A Miami native who owned canneries and a tuna fishing fleet, the businessman had lived in the San Diego area since 1971.
The Stuart Collection, built around installation art and environmental sculpture, contains works ranging from conventional sculptures to a granite picnic table engraved with slogans and trees wired for sound by such artists as Jenny Holzer, Terry Allen and John Baldessari.
"He viewed monumental sculpture as the neglected part of the art world, because there was no place to put it," said Patrick Ledden, provost of UC San Diego's Muir College, who worked closely on the collection from its beginnings in 1980. "The thing he did that was so important is that he did not want the collection to reflect his taste. He wanted it to be the best work."
Over two decades, DeSilva donated almost $2 million toward the collection. While he was deeply concerned with the endurance of the Stuart Collection, it bears only his middle name because he wanted to deflect attention from himself.
He appointed an internationally distinguished advisory committee, made up of art historians, museum curators and working artists, to find the most provocative artists and sculptors, some of them with no experience in creating public art. DeSilva insisted that the works respond to the university environment.
"What distinguished him from others who've been benefactors to the arts is that he did it in the spirit of questioning, of inquiry," said Mathieu Gregoire, the Stuart Collection's project coordinator. "He gave a big chunk of money, with no strings attached. Most of these folks who give money have certain artists [in mind]; they want to control the situation."
Baldessari, whose 2001 mixed-media "Read/Write/Think/Dream" was the most recent piece commissioned, called DeSilva "amazingly supportive of my project, a kind and humble man." The conceptual artist originally turned down the project because he had worked very infrequently in sculpture. DeSilva and the collection's director, Mary Livingstone Beebe, talked him into it. "This was the first time I've encountered a patron who had such a vision, who put his money where his mouth was," Baldessari said.
DeSilva was born in Miami and grew up in Colorado and California, the son of a salesman father and homemaker mother who had been a Stanford professor. He was a business major at the University of Chicago when he developed an interest in classical music and opera.
In 1942, he married Marne Francis Kuglis, and soon after began a stint as a Navy pilot in the Pacific in World War II. Upon returning from the war, he moved to the Palos Verdes Peninsula and worked at a Terminal Island cannery owned by his father-in-law, eventually taking it over on the father-in-law's death. In 1961, the chance to open a cannery in Puerto Rico drew him to New York, where the parent company was based.
In 1969, DeSilva sold the cannery and, at age 50, studied art history for a year as a graduate student at Columbia University. Colleagues said he never lost the enthusiasm those courses sparked, even decades later. "He would get a backpack and jump on a plane, go hopscotching across Europe to see art exhibits," Gregoire said.
In 1971, DeSilva and his wife moved to San Diego, where he started what became an extraordinarily successful tuna fishing fleet.
He later served on the boards of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; the San Diego Symphony; and the San Diego Museum of Art. He was president of the San Diego tuna fishing and helicopter company Kenram Corp. when he died. His son, Peter DeSilva, said his father's involvement with the company had been "winding down for the last 10 years" as he devoted more time and energy to his family and his love for art.
DeSilva was living in La Jolla when the idea for a sculpture collection hit him. "He used to walk the UCSD campus early in the morning, back in the '70s," Gregoire said, "and he just thought that [a sculpture collection] would be a wonderful thing."
The collection was started by a gift from DeSilva and an agreement between him and the university to place art on the campus. The university served as a financial partner with DeSilva for the collection, helping to raise money and maintain a staff.
The pieces in the Stuart Collection have been anything but the middlebrow official art that often decorates public spaces: Its inspirations range from political to conceptual, with artists such as Kiki Smith, whose sculptures concern the female body, and Bruce Nauman, whose neon "Vices and Virtues" installation on the sides of the university's theater department is acclaimed by art cognoscenti.
In a review of a 20th anniversary show last year, The Times' Christopher Knight wrote, "There is simply nothing comparable, anywhere in the nation, to this exceptional assembly of commissioned works."
Other artists represented in the collection are "Light and Space" movement pioneer Robert Irwin; whimsical photographer William Wegman, whose contribution is a telescope and stone wall called "La Jolla Vista View"; and Los Angeles' Alexis Smith, whose stone "Snake Path" winds across the campus. The first piece in the collection, the birdlike "Sun God" by Niki de Saint Phalle, has become one of the campus' defining landmarks.
"His biggest concern was how [the collection] would build over time," Ledden said. "He hoped that everyone who wanted to know what was going on in sculpture during this time would have to come here."
DeSilva is survived by his wife, Marne; daughter Dede Grant, and son Peter DeSilva, both of Rancho Santa Fe; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. No funeral service is planned.