Who is Helga Wall-Apelt, the woman whose multimillion-dollar gift to the Ringling Museum of Art was the spur for the new Asian wing? A native of Germany, she is a retired physician with an interest in both Eastern medicine and Eastern art. Wall-Apelt arrived in Sarasota in the 1980s, and went on to open a practice called the Center for Traditional Chinese Medicine. She also founded her own museum, the since-closed Museum of Asian Art.
Wall-Apelt, now 73, began collecting art when still quite young, after her doctor father, a German Jew, left her a bronze Ming Buddha statue when he died.
“He taught me how to meditate, and triggered my interest in Eastern culture and philosophy,” she remembered in a 2006 Sarasota Herald-Tribune article, when her gift to the museum was first announced. She also said he raised her “in a Spartan way,” teaching her to be tough and to rely on herself.
Those who’ve met the sometimes formidable Wall-Apelt would agree that those lessons took. An inveterate traveler who’s acquired everything from a priceless collection of jade to Cambodian stone figures on her journeys, she’s continued to roam the world since the death of her husband, Fritz, in 2001, lately placing more emphasis on modern and contemporary art. Here in Sarasota, she has been a supporter of the opera and the circus, and is known for expressing her opinions strongly and bluntly—meaning some have found her hard to take.
But her devotion to her collection cannot be doubted. As she’s worked to expand it over 50 years, her rationale has been, as she told one interviewer a few years ago, “not for the pretentiousness of it, but for peace of mind and a search for truth.” Collecting, she says, “will forever be one of the most important aspects of my life.”