortuneFortune chats with our waitress, Addie, an Interlochen graduate who is leaving for a few weeks for more music training, “but she will return knowing even more,” Fortune says. Hesse excuses himself to go into the kitchen and talk to the chef. Last summer “when the previous chef left, it was a nightmare” they both say in unison but things are running more smoothly this year and business has recently shown a dramatic upturn.

The conversation turns to Fortune’s work in Florence, where the couple lives four months a year and where Jane had spent her junior year abroad during college. Fortune’s restoration work started when she came across a book about Suar Platilla Nelli, born in 1524, the first female painter in Florence. Fortune hadn’t heard of her and neither had her Italian friends. Fortune said her thought was, If Nelli was the first and no one has ever heard of her, how many more women artists are unknown/invisible?

“Women couldn’t study art or go to school,” Fortune says. “The women who had it the best had brothers or fathers who were artists [or patrons] and the women could work in their studios.” Fortune says she wanted to do something so these women “wouldn’t be invisible.” An astonishing 60 percent of the world’s art is in Italy, according to Fortune, a statistic corroborated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and approximately half of that is in Florence.

Discovering Nelli, a nun who was the first Italian female artist,” … was a truly emotional experience for me,” Fortune says in an article in The Florentine in 2009. And when the restoration work began on a Nelli painting and she watched as “… the figures slowly emerged from the dark patina of time, they took on a power that conveyed a sense of compassion that has stayed with me.” She wanted to make Nelli a household word.

And so it began, as she tells the audience gathered at Bella Fortuna on Monday evening, June 10, to see a preview of the PBS documentary. “Eight years ago Bob and I invited the 31 women directors of museums in Florence to lunch, for they did not know each other.” Fortune pauses, laughing, “and no one came.” But Fortune and Hesse persisted and eventually were successful and the lunches still continue.

“The lunches were strictly social,” Fortune says, and soon an atmosphere of trust was established and old-fashioned American-style networking (not a word in Italian) began to work its magic. Each year now one of the more than 30 directors, an art patroness, a female restorer and a contemporary woman artist receives a Nelli Award for her outstanding contribution to the arts from Fortune’s foundation, Advancing Women Artists.

So how did all of this happen? Slowly, as most things do. Fortune fell in love with the art of Florence when she was there as a young woman and describes art as her first passion. Gradually, she began to want to make the art of unknown women accessible to more people and says this was her second passion. Fortune’s book, Invisible Women, is dedicated to “Bob Hesse, my partner, the love of my life,” the man who sits across the table from her now and he is arguably her third passion.

“We met at the right time,” Hesse says, saying that they were placed next to each other at a dinner in Philadelphia about 20 years ago and the conversation just never ended. “She wanted to support women artists and I said, ‘Do it’.” Bob Hesse, slightly more than a decade older than Jane had already headed such organizations.

“Bob gave me the confidence to do this,” Fortune says. At her June 10 presentation of the Emmy-winning documentary, she wears a pink breast cancer pin and tells the audience that she survived third stage cancer five years earlier. Now during lunch she confides, “I spent a year in bed.” It was terrifying, as cancer always is, and almost harder on the caregiver, they both agree, than the afflicted. Hesse spent his time during that year taking care of her.

A genial man with a benevolent presence, Hesse has a long list of credits to his name: executive director of the Joffrey Ballet, president of the Chautauqua Institution, president of Medaille College and senior vice president for UNICEF. Together Hesse and Fortune founded the Indianapolis City Ballet.

The couple frequently finishes each other’s sentences and seems to be wordlessly in sync. At Fortune’s June preview of the PBS special at Bella Fortuna, on-lookers watched as staff tinkered with Fortune’s microphone and arranged extra seating, while Hesse mingled with the audience and made people feel welcome. Both Fortune and Hesse have a down-home way of relating to people, making small talk, showing genuine interest, laughing easily.

The dictionary defines a philanthropist as someone who has “affection for mankind.” The word is first found in a 500 BC play called “Prometheus Bound,” attributed to Aeschylus. In the play Prometheus steals fire from the gods to give hope to the hapless humans. Fire symbolizes art and culture, civilization; art and culture, supported by philanthropy, is an expression of what it means to be human.

The philanthropist and the artist have the same goal: to leave something that will be there after they’re gone. With the artist it’s more instinctual and innate, while with the philanthropist it’s more cerebral and articulate.

Fortune says her philanthropic instincts were nurtured by her family. “My parents were phenomenally philanthropic. I started doing volunteer work [for people with disabilities] when I was 12 years old.” Jane is still active in working for people with disabilities, especially the hearing impaired. Fortune’s grandfather came to Leland in the mid-1900s and the family, generationally, actively supported everything from the Leland Library, to the Leelanau Conservancy, to the Preservation of Fishtown.

“My quest is engendered by curiosity,” Fortune writes in the Invisible Women introduction. “My mission is fed by conviction. I believe that through education, restoration and exhibition it is possible to recuperate a vital part of Florence’s cultural wealth. These women must be celebrated and their work must be seen.” Her next project is the creation of A Space of Their Own in Florence, a display area that will allow more of the pieces languishing in storage to be exhibited.

Florence is a city in the center of the Italian Peninsula on the Arno River at the base of the Appenine Mountains. It was founded as a military base in the first century BC, important because it was the one place for armies to cross the Arno, a river which is sometimes a mere trickle and at other times a rushing torrent. Nothing in its early history or geographical location would have indicated that it would be the birthplace of humanism.

Florence is an anomaly, not only in Italy but in the world, because it gave us such Renaissance geniuses as Petrarch, Dante, Michelangelo, Boccaccio, Galileo and Leonardo Da Vinci, and all over a relatively short period of time. Many of these artists, poets and philosophers were supported by the Medici, world famous art patrons.

The Medici family, originally from the Mugello Valley north of Florence, arrived in the city in the 1200s, and by the 1420s they had become powerful bankers who exercised a firm behind-the-scenes control of the Florentine state.

They were known for their love of gardens and art. It’s in part because of the Medici patronage of artists that Fortune has found such a trove of work by women artists since many of the works were commissioned by the Medici and housed in Medici museums.

At times the Medici were faulted for spending less on soldiers than they did on art, but as Lorenzo the Magnificent said in 1489, “Many deem that it would have been preferable to keep part of the funds in the treasury; I think that our patronage was the great splendor of our regime and, in my opinion, the money was well spent.” The last Medici was a woman, Anna Maria Luisa, who died childless in 1743, bequeathing all of her family’s artwork and all the buildings housing the art, to the city of Florence.

Fortune spends her days doing research and writing. “I like to put words on paper,” she says. “Night is my best time.” She has co-authored another book, Art by Women — a Guide through 500 Years, with Linda Falconi that came out last October. Hesse’s latest project is the Bella Fortuna Restaurant and his vision for Lake Leelanau becoming a cultural center. “Hi, I’m Bob Hesse,” he says to a woman visiting the restaurant. He smiles and continues, “I work here.” Hesse is also involved in the Indianapolis City Ballet, produced by his son Kevin and they work closely together.

In Florence Fortune has been nick-named “Indiana Jane” for her ambitious restoration project, but she doesn’t belong just to Florence. She is also acclaimed in Indiana and Washington, D.C., for her support of women artists and on the Leelanau Peninsula where she and Hesse have supported civic programs as well as a restaurant-cum-cultural-center in Lake Leelanau. Fortune belongs equally to every place she’s made a difference, and all of them can legitimately lay claim to her as their very own philanthropist.

Kathleen Stocking is author of the acclaimed book, Letters from the Leelanau (University of Michigan Press, 1990). She is currently working on her next book, The Long Arc of the Universe, which you can support via a Kickstarter campaign.

An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that the Medici were a peasant family who wandered down out of northern Tuscany in 1434. Thanks to Judith Testa, History of Art professor at Northern Illinois University and author of An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence for the correction.