A collector, curator, and patron of the arts, Bucksbaum was known for collecting art that pushed against the status quo, supporting both established and emerging artist. Interested in art from a young age, Bucksman used to take a bus for a nickel to visit the museums in downtown Washington, D.C., in the 1940’s. She moved to Des Moines, Iowa, with her first husband, in 1967. Actively involved in the local art world, she became friends with the visionary curator of the Des Moines Art Center, James T. Demetrion, who mentored her growth as a collector.
Christie’s online auction of The Collection of Melva Bucksbaum: Post-War and Contemporary Art, Photographs and Prints offered highlights from the visionary art parton's eclectic collection, ranging from established artists like Man Ray, Cindy Sherman and Agnes Martin, to young and emerging artists. The sale achieved $1,760,500, the top sale going to Shayara, by Michal Rovner, which sold for $100,000, twenty times its lowest estimated value. Bucksbaum, a legendary figure in the contemporary art world, had amassed a huge collection of art when she died in 2015, at the age of 82.
In 1995, Bucksbaum became closely involved with the Whitney Museum, eventually becoming vice chairwoman of their board. Combining a passion for art with public altruism, she established one of the most generous prizes in fine art, the $100,000 Bucksbaum award, in 1996. Given every two years in conjunction with the Whitney Biennial, the award has come to define the institution’s programming. Bucksbaum was also instrumental in selecting architect Renzo Piano for the Whitney’s new downtown building. Bucksbaum continued collecting into her final years, creating an enduring legacy through her collection and prize.