The Three Stages of Art Collecting

Taliah Lempert/ Bicyclepaintings.com

Marianna Stark, Eli Broad, Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagneron on how to make it happen.

As told to Sue Hostetler

Art may or may not imitate life—let’s leave that chicken-and-egg circularity to the philosophers—but art collections certainly do. They are born into loving homes; over time, they grow in size and complexity, and then they move on and join new homes. In the byzantine world of contemporary art, it pays to have models to follow. So we sought guidance from passionate collectors at three very different stages.

The Beginnings

Marianna Stark, Director of strategy, Gap Inc./Old Navy

I grew up in San Francisco, about a mile and a half from the de Young Museum. When I was a kid, I would ride my bike to the museum on the weekends and wander around for hours. I majored in art history at Berkeley but was scared to go into the arts, knowing it’d be hard to make ends meet. So I ended up in the corporate world. But to stay close to art I joined the young professionals membership groups at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, New York MoMA and the Met, for the institutions’ behind-the-scenes access to exhibits and curators and trips to artists’ studios and galleries. Along the way I learned the politics and economics of the art world.

I bought my first piece in 2001, when I was 30. It was a large painting on paper by Taliah Lempert. I went out to Williamsburg in New York to meet her in person; I know almost all the 80 artists in my collection, and many of them are close friends. I’ll never forget the time I carried $400 in cash to a single-room-occupancy hotel in the Tenderloin to buy a sculpture from Kottie Paloma that he had made from a pair of khakis and a pillowcase. He took my money and said, “Now I can get my cell phone turned back on, call my parents and tell them I’m alive.”

It seems as if young professionals in general start out focusing on establishing themselves and becoming wealthy. Supporting the arts comes later for most people. What the visual arts have to offer, though, is a community experience. I primarily buy the work of Bay Area–based emerging artists. Most of the pieces I choose are in the mid-three-figure range, and I buy because I love the work and I want to support the artist.

I like that there’s no right answer yet about what new work is all about—it was just made! Everyone is trying to figure it out together. You don’t need a degree in art history to be able to say why you like or don’t like a piece of art.

Living with a Masterpiece

Eli Broad, Philanthropist, entrepreneur and founding chairman of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

The first piece Mrs. Broad and I purchased was a van Gogh drawing. Then came Picasso. We also have up some of the earlier works we collected, like a Miró from 1933 and several works by Warhol. Our taste has clearly changed over the years. In the 1980s we became very interested in Cindy Sherman’s film stills, though we don’t have any Shermans in the house. Our home has an awful lot of light, so there are very few places where we can put photography.

But outside of that, I don’t find deciding what to hang in our personal space difficult at all. We select things that we want to live with every single day. Highlights of what we have on the walls right now from our 500-work collection include Jasper Johns’s Flag, which we keep in our living room; a Johns crosshatch painting; and then we’ve also got ten works by Cy Twombly. (Twombly is a favorite of Mrs. Broad’s.) We also have Jeff Koons’s Rabbit. I can’t say we have any favorites, though what the art world considers to be the greatest masterpieces, if measured by value, would be the Koons bunny and then Flag...so I suppose they’re the two pieces I would likely grab if there were a fire.

We can have only 100 works up at one time, and occasional rotation gives us the opportunity to live with different pieces. We hang the most important work by each artist, rather than chronologically or thematically. Our art works really well with the decor we have, though we obviously don’t pick pieces to match! You choose things to live with that have emotional appeal. What you hang in your living room is different from what hangs in your bedroom. Obviously we would not want dark or disturbing imagery in the bedroom.

Owning and living with art like this makes you a steward of these masterpieces. We have a responsibility to make sure they’re seen now and in the future by the widest possible audience, which we currently do with collection loans and will do with an even greater scope next year, when the new Broad Museum opens.

Giving It Away

Thea Westreich and Ethan Wagner, Lifelong collectors, on the eve of bequeathing more than 800 pieces of their 1,000-plus collection—which includes artists like Diane Arbus, Jeff Koons and Christopher Wool—to the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Centre Pompidou

Our collecting began in fits and starts in the 1980s. Together we began to be, and I suspect always will be, interested in the art of our time. Our inclination is to collect in depth—to understand each artist fully requires more than one work. We’re usually so intrigued with what they’re doing that we want to stay with them. The only thing that really ever stops us is the limitations of our finances. You can’t buy everything that interests you, but you can continue to engage with the art. Not everything is about acquisition and ownership—it’s about the journey, about the evolution of ideas, the excitement of discovery.

The decision that the work should go to an institution was predicated on the reality that we weren’t going to live forever, that the work was significant enough to go to the public and that there were institutions for whom the actual pieces we owned were really important. Once we decided on it, it did change the way we collected a bit, in the sense that we would say, “Well, if it’s going to go to a museum, then this new work needs to be part of the group in order for the specific artist to be properly represented.”

We considered a number of institutions. The Whitney seemed like the perfect match, because it needs a lot of what we bought in the ’80s and ’90s to fill out those decades with important examples of artists’ oeuvres—works that are way out of its price range now. But it only collects American art, so we knew we’d need another institution to take the European artists in the collection. We were very affected by our early meetings with the Pompidou, because out of the 27 European artists in our collection, 23 were on the list that the Pompidou wanted to acquire.

From time to time we give individual works of art to our children, and perhaps soon we’ll do the same with our grandchildren. But it never made sense to us, the notion of turning over a fully formed collection of hundreds of works to our kids. In our view, collecting art is gratifying if it’s self-motivated. And if our children want to collect, they will.

We don’t feel sad to see these works go. The donation has been in our minds for a decade; we’ll get used to it when the time comes. After the gift, we’ll continue living with art. It will just be that of younger artists, for the most part, which is what we support right now. In three or five years, whenever we change the installation, there will be yet newer works in the collection living with us. As much as we sit and tell each other that we should really stop collecting, that will probably never happen!