Peter Brant and Stephanie Seymour put their contemporary art collection on show
The newsprint magnate and his wife have one of the largest collections of American art in the world. Next month it goes on display in a new permanent gallery in Connecticut
By Jason Edward Kaufman. Features, Issue 201, April 2009
Published online: 08 April 2009
NEW YORK. Peter Brant, the collector of contemporary American art, and his wife, the model Stephanie Seymour Brant, have turned a Connecticut fruit barn into a gallery for the display of their paintings, sculptures, photographs and videos.
Located on rolling countryside at Conyers Farm, a luxury residential community that Brant developed in Greenwich, the Brant Foundation Art Study Centre, which opens in late May, will mount two exhibitions per year drawn mainly from the approximately 600 works by Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons and dozens of other artists that Brant has amassed over the last four decades.
Architect Richard Gluckman has converted the interior of the 1902 stone barn into three skylit galleries and a video room in which the Brants, or guest curators, will organise single-artist or thematic shows of around 40 to 60 works. Brant also collects English and American furniture, and will display 20th-century pieces in the centre. The fields outside will be home to monumental works such as Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog, 1994-2000, and his topiary terrier Puppy, 1993, as well as Paul McCarthy’s Santa, 2002, and Richard Serra’s Ali-Frazier, 2001.
“We believe it is part of our stewardship to exhibit and share as much of the collection as possible,” says Brant, whose fortune derives from his family-run White Birch Paper Company, the second largest producer of newsprint in North America. He also owns Brant Publications, the publisher of Art in America, the magazines Antiques and Interview (founded by Andy Warhol), and he produced the films “Basquiat”, 1996, “Pollock”, 2000, and “Andy Warhol: a Documentary”, 2006.
Because the area is zoned for residential use, the centre will be open by appointment, but Brant anticipates many visitors on Sundays in the summer when hundreds come to watch polo games at the club he founded nearby. The inaugural exhibition, which continues until February 2010, will present around 60 works made between 1978 and 2008 by the aforementioned artists as well as Maurizio Cattelan, Larry Clark, Francesco Clemente, John Currin, Eric Fischl, Karen Kilimnik, Raymond Pettibon, Elizabeth Peyton, David Salle, Kenny Scharf, Julian Schnabel and Cindy Sherman, among others. After that there will be a one-man show devoted to the Swiss artist Urs Fischer.
Brant spoke to us by telephone from Palm Beach, Florida where he was competing in the Gold Cup at the US Open Polo Tournament. Now 62, he was the highest ranked amateur in the world for many years. “It’s a game I really love,” he says, “but I think I’m coming towards the end.” However, he has no inclination to withdraw from the art world.
The Art Newspaper: You’re a successful businessman. Why collect art and create a foundation?
Peter Brant: My whole philosophy of life revolves around aesthetics and I believe that you should try and sell the gospel. You need to preach and I’ve been doing that my whole life. It’s not something I decided to do four or five years ago…I took one hiatus between 1976 and 1982 when I was involved in horseracing, but besides that I’ve been a very serious collector. We never really acquired art for the purposes of decorating. We always collected because we were very interested in art and art history. We thought this was a good opportunity to give something back to the art world and to our community.
TAN: Do you intend to donate your collection to a museum?
PB: Ultimately, if I could afford to, I would like to have the collection put away in the foundation in perpetuity, to be able to show it and to be guaranteed that it would be shown…There are many possibilities. I’ve given works of art to probably 20 or 25 museums, including the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, the Whitney—and some stand today as pretty major things. Many times when you give works to museums they’re not put on display. I would very much like the foundation to ensure that the works would be shown to the public, and that could be done through an affiliation in the future with a museum, but it might be tied to some sort of condition or guarantee that the works would be exhibited over a period of time.
TAN: What do you think of Eli Broad’s idea of maintaining a collection like a lending library?
PB: I’m a great admirer and think he’s one of the really great patrons of the arts. I like the lending library idea, but I do believe that the works should be shown…I have been very active in lending to large retrospective shows of artists we’ve collected. And it’s not just museums [but] gallery shows as well, because I think they have equal importance in many ways…Larry [Gagosian] has had some of the most memorable shows that I can remember. And he’s not the only one. Per Skarstedt, Luhring Augustine, Tony Shafrazi, Barbara Gladstone, Metro Pictures, Gavin Brown—there are a number of galleries that have had phenomenal shows. It keeps museum on their toes because they get that portion of the art press and attention, so mediocre exhibitions don’t fly that easily.
TAN: Which other collectors do you admire?
PB: David Geffen has a great collection specifically focused in on 1948 to 1961 or 1962—one of the really great collections in the world of that period. Si Newhouse has a great collection. He’s been a collector as long as I have and loves art and has been very dedicated…Some have more depth than others, but to me a great collection is if you have one great work of art.
TAN: Why has your collecting focused on contemporary American artists?
PB: Stephanie and I love European art, but collecting is about focusing and doing it in depth. Occasionally I’ll branch out, like in the case of Urs Fischer, but I consider artists like that in a sense American because they live and work in America. For me Francesco Clemente is not an Italian artist, he’s an American artist. I concentrate on what I have some knowledge of and where I can obtain the knowledge easily.
TAN: Have you ever had advisers?
PB: I’ve never had an official advisor but I’ve had mentors like Leo Castelli…I would say the one dealer who probably influenced me the most and started me in the right direction was Bruno Bischofberger. I’ve known Bruno since I was 15 or 16 years old—I met him skiing in San Moritz —and he’s still a very close friend. He has one of the best eyes and is one of the most knowledgeable dealers in the world.
TAN: In an interview with the collector Adam Lindemann you said, “As a collector, you really have to be thinking about what people’s tastes are going to be like ten or 15 years from now.” If you buy work you love, what do you care what other people will think in 15 years?
PB: You really have to be looking 15 or 20 years from now because an artist should be that much ahead of his time to forecast something aesthetically, politically or culturally…For instance, one of the earliest pictures that I bought was [Andy Warhol’s] Shot Blue Marilyn. Today that is like looking at the Mona Lisa. Marilyn Monroe has a totally different image than she had in 1964 when she passed away. It’s like Elton John’s song. We’ve looked at her life in retrospect since then and what Andy Warhol projected is something that now is very accurate—but nobody knew it at the time. The art world cognoscenti thought that picture was garish and photographic. It was not considered beautiful and not embraced by the art world…But that’s what Andy did, he was the radical artist at that time.
To me it’s about looking at something visually or conceptually that is really going to change your view, something that is going to set a new aesthetic because of what it means culturally. Then it will become socialised and become beautiful. But it has to have some importance, some angst that changes your life in some sense. It has to be troublesome in some way.
TAN: So innovation is an important criterion?
PB: Yes, the beauty is not enough. If I look at a work by Elizabeth Peyton or Karen Kilimnik or John Currin, it’s not because it’s beautifully done. It stands for something that’s culturally important…One common thread in our collection is that a lot of these artists have gotten their ideas from an image—from going through a magazine or seeing something on a billboard or in a comic book—and it becomes iconic as an image that is available to us subconsciously in some way in our society. That’s what’s happened to our society: we’re looking at pictures.
TAN: You have many works by David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl and Francesco Clemente, who were especially prominent in the 1980s. Why did their stars fall?
PB: Their stars have not fallen to me. I think Julian is still an extremely important artist [and] an extremely creative man. He has no fear of branching out and becoming a film-maker and getting involved in music or architecture. I think that confuses people and infuriates them in a jealous way. They felt the same about Andy. He became a film-maker and when he branched out to do Hollywood films, which I was involved in, the art world resented it. But he became more famous in Europe for the films than for the art.
You have art dealers who have only been in the business for five years who will comment on the likes of Schnabel, Salle, Fischl and Clemente and talk about them like they’re dinosaurs. Actually they are artists that are in the history books and important in their own right. [We] want to show them with some of the artists who are more, say, au courant than they are. But, again, Warhol is a god today; in the early 1980s he was almost persona non grata. People forget that. Why do you think so much of his late great work was in the estate?
TAN: What do you think of the Mugrabi family trying to corner the Warhol market?
PB: It’s a large family and they all have their different qualities and talents. Jose Mugrabi loves art, but it’s also a serious business for him. He started collecting in the early 1980s…but nobody will ever corner the Andy Warhol market. Andy did thousands of pictures. I don’t know how many pictures Jose Mugrabi owns, but like anything in art it’s really the quality that counts, not the number. He does have some quality works as well, and lives with them. People have asked me if I’m trying to corner the market, but I buy maybe one or two works a year of Andy’s to fill in the collection, but it’s not anything sizeable.
TAN: How important is it for you that the work you acquire retains or generates value?
PB: I never bought art with the idea that the primary push was that the values are going to go up. I know I have a reputation of buying the right stuff but my primary push is that I have a feeling that something is really great. It’s playful, there’s genius in it and it gets my juices going—that’s why I buy works. And the ones that have appreciated the most are some of the ones that most advisors would tell you never to buy.
A perfect example would be the [Jeff Koons] Puppy. I mean, what advisor would tell you to buy the Puppy? It’s maybe Jeff’s greatest work. I started to try and buy it in 1993 when he had just shown it in Aarhus and they couldn’t deliver it because it was in wood and structurally not fit. They had to do it in stainless steel and have it manufactured in Australia so it was a long wait. The idea to plant 80,000 flowers every year—nobody is going to tell you to buy something like that. But to me it was like the greatest public sculpture that I’d seen, as important as anything done in the last couple of hundred years, and [I knew that] one day this foundation would display works and this was a pivotal piece to show and have. It’s probably my favourite work of art.
TAN: Do you sometimes sell or trade works to raise funds for other purchases?
PB: Absolutely. I have done that all my life. If I am short and I have extra works of a certain period and don’t have the funding to buy something I need, I sell from time to time. But on balance I am a buyer…The last time was over a year ago when I sold some of Andy’s work that I felt that I had other examples of in order to raise money. In that case we were making a large acquisition for my company and [needed to raise money] because of the capital markets shutting down about a year and a half ago, so I did sell some things.
TAN: How is the downturn of the economy and the art market going to affect your collecting?
PB: In the last two or three months I actually have been buying. I find that the opportunity is there today to buy higher quality and it’s available at lower prices because more people need the liquidity and the money. For collectors it’s an opportunity to buy at a different level. The level that the art was at nine months to a year-and-a-half ago was an unrealistic level and an unhealthy level considering that it made it very difficult for collectors to collect. It’s much better that dealers have to think now about pricing their work more reasonably both in the primary and on the secondary market to entice collectors. It’s about time that happened…I feel that it’s very important that artists realise that the world is what it is today and they have to adjust and not be unreasonable. [That means] scaling back projects that are not realistic in today’s economy and depending more on being creative and having brilliant ideas that don’t have to be executed in gold or platinum or diamonds.
TAN: What about Damien Hirst? Did you buy at the Hirst auction at Sotheby’s?
PB: No. I think Damien is a great artist, but it’s the old saying: You live by the sword, you die by the sword. He kind of maximised the commerciality of his business. I believe that the volume that you turn out and the way in which it’s executed has some meaning in the traditional sense in the art world. That has no bearing on how great an artist you are—Picasso, Monet and Warhol, a lot of the greatest artists have done a huge amount of volume. But you have to be prepared to go through those moments when the supply is going to outdo the demand. I think I have one very early Hirst Apothecary cabinet piece done in 1989 that I bought probably in 1991. I have had other works by him, but I did not buy anything in that sale.
TAN: What have you bought recently?
PB: Some of Urs Fischer’s work, John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, some work from Gavin Brown’s show of Jonathan Horowitz on the Obama election, Cindy Sherman I like a lot.
TAN: Does the current climate favour auction houses or dealers?
PB: I think there are better opportunities for dealers only because the transition in the auction houses has been so severe. They were very strong over a period of six years, then as the market turned they naturally got hit because of the guarantees they had out there. Everything that was part of their formula for growth all of a sudden hit in the ninth inning. It’s a temporary hit, but in the meantime the dealers have an opportunity to do private sales and secondary-market transactions.
What the auction houses have to do is scale down their evening sales for contemporary art and really concentrate on getting the best quality. How do you do that when the prices come down and you can’t offer anything attractive to the [consignors]? They have to still continue to actively pursue quality things…if they [once] had 60 works in an evening sale they should have perhaps 30 and make them really good.
Dealers have sour grapes about the auction houses because they’ve eroded into their business especially on the secondary market for private sales, which is a very stupid place for the auction houses to be. They don’t have the expertise and you’re competing against your customers—the largest portion of customers of the auction houses is the art dealers.
I think the auction houses are making some mistakes now by trying to underestimate where the market is to increase the percentage of their sell-through. That’s very destructive to the art market. Just like they were responsible for increasing the values faster than they should have, they also are now responsible for decreasing the values faster than they should be. That’s because some moron in these auction houses, a financial guy, says they think the market’s gone down 50% so everything’s 50% lower—every appraisal that is given for a bank on collateral, every insurance appraisal. That’s a self-defeating position.
I don’t think the market has deteriorated as much as the press believes that it has because I’m talking to dealers that are doing business. They might be doing business at a lower level, but it’s not 50% or 60% below where it was a year or two ago. For quality things it might be 25% lower.
TAN: A recent debate organised by Robert Rosenkranz of Delphi Fund postulated that the art market is less ethical than the stock market. Would you agree?
PB: I think that there’s no comparison. I believe that the country is in the condition that it’s in today largely because of what transpired on Wall Street. I’m not a great fan of such a large population of people that are effectively controlling our resources that don’t really make or produce anything. What got us into trouble was the packaging of these mortgages and the lack of contact with individuals on the street, and this idea to package it and sell it off to someone else—mortgages, credits, derivatives and the whole works. The transparency in the art world is 100 times better and greater than on Wall Street. The very nature of the art market being entrepreneurial and having such a cast of characters involved, it forms like a knitting group of people that are yakking away like old ladies. It might be regulated on Wall Street but nobody understands it. Can you read Citibank’s balance sheet? Who the hell can read that? You can have a masters in business administration or accounting and you can’t read that balance sheet. It’s impossible. I’ve had a lot of dealings with purchasing and selling through these auction companies over the last 40 years, and I think today they’ve regulated themselves a lot more, especially since the anti-trust case that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Sotheby’s and Christie’s. These companies are so large with so many employees that if anything like that went on it would be known, and I don’t believe that they do that. They’re very strict on setting reserves, and people can’t bid up to the reserves.
TAN: I understand that you’re commissioning portraits of your wife by various artists?
PB: We’ve been doing that for around ten years. There are probably 15 or 16 artists who have already done it: Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Eric Fischl, George Condo, Thomas Ruff, Maurizio Cattelan, Kenny Scharf, Piotr Uklanski, Enoc Perez, another artist I’ve been collecting. Jeff Koons, Urs Fischer and Karen Kilimnik are working on theirs. I’m going to ask John Currin and Elizabeth Peyton but I want them to want to do it. I want it to be collaborative because Stephanie is a professional poser and a great art collector. The whole idea is that the artist can do whatever they want. It will take probably another ten years and at some point we’ll show all the portraits at our foundation and in conjunction with a couple of museums. Those are all commissioned by the foundation and can never be sold.
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