American Art Collector
The Tullman Collector
By Joshua Rose and Terri Dodd
Legendary Chicago entrepreneur Howard Tullman is held in awe by the art community for both his passion for art and sheer generosity of spirit. Over the years, and with ferocious tenacity, he has built an enviable and witty art collection. We visited Howard's artwork-packed loft where he gave us a rare interview.
The fact that Tullman is considering making more room for new paintings is a dream come true for the multitude of galleries and artists across the country who are lucky enough to receive his passionate and continual patronage. And, it also helps to maintain the hopes of those who cling to the dream that next of the many art excursions that Tullman takes will land him and his endless passion for traditional and contemporary representational art on their doorstep. And Tullman knows what he likes. "I've never regretted one purchase I've ever made and I've never sold one piece after buying it," says Tullman who, at 59 is in much better shape than most people a decade younger. "Every piece I've ever bought is something we've wanted to live with, something I was excited about."
Like so many things in his life, Tullman's loft is designed around the simple desire towards the contemplation and appreciation of beautiful paintings and sculpture. Paintings hang salon style from the worn wooden floors to the very top of the 10-foot ceilings. Paintings are in the bathrooms, the kitchen, the office, hallways, niches, entry ways, above doorways, next to photographs of Tullman jogging with President Clinton and even behind the set of drums that also serve as creative distraction from the variety of philanthropic and business endeavors that keep Tullman so busy.
The collection doesn't stop there. A sculpture by Chicago artist Joseph Seigenthaler hangs eerily from the ceiling perched delicately over a desk with legs and undercarriage designed to mirror the Chicago skyline. A pool table has been converted into a makeshift showcase for a recently purchased series of drawings and skethces. New walls have been designed and added to criss-cross the rooms and create new rooms that are, too, completely filled with paintings. And, while figurative work rules the day, in this corner of the art world—Tullman's lecture at Art Chicago this past spring was entitled They Needn't be Naked, but it Helps—Tullman maintains that his tase is evolving to include more expressionistic and narrative works that balance tightly between the classical and contemporary worlds.
"Some of the nudes are over the top and crazy," says Tullman. "But, with others, there are other things beside the figures that attracts me to them. One painting I have shows a woman standing in a pool and I'm more interested in the water and how that was painted than the figure. You get pristine nudes, messy nudes, but no matter how they're done, there seems to be just so much more emotion involved in them. And that is what I'm attracted to."
Besides this, Tullman also enjoys work that doesn't take itself too seriously, work with a sense of humor and work that plays with people's ideas of what is considered to be acceptable subject matter for paintings and other works of art. Two new recently purchased sculptures include a chihuahua dyed blue and a white snow monkey in a leotard.
Tullman got his start as a collector when he attended an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art 20 years ago. "They did a show of 40 artists who were masters with drawings and I liked it so much, as well as the contained strategy in which it was presented, that I bought examples of most of the people's work who were in the show."
"I liked the realist drawings and this led to photorealism," says Tullman. "I bought all the photorealists from Louis Meisel, of the Louis Meisel Gallery. I had an appointment in New York at the time, and so it was easy for me, and that led to other parellel tracks where I should be buying."
Unlike some collectors, Tullman likes to "spread the wealth," making him a veritable benefactor to an incredibly large group of artists across the country.
We first heard about the Tullman Collection when Howard e-mailed his support for the magazine, and listed over 40 artists whose work we had featured that he had bought from galleries. The Tullman Collection currently includes art from over 900 individual artists, from emerging talents like Kate Lehman, Eric Hammer, Timothy Cummings, Alyssa Monks, and the Clayton Brothers, to more established artists like Roy De Forest, Jack Mendenhall, Daniel Greene, Luis Jiminez, Bernardo Torrens, Victor Wang, Mary Borgman and Steven Assael.
Galleries Tullman frequents include both emerging and established spaces not only in his Chicago backyard, but others in New York City, Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee. His desk is typically covered with exhibition announcements, most of which are accompanied by a hand-written note from the gallery owner. And, when he goes on business trips, especially when traveling to New York City, Tullman enjoys fitting in an extra day, or sometimes a quick afternoon, for a run of the galleries, just in case there exists something he hasn't seen before.
Tullman's tenacity as an art collector has approached mythical status by the dealers and players who manage to spot him at art fairs and galleries across the country. He's a private person who dislikes the limelight, and certainly prefers to admire the art than become entangled in social scenes. Susan Gescheidle, owner of the Gescheidle Gallery in Chicago and a good friend of Tullman, occasionally scouts art fairs for him and has helped broker some deals. She tells stories of Tullman hurriedly making his way through art fairs pointing left and right to paintings he wants to buy. Or, there was the time Tullman was forced to miss a fair due to his business schedule so he asked Gescheidle to use her cell phone camera to send pictures of new paintings back to him to make sure he wouldn't miss out on anything.
"He has such an adrenaline and positive energy to him," says Gescheidle, whose gallery is perched on the third floor of one of the most fashinable gallery buildings in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago. "There is something so special about Howard. He's just a very unique type of person to work with and he has a great eye. He knows immediately if he likes something and if he does, he buys it. It's that simple for him."
The same drive that pushes Tullman to be one of the most active art collectors in the United States is the same that has pushed him to be so successful in business. Tullman is what is known in the business world as a "fixer." Companies on the verge of failing turn the reigns over to him and the results are typically Wall Street Journal cover-worthy.
When the Board of Directors of Kendall College—a small 75-year-old private culinary school in Evanston, IL—approached him to either fix, sell or fold the college, Tullman took over. Five years later, the school is housed in a state-of-the-art, six-story renovated warehouse on Goose Island in downtown Chicago and includes a spot for yachts to pull in to be serviced by culinary students in training. Plans are also underway for a complete hotel to be built in front of the school to be run by Kendall College's Hotel and Hospitality Management degree students. And, of course, every room and every floor of the Kendall College building is filled with art from Tullman's own personal collection.
"It's a museum as much as anything else," says Tullman who, with the mission complete, is getting ready to turn over the school to another president and move on to another project. "I live with art every single day and wanted this to be an important part of the experience. People now ask me, 'Is the art staying?' They have become attached to it."
Tullman now feels that he has also reached the stage in art collecting when it's time to start donating works to museums. He has donated many paintings to institutions like the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, the Smart Museum of Art of the University of Chicago, the Art Center, the Springfield Art Museum, the Milwaukeee Art Museum, the Madison Art Center, the Armor Museum, the Frey Museum, the Mobile Museum of Art, the Museum of the South and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago. And, from October 7 through January 7, the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama (www.mobilemuseumofart.com) will launch a groundbreaking exhibition entitled Contemporary Imaginings: The Howard A. and Judith Tullman Collection which will feature 47 paintings and 14 drawings that present an overview of the revival of interest in image and narrative in American art.
"I wanted to start a giving program because some of these paintings belong in a museum," says Tullman. "And, while I try to open my doors to students and groups, there is nothing like the attendance at a museum. I want people just to see these paintings. That is what's important to me."
And this is something that Gescheidle concurs with as well.
"For him it's not about a commodity, he wants to enjoy it and then donate it," says Gescheidle. "He's always done what he likes, and he enjoys being involved, making a purchase and making someone's day. He likes the game and likes when he can get many people excited and involved."