Robert James, co-founder of International Quilt Museum, remembered for impact on art of quilting

Robert G. James

Robert James, co-founder of International Quilt Museum, remembered for impact on art of quilting

January 24, 2024

International Quilt Museum co-founder and Nebraska native, Robert G. James passed away on Sunday, Jan. 21 at the age of 98. Robert and his late wife Ardis James, who passed away in 2011, had a tremendous impact on the world of quilting, including the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's International Quilt Museum.

“It is an honor and privilege to have known Bob, and he will be missed! Bob and Ardis lived a wonderful life, and gave so much back to the communities and organizations they believed in. Bob and Ardis loved Nebraska, and their legacy and philanthropic impact will be felt for generations by those in Nebraska, throughout the U.S. and across the globe,” said Leslie Levy, Ardis & Robert James Executive Director at the International Quilt Museum. 

The first iteration of the International Quilt Museum was founded by Robert and Ardis through a donation of nearly 1,000 quilts in 1997. At the time, the vast collection was valued at over $6 million including modern studio art pieces and quilts of historic significance. In a Harvard Magazine article from 2014, Robert talked about the shared experience of quilt collecting with his wife as empty nesters.  

“Starting this, we fell in love again. It was a 50-50 endeavor all the way,” Robert said in the article. 

“The University of Nebraska-Lincoln shares in mourning the death of Robert ‘Bob’ James,” said University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Rodney D. Bennett. “UNL and the larger Lincoln community are among the many beneficiaries of philanthropic gifts from Bob and his late wife, Ardis. Their vision and support of the International Quilt Museum through the Robert and Ardis James Foundation established a dynamic center of formal and informal learning and discovery for students, teachers, scholars, artists, quilters and visitors to Lincoln. Their generosity in many areas will be missed, but their legacy will continue for generations to come.”  

Robert and Ardis’ support was instrumental in commissioning the museum’s current building, which was constructed in 2008. Designed by world renowned New York-based architecture firm Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA), the building features several structural tributes to the art of quilting. The windows resemble the top layers of a quilt with frosted panes mimicking quilt stitches, the reception hall is shaped like the eye of a needle, and the brickwork brings to mind quilt blocks.  

Almost immediately, the needs surrounding the museum’s growing collection were noticed. Through the Robert and Ardis James Foundation, the James family donated $7 million for an expansion of the museum. The project — completed in 2015 — doubled the International Quilt Museum’s state-of-the-art collection storage and exhibit space.  

“Robert James was a proud Nebraskan with a deep appreciation for the cultural and artistic significance of quilts,” said Brian Hastings, president and CEO of the University of Nebraska Foundation. “Because of the vision that he and his late wife Ardis had, the University of Nebraska is now home to the world’s largest publicly held quilt collection. Their philanthropy ensures that generations to come will have the opportunity to learn about and experience this beautiful art form at the International Quilt Museum.” 

Even after their initial collection was donated, Robert and Ardis remained pivotal in acquiring new pieces for the International Quilt Museum. 

“We have developed an encyclopedic collection due to the James family’s commitment,” said Carolyn Ducey, the Ardis B. James Curator of Collections at the International Quilt Museum. “We’ve followed the spirit of the original Ardis & Robert James Collection — it spans multiple generations and genres, while championing the artform.” 

From his time in Nebraska to the U.S. Navy, to Harvard Business School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s hard not to be struck by Robert’s diversity of interests and successes, including his strong affinity for the artistry of quilts. What started out as a hobby has left a legacy for Robert and Ardis.  

“Our condolences to the James family,” Levy said. “Bob and Ardis’ collection and contributions have had a life-changing impact on many artists both nationally and globally.”   

The International Quilt Museum is on UNL’s East Campus at 1523 N. 33rd St. in Lincoln, Nebraska. With over 8,800 objects spanning five centuries and 65 countries, the International Quilt Museum is home to the largest publicly held quilt collection in the world.