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One American’s Significant Contribution to Morocco Art History – Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)

Exhibit in Marrakech paying tribute to American philanthropist Patti Birch, November 1, 2018 Photo: MAP

Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)
October 9, 2018

One of my first trips in Morocco as US Ambassador in 1998 was to attend the dedication of the famous Koutoubia minbar, in the presence of then Crown Prince Mohammed VI, as well as other dignitaries, including a well-known American art collector and dealer, Patti Cadby Birch, who held several distinguished positions with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. The minbar, or pulpit in the mosque from which the imam deliver the sermon, is one of the most accomplished works ever created by Islamic craftsmen, begun around 1137 in Córdoba, a center of Andalusian arts and letters. It was restored thanks to Patti’s association with the Metropolitan Museum and her gift of $1M, and took two years to complete.

Patti and I became close friends as soon as we met, and I would come to understand her passion for art in Morocco and the Islamic world. I eventually became involved in her dream to build a museum at Dar El Bacha Palace in Marrakech, which had been  the residence of Thami El Glaoui, Pasha of Marrakech, during the French Protectorate, from 1912 until Morocco’s independence in 1956.

I spent hours with Patti exploring ideas for this and other projects, listening to her dreams for Morocco’s history and art up until her final weeks. So this week, I was pleased to see that her dedication to and love for Morocco were honored in a ceremony at the Dar El Bacha – Museum of Confluences in Marrakech, which is hosting an exhibition in tribute to this American philanthropist.

It is also heartening to see that Patti’s dream was realized last year with the dedication of this museum, and a space specially granted to the collection she gifted the government of Morocco in 1999, and which included more than 3000 pieces of pre-Columbian, African, Chinese, and other objects of art and jewels.

Patti’s wish to build a museum for the country was granted by King Mohammed in 1999, and I often attended meetings with her and the Minister of Culture to explore her plans for the project and government efforts to support her.

During this time, my wife Kathleen and I spent many vacations in Marrakech at Patti’s beautiful homes in Amelkis and her riad in the medina, as well as one memorable Christmas when we decorated desert plants throughout the house with Christmas ornaments.  Her attentive staff, Hassan, Mohammed, and Omar, and her two Weimaraner dogs all remained loyal until she departed for New York for the final time.  She was a grand dame of Marrakech, entertaining royalty, patrons of the arts, and philanthropists whom she thought would be helpful to Morocco, and serving as a marvelous, unofficial ambassador for Morocco to the world.  She would pass away in 2007 before seeing her dream come true.

Following her death, I was commissioned by the Patti Birch trustees to conduct a feasibility study and plans for building the museum at Dar El Basha, with her long-time aide and confidant Hadia Temli overseeing the security and maintenance of the building.

The trustees would finally decide not to construct a museum at Dar El Basha, concerned that it would be difficult to maintain and sustain without ongoing commitments of funding.  Instead, they would build an amazing tribute in Patti’s name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Two new galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and related education programs – all focusing on the art and culture of Morocco, Spain, North Africa, and the Western Mediterranean from the eighth to the 19th century – were funded by The Patti and Everett B. Birch Foundation in memory of Patti Cadby Birch. The New York Times wrote that the permanent exhibit, “a sumptuously ornamented courtyard based on late Islamic medieval design and constructed using traditional materials and techniques by workers from Fez, Morocco, will be called the Patti Cadby Birch Court; an adjoining gallery of artwork from Islamic Spain, North Africa, and the Western Mediterranean will be the Patti Cadby Birch Gallery. Both rooms are part of the suite of 15 new galleries for the art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.”

She may be little known by many Moroccans, but Patti joins other Americans who have made great contributions to their adopted country of Morocco, including Bill Willis, who reinvigorated Marrakchi interior design, Joe McPhillips, who was instrumental in bringing American education to Morocco, Kathy Kriger, who opened Rick’s Café in Casablanca, and Madison Cox, who today is ensuring that the Yves Saint Laurent namesake and history remain in Marrakech at a new museum he built as President of the YSL Foundation.

Patti firmly believed she was clairvoyant and would on many occasions predict her friends’ futures, including my own, which I witnessed the truth of on more than one occasion.  She would often say, “We will see the museum finished.” Maybe in the end she was more clairvoyant than we imagined.

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