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Key West loses elegant and enthusiastic supporter in David Wolkowsky

It is with a deep sense of loss and endless gratitude that the Board of Directors of the Key West Art & Historical Society announces the passing of a benefactor as original and relevant to the history and culture of Key West as the paintings he proudly loaned us.

Key West native David Wolkowsky died in his sleep at Lower Keys Medical Center on Sunday, September 23, 2018. He was 99 when his incredible and glamorous life ended where it began in August 1919 – on the island Wolkowsky worked constantly to improve and preserve.  Wolkowsky’s family moved from Key West to Miami when Wolkowsky was 4 years old. He then earned a literature degree from University of Pennsylvania before embarking on a business venture to redevelop Philadelphia’s Center City and Rittenhouse Square — moves that would make Wolkowsky a very wealthy man.

“David could have lived anywhere, obviously; money was no object, but he chose Key West, and to me, that speaks volumes,” said Cori Convertito, curator of the Key West Art & Historical Society and a close friend of Wolkowsky, who generously shared his own important collection of art and artifacts with the museum. “If we were assembling a folk art exhibit, I could call him and ask if I could come ‘shopping’ at his house. His understanding of the history and the people of Key West was remarkable and unmistakable.”

Wolkowsky’s collection of sketches by renowned Key West woodcarver and folk artist Mario Sanchez became part of an immensely popular and critically acclaimed exhibit. Sanchez would first sketch his nostalgic scenes, comical encounters and Key West political commentaries on paper bags, then carve those scenes into wood. Wolkowsky proudly loaned the society his 71 original Sanchez drawings on paper bags.

A close friend of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and fellow Key West resident Tennessee Williams, Wolkowsky also acquired a collection of paintings and pastels by Williams, whose dramatic works included, “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” The paintings and pastels, one of which features a young Wolkowsky done in pastels — are now on permanent display at the Custom House Museum.

“David always remained focused on the legacy of this town, and he had a vision for Key West that included a return to the glamor and luxury that had defined the island back when he owned the Pier House Hotel and was constantly hosting movie stars and famous writers,” said Shirrel Rhodes, President of the Board of Directors.

Wolkowsky was more than an arts patron, financial supporter and society benefactor. He was more than a name on the card that identifies the owner of a painting on loan to a museum. Wolkowsky made his mark on Key West — and not by simply signing checks.

“Although he was obviously very generous with us financially, that doesn’t come close to representing the entirety of his involvement with and commitment to us,” Key West Art & Historical Society Executive Director Michael Gieda said.

“He was our own personal publicist and PR machine,” Convertito said, recalling Wolkowsky’s visits to the Custom House two to three times a week. “Anyone who had lunch with David would then be treated to a personal tour of the museum. He’d show up with university presidents, bestselling authors, renowned artists, actors, John Hemingway, Jean Vanderbilt, you name it.”

From entire exhibits on loan from his personal collection, to a constant display of fresh orchids above the museum door, which he donated in memory of his dear friend Floy Thompson, Wolkowsky was actively involved in the Society, sharing ideas and opinions as readily as artwork and financial support.

To properly honor his memory – and his unwavering generosity – the Key West Art & Historical Society wants to learn from and disseminate the lessons it learned from David Wolkowsky for this town and the vision he had for enhancing it and returning it to its halcyon days.  The Society is in the process of designing an appropriate way to honor Wolkowsky’s commitment to Key West’s cultural legacy, and will make announcements about the specifics in the coming months.

It is now incumbent upon the Key West Art & Historical Society and us as its Board of Directors to honor David Wolkowsky with as much passion and energy as he shared with us. We will keep our members and the Key West community apprised of our plans to forever remember the man who never stopped believing in Key West.”

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David Wolkowsky, third from left, with drink, is pictured with Tennessee Williams, left, and his mother Edwina Dakin Williams, at a birthday celebration held for the literary icon at the Chart Room Bar at the Pier House in Key West. (Photo courtesy Key West Art & Historical Society)