Wagner on How They Built a Cutting-Edge Art Collection for the Ages
The husband-and-wife collectors Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner have played many different roles in the art world, as advisers, collectors, authors, and publishers. This week, however, they were feted as museum patrons; on Friday, the Whitney Museum of American Art unveiled “Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner,” a show of more than 100 pieces from the couple’s gift of 850 works of contemporary art to the Whitney and the Centre Pompidou Foundation.
With presciently-purchased works from the 1980s by blue-chip artists such as Christopher Wool and Cindy Sherman hanging alongside more recent acquisitions by the likes of Cheyney Thompson and Danh Vo, the show reveals an eye for the “polemical and seductive” (as Whitney curator Elisabeth Sussman puts it in the show’s catalog). It also displays the couple’s affinity for fellow art-world multitaskers; the artist-dealer Colin de Land is one strong influence, as can be seen in the many works by artists associated with his American Fine Arts gallery. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a sign of faith in the relationship between contemporary art collectors and public museums in a year that’s seen the opening of several private ones.
As the Whitney show (which travels to the Pompidou in June) was about to open, Westreich Wagner and her husband spoke to Artspace deputy editor Karen Rosenberg about the historical collectors they admire, the painting they sold and still miss, and the state of the art market today.
You have been collecting for more than three decades, personally and professionally, on your own and as a couple. What is it about collecting the art of your time that has kept you both engaged for such a sustained period?
Ethan: First of all, we love the process of learning. Artists say different things at different times about different aspects of our culture, and art opens our eyes and minds to those statements and engages us more fully in our time.
Thea: Through art, we’re really understanding things that couldn’t be described in advance. They’re ahead of their time. Artists make observations that are fundamentally essential to the understanding of art history and, I think, of history in general.
You’re experienced in building collections for others. How has that experience informed your own collecting?
T: There are umpteen million ways to build a great collection. I think building a collection as an adviser is different from building a collection for oneself. As advisers, what we did was to suss out the interests of the collector that were specific to them. My favorite story is about one of the first collections we built. The collectors had a house full of colorful paintings that weren’t important or interesting. But I could tell, from that, that they loved color and abstraction. And over the years, we built an extremely important collection of American Modernism. They loved living with it, and for me it was a way of building an important collection that identified the collectors’ interests and perspective.
E: When we look at art, what we’re trying to determine is, number one, if we’re affected by the art. Are we moved by it? And in that very nanosecond, we’re also making a judgment about whether we think the artist has an approach to art-making that has the possibility of going on for a number of years. In other words, we have to respond to it and we also have to feel that there’s an architecture, if you will, that the artist can build on.
So, how did you decide on the Whitney and the Pompidou?
E: When we began thinking about making this gift, the overwhelming desire was to do right by the artists. Not just to give their works to an institution, but to make sure that we were confident that that institution respects artists in general and values and appreciates the individual accomplishments of the artists in our collection. That was the driving force between selecting the Whitney.
Once you make that decision, as we did three and a half years ago, then you are staring at the decision of what to do with the European artists in the collection. That’s when we selected the Pompidou, with Adam Weinberg’s encouragement, because the two institutions have a good working relationship.
Once you had finalized the decision to make the gift, how did it change your approach to collecting?
E: About 12 years ago when we started talking about giving the vast part of our collection to the public, we also started to factor in: for each artist that we’re collecting in depth, will that work that we’re thinking of acquiring add to the portrait of that artist as seen in the group of works that we would be bequeathing to a museum? All of those factors coalesce, and the judgment can be made very quickly because there’s a lot of visual experience on both our parts.
T: But the notion that we would give the work away wasn’t really at the front of our minds for 12 years. It was latent. When we walked around an art fair or went to galleries regularly or traveled to see art exhibitions, our heads were full of the experience. We were very much in the moment. It’s not as though we went up to a work of art and said, “That’s great for the Whitney” or “That’s great for the Pompidou.” We said, “That’s great for us.” We were not walking around thinking of building a museum collection.
How important was the Whitney’s new building, in your decision process and the timing of the gift?
E: In the initial months when we were talking about the timing of the gift with Adam Weinberg and Elisabeth Sussman, we walked through the Breuer building with them to feel the space with our collection in mind. To be quite candid, they were already talking about the Renzo Piano building, and we came to the conclusion that the artists in our collection would benefit from a different kind of space. We had concerns about the floor at the Breuer, the ceiling at the Breuer. Adam said, “We think we can do a new building.” And, to his everlasting credit and honor, he delivered.
Who are the historical collectors you idolize?
E: I always thought, and still believe, that the greatest assemblage of objects by American collectors is the Menil collection.
T: The example of Walter Arensberg, for us, represents the process and the evolution of our collection. He enjoyed being with artists, he supported many—most famously Duchamp—and he was a very important figure. In a strange way, we identify with him—we spend untold hours with the artists and we enjoy studio visits as much as we enjoy dinners.
E: I would add, from the turn of the 20th century, the Russian collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. Their collections, of course, were taken over by the Russian state. Fortunately that didn’t happen to us! But they were in dialogue with the great artists at the turn of the century, the artists who wrote history. We spend a lot of time in the studios of Christopher Wool and Philippe Parreno and Danh Vo, and we would say those artists will be writing our art history.
Are there works in the gift that, in your estimation, fill a gap in the Whitney’s collection, or the Pompidou’s?
T: The works from the 1980s, by artists like Wool and Jeff Koons and Robert Gober and Cindy Sherman, are really important to the Whitney because they’re hard to buy now—they represent significant investments. At the opening the dealer Andrew Kreps was talking to our daughter Dana in front of the Gober sinks, and she was telling him that when she was little—she’s now almost 50—she and her friends used to throw peanuts into the sinks. Andrew said, “Oh my god—you mean your parents had those that early?” Bob Gober is now in the history books, but in 1986 probably more people than just our children were throwing peanuts at those things!
E: We sat down in Paris with the curators of the Pompidou and proposed 27 artists. The curators indicated to us that 23 of those artists were on their wish list. When they said that, we knew it was a done deal. Thea turned to me and whispered, “This is a good marriage.”
As Thea mentioned, your gift includes a big concentration of works from the ‘80s. How have the issues and approaches of that decade shaped the collection?
T: The ‘80s were obviously essential in forming our position around art. The issues of the 2000s are completely different. There’s a historical imperative about each series of ideas that are in the collection.
E: The younger artists in the collection emerged in the 2000’s, in a time marked by this furious market activity. That group includes Cheyney Thompson and Sam Lewitt and Liz Deschenes and Eileen Quinlan and Blake Rayne and several others, and these artists have a considerable antipathy to the market. That wasn’t the case in the ‘80s—the competition was very different in the collecting community. The collectors were few and far between.
Was there anything that surprised you about your own collection, as you worked with the museum curators—did they make you see it in a different way?
E: There were about a half-dozen works that we had never been able to install at home, because of the scale or the installation requirements. In the case of new works by Simon Starling, when they were installed at the Whitney it was the first time we had seen them since we purchased them.
T: Certain works of art were more dynamic, because of the light and the scale. There’s a Scott Lyall that was really enlivened by the light. We had lived with it really intimately and loved it, but at the Whitney I saw things in that painting that I hadn’t seen before.
E: The Christopher Wool that greets you when you come off the elevator was in our dining room for probably six or seven years, and yet when it went up Thea remarked to me that she was seeing more in the painting than we had seen in years of staring about it and talking about it constantly.
We’re in sort of a golden age of private museums. Was this something you considered, building your own space to house the collection?
T: Never. Not for one moment. When a collection goes to the museum they can use the works of art in their own way. Twenty years from now that installation won’t be there, but the art will. It might be recontextualized, in dialogue with another work of art that we won’t know about. That’s exciting—for me, maybe the most exciting thing about making a contribution as opposed to building your own personal museum.
What are some of the pros and cons of the private-museum approach? Who do you think is getting it right?
T: There are many private museums, and some of them will ultimately go into the public, like the Morgan Library or the Frick. Great art, in my estimation, will ultimately find its way into the public, one way or another. The important thing for us is what history does with the work. A museum can help that happen.
E: We’re not saying the way we’re doing it is the best way—people who own art are entitled to do whatever they want with it. If they want to sell the art, that’s their decision. If they want to open their own space, that’s their decision.
Have you ever sold something and regretted it?
E: We’re fortunate—and unfortunate—to be living in a time when higher dollar values attach to things very quickly. As we have gone forward, we’ve made choices and sold things off—mostly to buy younger artists.
We admire Sigmar Polke extravagantly, and about 10 years ago we finally bought a pretty significant Polke painting. We came to the conclusion, thereafter, that the scale and prices of Polke’s work were reaching places that made us feel like we couldn’t do a proper job of collecting him, of acquiring the best things. So we sold that painting. We miss it. We’re sitting right underneath where it was, in the library, and it would be boring to say how many times we marveled at it. But right now we’re sitting with two works by Padraig Timoney—
T: —which we probably couldn’t have bought at the time when we bought it without proceeds from the Polke. Boy, do we miss that painting. But it did allow us to continue collecting, at a particular moment.
Let’s talk about the current moment, in the art market and the culture of collecting. When you wrote your book Collecting Art for Love, Money and More, back in 2013, you had a lot to say about collectors who pursue art strictly for investment purposes. Has anything changed since then?
T: We talked about the idea of different art worlds in the book, but I think it’s been magnified. The auctions represent a significantly different part of the art world, and the idea of art investing and art trading is very singular. There are people who really know how to do that, and are doing it particularly well. There seem to be these waves of interest around certain artists, and then that wave goes down and another artist comes up. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what we’re doing, or what we’re interested in. It’s much more clear to me that there are very different art worlds that are operating side-by-side but really have nothing to do with one another.
E: I agree entirely. Another thing Thea and I have talked about a lot is the way communication has changed, the way collectors countenance the works they ultimately acquire. A lot of it is being done from images online, and that speeds up everything. Our way is not to speed it up but rather to slow it down. We grind through it at our own pace, and it means a lot of travel, a lot of looking. But that’s the joy for us.
As you just said, you’re still very active in the art world. So what happens now, after the Whitney and Pompidou gift? Where do you go next, after such a summation of your lives as collectors?
T: [Laughs] Back to the gallery! Nothing’s changed. I have my gallery list for Friday, and I’m really excited about that. By Saturday, Ethan will say, “What did you see? Okay, I’m going back with you.” Absolutely nothing has changed. We will continue to collect. Hopefully our minds will allow us to continue to learn. If you came over to our house, you’d see that it’s chock full of new things!