In addition to supporting young artists early on in their careers, native Miamian Ashley Abess has been instrumental in rejuvenating her hometown’s next ascendant arts district. Through their company MVW Partners, Abess and her husband, Matthew Vander Werff, have spent the better part of a decade revitalising a 25-acre area of Little River, a neighbourhood to the north of the Miami Design District and Little Haiti. Now, with two of the city’s foremost art non-profits—Locust Projects and Oolite Arts—moving into the area, those years of fostering community are attracting attention and investment. Abess’s influence extends beyond Little River, though: she is a board member emeritus of the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach and recently became a board member at the figuration-championing New York Academy of Art.
The Art Newspaper: What was the first work you bought?
Ashley Abess: The first piece of art that I remember purchasing was when I was a junior in college at Parsons School of Design in New York. There was a series of nine portraits that were hanging in a makeshift gallery space; I would see these paintings every day and fell in love with them. I asked around and found out that the girl who painted it, Curran Mor, was an illustration major and it had been her senior show. I purchased the entire series. Eighteen years and several moves later, I still have them hanging in my home.
What was your most recent purchase?
I just joined the board of the New York Academy of Art after being involved as a patron and participant over the past decade. Matthew and I purchase the vast majority of our artwork from the academy’s students. They are some of the most talented young artists in the country and are getting the most incredible training. It’s really special being able to buy directly from the artist at a critical point in their career.
Every year we attend the academy’s annual Tribeca Ball. The students turn their studios into galleries. It’s a really dynamic and incredible way to experience the art and gives you the opportunity to interact with the students and learn more about their stories, which makes purchasing their work even more gratifying. At this year’s event we purchased pieces from Chinedu Victor, Alayna Coverly, Wilba Simson and Jed Webster Smith.
If your house was on fire, which work would you save?
I grew up around this amazing Bodhisattva head from the third or fourth century that my grandparents owned. Part of the stucco face had broken off, revealing the exact same face in the layer beneath. My grandparents were very serious collectors of Chinese art and antiquities, some of which are now on display at the Brooklyn Museum and the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. When my grandmother passed away, she left this particular piece to her best friend, who in turn said that she wanted me to have it. It reminds me both of my childhood and my grandparents, and it’s also so beautiful and intriguing to be around.
If money were no object, what would be your dream purchase?
An entire hall worth of Ruth Asawa sculptures.
Which work do you regret not buying when you had the chance?
All roads lead back to the New York Academy of Art! There were three student artists—Aleah Chapin, Luisi Mera and Nicolas Sanchez—whose pieces I really wanted to buy, but I didn’t understand the context in which I would have them—where I would display them, and so on. Two of the artists had solo shows last time I was in New York City and I told myself I was going to go and buy pieces to make up for losing out on them the last time. But I wasn’t able to fit gallery visits into my schedule and I missed out again! I am obsessed with these little baby Moleskine sketchbooks that Nicolas does in ballpoint pen, and stupidly didn’t buy one when he was a student.
What is the most surprising place you have displayed a work?
Matthew and I have this incredible painting from an artist named Walker Augustyniak that depicts the behinds of a male and female pig standing next to each other—so, essentially, two pig butts. Walker told us that it was his way of portraying a relationship of love. We have it hanging in our kitchen, which is a central hub in our house, so anyone who comes over will see the pig butts, and if you’re ever on a Zoom or FaceTime with me while I’m at home, that’s what you’ll be looking at.
Which artists, dead or alive, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
A dear family friend, Rosalind Jacobs, was a prolific collector and patron who had deep friendships with artists from the Surrealist movements during the 1950s and 1960s—like Lee Miller, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. She and her husband amassed an impressive collection of their works. As a college freshman I had to write a paper on Man Ray, and he was one of Roz’s closest friends, so I interviewed Roz and based my paper off of her experience as his friend and patron of his work, which gave me a really unique perspective. So, back to the dinner party, I would want Roz to host and invite all of her artist friends so I could see her in her element with that crowd of icons.
What’s the best collecting advice you’ve been given?
You’ll run out of wall space before you run out of art that you love, so just stop overthinking where the pieces are going to go, buy what you love and figure it out later. I received the advice a little too late, but I’m making up for lost time now.
Have you bought an NFT?
No. And I don’t plan to.