Collecting That Matters: The Art Collection of Alison and Alan Schwartz

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By Randy Gladman for C Magazine

Sheltered from public view and largely unknown, private collections of international contemporary art exist in a nearly invisible secret world. The artworks they contain may have been exhibited at galleries when they were new but they soon disappear from public view, popping up only occasionally at auction or on temporary loan to museums. Traded infrequently over the years, these pieces exist out of view until, ideally, they eventually find their way to public institutions where they are once again revealed, often many decades after they were last exhibited.

Great collections are rare by any standards and exceedingly hard to find. Of these, a few are accessible to the public. A Canadian example was the recently closed Ydessa Hendeles Foundation, which hosted the public during limited hours on weekends and by appointment at its downtown Toronto building, having gained international recognition for the quality of its curating as well as its collecting. In the United States, the Rubell Family Collection and the Margulies Collection, both in Miami, are examples of private collections that have carefully crafted their public profiles and function as pseudo-museums. But most private collections exist only behind closed doors for the enjoyment of the collectors and their closest friends. Except for a privileged few, access to these collections is hard to come by, and information about their owners and contents is sparse .

The Toronto collection of Alison and Alan Schwartz is one of the few examples of truly top-quality international contemporary art assembled in a private space in Canada. With works by luminaries such as Anselm Kiefer, Glenn Ligon, Cindy Sherman, Mark Bradford, Rodney Graham, Sigmar Polke, Giuseppe Penone, and Bill Viola, to name but a few selections, a more sophisticated and thoughtfully assembled collection is hard to fathom. Possibly the only private home to host both a steel sculpture and an imperial drawing by Richard Serra, it is likely that Schwartz’s collection inspires admiration and envy even among museum directors.

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A short amount of time spent with Alan Schwartz, the driving force behind the collection, betrays an obvious passion for contemporary art. His zeal for art is a heady highball cocktail: one part love, one part intelligence, one part business savvy. Never having taken a single art course, Schwartz is entirely self-taught but speaks of art issues and ideas with the authority of a museum docent and the insight of an art history professor. More than thirty years after first becoming obsessed with contemporary art, he wields an international reputation as an impeccable collector with access to the highest stratospheres of power in the art world. His philanthropic efforts, particularly his donations of artworks to the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario, and time spent on boards of directors for institutions like the Alfred Stieglitz Society at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Institute for Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum have solidified his bona fides in the global art community.

Schwartz spent the first years of his professional career as a litigation lawyer at Fogler’s in Toronto. After working his way up to senior partner, he took a turn when he moved to the investment management firm Gluskin Sheff and became Vice-Chairman. In 2000, the high-tech/biotech brokerage Yorkton Securities lured Schwartz away, hoping his experience in both law and finance would help them navigate the meteor shower they faced from an investigation by security regulators. “I think I was able to help,” he says of his efforts there. “When my work at Yorkton was finished, I had several opportunities to return to Bay Street but I decided not to. It was the right time in my life to walk away from all that, so I decided to open my own consulting company, albeit without a specific idea of what I would be consulting about and for whom.” Working in very diverse areas (ranging from high finance to landscape architecture), his firm Lonsdale Holdings now consults for a number of companies and individuals on many business and strategic levels. One of the services it offers is helping people build smart art collections. “I limit the number of clients I have and the time I put into it. I approach it in a way where I don’t keep repeating myself and do my best to be sensitive to both the individual client and the physical environment in which they are looking at and thinking about art.”

Well-groomed, sophisticated, and elegant, the exterior of the Schwartz family home in Toronto’s Deer Park neighbourhood appears modest and well scaled on its street, betraying little of the vast scope of the collection inside. The first work that greets visitors in the entrance foyer is a large-diameter, circular Georg Baselitz painting (though it should be noted that Schwartz is an active curator, frequently changing up the installation of his works). Depicting an upside-down, abused and miserable eagle plummeting to Earth through smears of dripping pastel oil, this Neo-Expressionist icon of German historical regret signals to visitors that they are about to experience a thought-provoking collection that is at once beautiful and challenging, demanding active engagement. Schwartz’s tours generally begin immediately after crossing the threshold into the house with this important work.

On the other side of the front door, above a quiet Jenny Holzer engraved marble bench, hangs a startling digital work by Jim Campbell. With its fluid, human movements, this piece repeatedly catches the corners of visitors’ eyes, tricking them into believing that someone new has just entered the foyer. In the drawing room hang massive Christopher Wool and Martin Kippenberger paintings that are nearly too big for the walls themselves, two mysterious Anselm Kiefer pieces (remarkable because they are not particularly large), and two Rodney Graham photos of upside-down trees. A bit further into the space resides one of Schwartz’s two large Kara Walker canvases (this one in the spot previously occupied by a Jeff Wall backlit Cibachrome), an all-white steel and plaster mask by Thomas Houseago, and a purposefully awkwardly placed Rachel Whiteread sculpture, all closely watched over by three Cindy Sherman photographs hung along the sweeping staircase.

The collection upstairs is no less impressive. The master bedroom is dominated by two massive, equally sized black and white paintings: one by Glenn Ligon, the other by Kara Walker. Referencing Ligon’s idea of cultural invisibility, a Rachel Whiteread bookshelf that addresses forgotten memories hangs nearby over the bed. Schwartz’s daughter’s bedroom offers a painting by Charline von Heyl (Christopher Wool’s wife, whose brilliant artistic career has only recently been recognized) and the original series of Rineke Dijkstra’s Bathers, a fitting relic for the bedroom of a teenage girl who has now moved on to a promising career in fashion in New York City. Not to be outdone, Schwartz’s son’s room hosts a scarred and branded work by Rashid Johnson. Made of old floor boards, this piece is accompanied by typical accoutrements found in a young man’s private space like Rush posters and concert tickets pinned to the walls. Around the corner and past a pair of George Condo paintings, Schwartz’s office is home to another Kippenberger and a massive Kiefer piece so heavy that it took a team of four art handlers the better part of an entire day to hoist it up the stairs and mount it on the wall. The quality of this collection is such that Schwartz tends to skip a Matthew Barney photograph when giving tours, as if Barney’s influence upon contemporary art and culture at large is but a minor distraction.

Schwartz’s interest in collecting art dates to the very early 1980s when he began spending much of his free time haunting the downtown Toronto galleries owned by art luminaries like Carmen Lamana, Av Isaacs, and Jared Sable. Schwartz believes his interest in the work he saw at the time was more than that of a typical client. “Every Saturday Alison and I would drag our kids down to the galleries,” he explains. “It was a significant part of our life. We loved what we were learning, seeing, and feeling. It was inspiring and took us away from the world we experienced in our day-to-day lives. Our interest continued to develop and evolve. We loved being provoked by the work and enjoyed look-ing so much that inevitably we wanted to have what we saw….” By the end of the 1980s, his collection held well over 100 works of Canadian art.

A trip to New York City turned Schwartz on to the works of artists working outside of Canada. One visit in particular to Luhring Augustine Gallery, still located in SoHo at the time, resulted in an important change in direction. Schwartz, best known for his excellent photography collection, part of which he donated to the Vancouver Art Gallery, explains how he stumbled onto this medium by accident and necessity rather than through any genius insight about the future:

“The artists on display at Luhring Augustine were Christopher Wool and Martin Kippenberger. At the time, I had no idea who they were. It was 1991, the heart of the recession. I was in New York City for five days and I went back to see those works every day. The gallerists must have thought I was a lunatic; I was asking so many questions about these artists. The truth was that I could not afford the pieces; I have no recollection of how much they were being sold for at the time but whatever it was, $20,000 or something, it was way more than I could have dreamt of spending. On the same trip, however, I saw some rear-screen projection photographs by Cindy Sherman at Skarstedt Gallery. I thought they were extraordinary, I loved them, and I could afford them. Photographs appeared to be priced at a level where I could actually conceive of buying. I soon tripped over other photographers like Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky. At the time, not too many people were interested in them but I thought they were amazing and began to buy their work. Because I am sort of obsessive, I got more and more interested in the whole idea of collecting photography. People give me way too much credit by saying it was a deliberate strategy based on a sense of the future market because it wasn’t.”

As photography’s reception in international contemporary art circles and markets continued to rise in importance towards the end of the 20th century, Schwartz’s collecting activities and passion for the medium conferred upon him an internationally recognized and respected reputation. In addition to developing friendships with Cindy Sherman and Thomas Struth, this allowed him to spend time with Andreas Gursky, particularly in 2009 when the Vancouver Art Gallery hosted the touring retrospective exhibition Werke/Works 80–08, in which the German photographer’s entire career output was presented in smaller-than-normal format. Gursky was in attendance at the opening, along with his dealers from Germany and New York, when Schwartz was asked to speak about the work in front of 40 people, who included the museum’s benefactors, its director, curators and staff, as well as Gursky and his gallerists. “He [Gursky] told me he loved what I had to say and I was thrilled by that. We went to dinner together afterwards. He was coming off the excitement of the opening and experiencing whatever emotions an artist feels when they see their work displayed and hear someone talk about why it matters. He was in a particularly expansive mood.”

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Through the 1990s, Schwartz focused on collecting a dozen photo-based artists. By the end of the decade, he had amassed a collection of more than 150 photographs but began to feel that the works of many of the artists he had been tracking and acquiring were becoming too expensive. “It seems laughable by today’s standards,” he explains, “but, at the time, I felt that works by Cindy Sherman, Thomas Struth, and Andreas Gursky were too expensive at $80,000 and $90,000.” A growing concern that the market was out of control soon combined with the feeling that his narrow focus on one area was eroding his edge as a collector. “I wanted to be able to see things with very fresh eyes and not repeat myself,” he says. “So in 2002, I transferred about 100 works to the Vancouver Art Gallery.” The total collection, which was valued at $3.5 million in the museum’s press release, was accompanied by a donation of 15 photographs to the Art Gallery of Ontario and the sale of 30 more works to Per Skarstedt Gallery in New York City. Using these actions as a clean slate, Schwartz renewed his collecting activities and branched into new directions.

While photography still plays an important role in his collecting and images by Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Louise Lawler, Doug Aitken, Ronny Horn and Rineke Dijkstra, examples of which can still be found in his home, Schwartz expanded his collecting philosophy. “I still love photography,” he says. “I started collecting painting, sculpture and new media work again because I was coming at collecting in a new way. There are many ways people collect and they are all legitimate. People have different ways of looking and determining what speaks to them. I decided I wanted to collect art that I believe is going to matter for a very long time. It may sound more pretentious than it is. I don’t know if I’m correct but I believe that most of the work that I collect is going to be meaningful a decade or two from now. I want to buy work by artists that are saying something significant enough that museums, curators, critics and others will care about it now and will still care long after I stop collecting it.”

In addition to collecting works by a “who’s who” of top-shelf international contemporary artists, Schwartz is always actively looking at and thinking about the younger generation of artists – and more mature artists who may not yet have been fully recognized – whom he thinks might be brilliant enough to make the art that will define our era. This is not an easy target, he admits. Amy Sillman, Nicole Eisenman, Ryan Gander, Theaster Gates, Haroon Mirza, and Bharti Kher are some of the artists he is currently tracking and looking at closely. “I’m always thinking about new artists and always looking at art. When I go to New York and London, I literally spend days going through the galleries. Some of the dealers tell me that I see much more art than they do. I still get an electric charge when I see great new art. I remember the first time I saw the work of Tauba Auerbach, four or five years ago at least. I was mesmerized and went back several days in a row just to sit in the gallery and look.”

When asked about the current state of the art market and if it is in the frothy embrace of a bubble, Schwartz holds a balanced view. Though he sees too much emphasis on money and the overweighted influence that it imposes on the functioning of the art market today, he feels that the long-term outlook remains positive:

“I expect that for the next 20 years the market will have a good run, though not as good as the past twenty years. The art market has changed in many ways over the past decade. Art is now seen by many people as a commodity. This is unfortunate. Often in conversations about art, money has replaced substance. It is tragic but it is here to stay. Serious collectors are going to have to navigate their way through this reality. There is nothing wrong with considering your art collection as an asset. But there is a difference between that and being driven to buy simply because of dollar considerations. When you are buying for money, you are buying with your ears and not with your head, eyes and heart. You are buying what people are talking about at that moment. You are not seeing art; you are seeing dollar signs. I want to be clear that I think it is perfectly legitimate for someone to say ‘I’m spending a great deal of money on this and I want to buy something that has lasting value.’ Buying something that may have long-term economic value is different than speculating. The speculator is a different buyer than the person who is driven by the sheer love of art.”

Despite the prominence of money in the current art market and the increasing power of wealthy collectors, Schwartz believes that artists will always maintain a greater and longer lasting influence on the artistic definition of our era. “There are many things that have to fall into place for artists to become noticed as art stars. Some of those things relate to their reception by critics, museums, publishers and, ultimately, the collectors and money. But ultimately it is the artist that produces beauty, thought, provocation, and creativity. In the end, that’s what will matter.”

When asked about his long-term intent for his collection, Schwartz is coy, suggesting that some of the pieces will go to his children while many of them will be given to art museums. “We hope to collect forever, however long that is. We have not really thought about what will become of our collection because I have not thought about my own end. I’m too optimistic to think that way.” Given the quality of the works that continue to make their way into his collection, it is likely that many will eventually find their way to institutions where Schwartz’s custodial care will be part of the permanent record of provenance. In the long run, this is how we acknowledge and remember that collectors matter too.

Originally published in the C Magazine, Winter 2012/2013.