Barbara Jonas, Who Traded Art Collecting for Philanthropy, Dies at 84
Posted November 7, 2018 6:29 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — Barbara Jonas, who with her husband collected abstract expressionist paintings and sold them three decades later to promote a cause seldom embraced by philanthropists — the recruitment and training of nurses — died Oct. 23 in Manhattan. She was 84.
The cause was complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, her son, John Jonas, said.
In 2006, Jonas and her husband, Donald, a founder and former chairman of Lechters, a household goods retailer, auctioned off half their art collection for $44 million to create Jonas Nursing and Veterans Healthcare.
“Barbara Jonas had a deep understanding of the value that doctoral education could have on health policy outcomes,” and how influential that could be in nursing, said Bobbie Berkowitz, dean emeritus of the Columbia University School of Nursing.
The couple broadened their commitment to medical education and research in 2018, when they established Jonas Philanthropies, not only to advance the nursing profession but also to help returning veterans, treat low vision and blindness and address the impact of toxic chemicals, contaminants and pollutants on prenatal and child health.
Jonas, a former practicing psychotherapist and social worker, had demonstrated her commitment to childhood health issues in 1992, when she established the Barbara Jonas Centers for the Study and Treatment of Children at Risk within the psychiatry departments of New York University Langone Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.
She also served as vice chairwoman of the Community Services Board of the New York City Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Alcoholism Services.
The couple, who lived in Manhattan and had homes in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the Dominican Republic, began investing in art in the mid-1970s. After succeeding as art collectors, they partnered as philanthropists.
“We decided that we wanted to do some things in our lifetime, especially for New York City where we have lived our whole lives,” Donald Jonas said. “If you die rich, you die poor, really.”
After selling about half their collection of de Koonings, Rothkos and other abstract expressionist paintings (in the process setting five auction records at Christie’s), they gave the proceeds to the Jewish Communal Fund to administer the Barbara and Donald Jonas Family Fund. They earmarked their first contributions to nursing, which Donald Jonas described as “the most undervalued profession.”
So far, 1,500 Jonas Scholars have earned doctorates in collaboration with the National League for Nursing.
The couple has also sought to encourage connections among various players in the health care system. “We wanted to force a collaborative model to get agencies and hospitals together,” Barbara Jonas told The Financial Times in 2006.
They encouraged joint ventures with grants. One went to Pace University’s nursing school in Manhattan and Mount Sinai Medical Center to improve care for mentally ill patients while training nurses from minority groups to provide that treatment.
Barbara Lynn Raubvogel was born on Dec. 21, 1933, in the Bronx to Leo Raubvogel, who owned a company that sold baking equipment, and Gertrude (Mallman) Raubvogel.
After graduating from the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, she received a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a master’s in social work from Yeshiva University.
In addition to her husband and son, she is survived by their daughter, Kirby Jones; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.