The Collectors
Why buy art?

Michael Workman

There aren't enough collectors in Chicago to sustain a world-class art scene. True or not, it's a bit of received wisdom, a widely held opinion oft-repeated equally by artists, curators, gallerists and sometimes even by collectors themselves. Yet, there is collector culture in the city, filled with lawyers, doctors, old money families and younger professionals with disposable income. Why the complaint? What's going on? As a focus of the Chicago Artists' Month program organized by the Department of Cultural Affairs, "The Art of Collecting," these are questions that clearly the city would like to have answered. Ask Howard Tullman, a thirty-year veteran art collector who bought his first piece, a Jim Nutt from Phyllis Kind Gallery, and he'll tell you it's partly a matter of noblesse oblige, partly a matter of sustaining a connection with creative interests. "I was reading some stuff about the Hairy Who when they were at the Hyde Park Art Center," explains Tullman. "At that time I was working as a corporate lawyer, and I just felt like I wasn't giving back much. I was making a lot of money but wasn't exercising any creative juices."

Tullman hails from the school that says art's important for art's sake, that having art in your life contributes a visceral improvement in attitude and the way people feel about their environment. "When I started collecting, I was working at Illinois Bell and they had an art program. They had seven lithographs. Depending on how high-ranking an executive you were, you got a fancier frame. Some of my friends went to them and said, `Are you out of your minds, you could be supporting artists for what you spend on frames.' And that's how their collection got started." From that point on, for him collecting became about supporting artists. Early on, he was a patron of such established galleries as Marianne Deson and Struve locally, buying the work of four to five artists, then slowly branching out to buying work from New York and San Francisco. "Now we deal with about eight U.S. markets and fifty museums. Each year we give away a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of stuff. We just did a huge thing with Madison for their new museum gallery, this ten-foot-square by thirteen-foot-high piece by the Clayton Brothers that will sit right in the middle of this streetscape gallery that they're opening. That's what we love doing, facilitating that kind of thing: now these unknown Los Angeles artists will show at the opening in 2006."

That doesn't mean Tullman views the Chicago collecting scene through rose-colored glasses or that Chicago philanthropy is without its complications. "Chicago's an interesting place," he explains. "It's easier for me to give to museums almost anywhere else. It's hard to deal with the Museum of Contemporary Art, for instance; I'm interested in figurative and realist work. I've given away major pieces to the Smart Museum, Northwestern and the Frye in Seattle." Tullman also blames Chicago artists for not trying hard enough. He points out that even successful, high-profile figures such as Nutt aren't interested in promoting their own careers. But it's mostly the institutions responsible for packaging and showing art who receive the blunt of his ire. "Certainly the fact is that I don't recall when we had a Chicago and Vicinity show worth anything." Ultimately, Tullman turns the complaint about the lack of Chicago collectors on its head, saying that there's just not enough galleries to support the diverse range of tastes held by all the collectors. "There's at least three generations of collectors: there's the generation before mine, that started the contemporary museums, the Manilows and Shapiros, then my generation and presumably the current generation of collectors and artists. And I don't know what's going on in that group. Actually, I despair of the younger group because too much is about wine and meeting people. I don't go to openings anymore."

As a former gallerist turned corporate collector, Carol Ehlers sees it from a different perspective. Curator of the LaSalle Bank Photography Collection since 2001, Ehlers got her start out of college at Allan Frumkin Gallery, where she became a partner and eventually director in 1975. She remained partners with Frumkin after it merged into the Frumkin-Struve Gallery, but started her own venture as a private dealer, opening Ehlers-Caudill gallery in 1989, which became Carol Ehlers Galley circa 1998. Ehlers closed the gallery in 2001 when she joined LaSalle. "It was an exciting change for me to do what I do in a different context," explains Ehlers, "to use my knowledge of photography and with a collection already established and with a different audience. In a gallery, I was working with photography in the context of art and here I'm working with art in the context of a large corporation, and so the audience is very different, and that's exciting to me." Ehlers works with the LaSalle acquisitions committee, comprised of three executives at the bank, to choose which art ends up in their collection. What's the difference in working with bank executives? "They're not necessarily photography collectors, so I get an everyman point of view, and that allows me to interact with art on a pure basis." The LaSalle collection, she goes on, "has always had a strong Chicago vein, reflective of LaSalle and who we are. We are probably more aware of young Chicago artists, we look at them even at the grad-school level. The collection is international and historical, however. Our earliest photos are by Henry Fox Talbot from 1839-40; the first curators were Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, who was also the first curator at MOMA and at one time director of the George Eastman House." The collection pre-exists LaSalle--it was a passion of Samuel Sax, president of the bank when it was known as the Exchange National Bank. Cultivating a photography collection helped fill a perceived cultural void in the city. "At that time," explains Ehlers, "Chicago didn't have a tradition of exhibiting photography. And it was just the right timing. In the sixties, corporations were already starting to collect art--what we could offer that was unique was a photography collection."

As the owner of what's often referred to as a family "real-estate empire," John Podmajersky takes a more intensely personal view of collecting art in Chicago. "For me what's unique about collecting in Chicago is that I've got so much activity happening in my own backyard. I think, since I'm a Chicagoan and we've been a Chicago family all along, we've met a lot of Chicago artists over the years and have a lot of personal relationships with people and each piece we buy comes from somebody we know, have watched or been involved with at some point. I think the work we collect is intimate in that sense. Those relationships with artists are something we've always had, it's something we've always done."

So ingrained for Podmajersky, perhaps, is buying art and supporting artists in their work, that he doesn't even think of himself as a collector. "In my own mind that's not a role that I see myself playing. When I think of `collectors,' I think of someone who's bloating their portfolio with market-valued work. That's not how I approach it. The thing is, it's great that my parents have been so actively supportive of the artists over the years, and in many ways the water was very warm for me to get into buying art. It's a nice set of footsteps to follow behind in. My whole sense of aesthetics in life, I realized recently, was massively impacted by exposure to the work that was going on here in the community--my sister and I used to go to Ruth Duckworth's studio, watch her work and play with pieces of clay. Likewise, sculptors and painters in the area were doing modern work. I realize now that my own design aesthetics and taste comes out of the influence I picked up from these people."

"When I first started out," recalls Tullman, "there was a group called The Men's Council at the MCA. On it there was a rep from Illinois Bell, ComEd, all the big accounting firms. Now, this group was a way for the museum to raise money, but the larger theory was that by forming these groups like the men's and women's boards, you were developing future donors and helping to foster young collectors. Now these kind of groups seem to have gone by the boards, and it's not hard to understand why. It takes leadership in the group to get people excited about these kinds of things."

As the curator of the Union League Club of Chicago for the past ten years, Marianne Richter agrees about the value of such groups. Richter started at the club by responding to an ad in Aviso, the job publication of the American Association of Museums. "They were looking for someone who had expertise in American art and who was also comfortable with contemporary," recalls Richter who, having worked as curator at the Dayton Art Institute, with a master's degree focused on American art, thought she'd be comfortable with their collection. "Our club is run by a board of directors--we're not a charity but we are a not-for-profit organization, run by an art committee comprised of individuals from the board and members who are interested." In the early years, the club collected more generally, often purchasing work by European artists and from around the country until, after 1907, the focus really shifted to the Midwest and Chicago. "That's remained the same since then," explains Richter. "We look to purchase things from this area that people of an earlier era didn't really look to collect. But unlike the Museum of Contemporary Art--we now do have some public access--we're still a private club. We try to make it as open as possible, we give tours, with over 3,200 people coming through the club last year."

As a club, the art collecting often happens on the level of individual engagement with local artists. "Our ideal role is to make the art collection and programs reflective of the club's motto: commitment to community and country. To support Chicago artists, we have a third-floor gallery exhibition area and a scholarship program, we also honor two artists with "privilege holder" status, a program we've had in place since 1998, and they receive use of the club for a year without paying dues. Our members are very engaged with Chicago art: matter of fact--and here's a good example--that Parisian Metro station at Van Buren and Michigan was given from Paris, but the idea came from a Union League Club member, Seymour Persky. We're neither truly corporate nor a museum, neither fish nor fowl. We've tried to come up with our own thing."

That engagement with Chicago art isn't typical, perhaps, but it certainly illustrates the fact that a somewhat diverse and healthy collector culture does in fact exist. So, why the complaint that it's so anemic? As the director of Bucket Rider Gallery (the gallery which shares office space with the not-for-profit this writer directs) in the West Loop, Andrew Rafacz thinks it's the art dealer's responsibility to cultivate new collectors. "You've got multiple generations at the Society for Contemporary Art at the Art Institute, for example. You've got anybody from 25 to 75 and there're younger people involved all the time. It seems like in the last few years there are more and more younger people. There's a fluidity. As a gallerist I can't complain about whether or not there's enough collectors in Chicago. I've got to go out and foster new collectors, create new collectors by eliminating the pretense of a gallery, by making it less intimidating, by creating new conversations with these people. By getting people who might have never thought of collecting art as a possibility to get excited about it." Rafacz knows he's responsible for getting the work of his artists in front of people's eyes, a task he takes very seriously, even if it's work laced with heavy doses of fun. "We just came back from FIAC [the Paris art fair] and I can say that we had half buyers and half collectors. But you know what, every buyer may become a collector and every collector might stop buying from you. That's probably a tough problem for any gallery that's less then ten years old. We have collectors in Chicago and we have collectors in New York and Detroit and LA, but we need more of them always. I have to say, we've been really lucky so far though, and I can speak to some of the more prominent collectors who have also become dear friends. People that we socialize with, go to art-related events with. If you go to any sort of art event, you're going to get the whole spectrum. But there are some great people in this city who are absolutely engaged with the local artwork and how it fits into the bigger picture."