Emily Fisher Landau, a world-renowned contemporary art collector, died on 27 March in Palm Beach, Florida, at age 102. Landau was best known to the public as the creator of the Fisher Landau Center for Art, a repurposed parachute factory in Long Island City, Queens, which displayed pieces from her vast collection of over 1,200 works from 1991 to 2017. A longtime trustee of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, she pledged almost 400 pieces valued at nearly $75m to the institution in 2010.
Landau’s origin story as a premier art patron began unusually—with a heist. In 1969, burglars disguised as air-conditioner repairmen broke into her home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and stole the collection of jewellery—including a 39-carat blue white diamond solitaire—that her husband, real estate developer Martin Fisher, had bought for her on special occasions over the years. When the insurance settlement came her way, Landau had a different direction in mind for the funds. “I decided that I didn’t want the jewellery any more,” she said in an interview for a Whitney Museum catalogue published to accompany a 2011 exhibition of her collection, and quoted in The New York Times. “I now had seed money for a collection”.
Collecting art had always been an interest of Landau’s, who had started sourcing art prior to the theft. Despite not having any formal art historical background, her discerning taste and doggedly independent approach to acquisition set her apart as an aesthete. Her first big art purchase came in 1968, when she bought a three-foot-tall Alexander Calder mobile, which she brought back to her apartment on a crosstown bus and “carried up... like a Christmas tree”, Landau later recalled.
This passion for Modernism led her to the work of Josef Albers. “Albers was my beginning point as a collector,” she said in the Whitney catalogue interview. “I’ve never collected something because it was fashionable. It was always about what I instinctively liked.”
Working closely with Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher, Landau and Fisher amassed a trove of art by modern art legends including Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko, Louise Nevelson and Paul Klee between 1969 and 1976, the year Fisher died. After taking a hiatus from collecting, Landau met theater designer Bill Katz, whom she commissioned to redecorate her apartment on Park Avenue in 1980. Katz went on to become her art consultant, advising her to look beyond the more historically inclined collection she had built. With an eye on more contemporary fare, Landau became a regular at artists' studios in the 1980s and 90s.
Landau became a trustee at the Whitney, which named the fourth floor of its Madison Avenue building in her honour in 1994, the year she established an exhibition endowment for the museum. She also sat on committees at the Museum of Modern Art and on the boards of the SITE Sante Fe museum and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico. The French government named her a chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters as recognition of her arts patronage.
The first decade of the 2000s was a difficult time for Landau. Her son Anthony and his wife died in a plane crash in 2003, the same year one of her grandchildren died in a car accident. Another son, Richard, died in 2006, and her third husband, Sheldon Landau, died in 2009.
Landau was born in 1920 in Glens Fall, New York, and grew up in the Washington Heights neighbourhood of Upper Manhattan. Her final years were spent in Greenwich, Connecticut, where she battled Alzheimer’s disease.
“She typifies pre-2000 collectors who made an avocation out of refining their collections," New York dealer Barbara Gladstone told the Times. "She was not just buying because it would go up in value. That’s a wonderfully old-fashioned tradition".