On the occasion of her gallery’s fortieth anniversary, Omar Kholeif, Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, speaks to Rhona Hoffman about Chicago’s art history, present and future.
Omar Kholeif: I want you to know that I am doing this out of love. True love. So, let’s start at the beginning. When did you fall in love with art?
Rhona Hoffman: I was probably too young to know, but there was always art in my parents’ home. A lot of them were replicas from the Museum of Modern Art, Van Goghs and Picassos from the classic period. I grew up in New York. My parents liked art, and I took dancing lessons, piano lessons, painting lessons, etcetera. My first experience that I remember clearly was at the Museum of Modern Art; my mother, dropping me, literally said: “Sit here, I’ll be right back, and count the number of people in the leaves of the trees.” It was the Pavel Tchelitchew “Hide-and-Seek” painting, and I sat there dutifully trying to count all the people in the trees.
On top of that, I really thought that I was going to be an artist, because I painted, I drew, I was fairly talented at replicating things. The time I really knew I could never pick up a brush again was the first week into Art History 105 at Vassar. I cancelled my studio class and became an art history major. That was it.
OK: So you decided to become an art history major, and what did you focus on when you were studying?
RH: Three guesses. No, one guess.
RH: Italian Renaissance, actually, because then, you start at the very, very beginning, and you barely got to contemporary but you could easily switch to the contemporary with these tools. I think that is what’s wrong with a lot of people who have studied art or are art professionals today, including some art collectors, is that they don’t go back that far. They don’t really have the antecedents and they don’t really understand that art talks to itself all the time.
OK: I think some people don’t understand that art is part of history and that art is beyond the specificity of one single gesture isolated in time. I think one of the things that excites me most is thinking about what art really is, and to consider what tools we are going to give people to understand it. I’m curious, when you moved from studying and you started your first endeavor as a gallerist, who did you feel the public, the audience and the collector base was, because I imagine that it was completely different because we didn’t have biennial art-fair mania back then?
RH: No, but there was a very clear history of avant-garde collecting in Chicago. The Impressionist collection at the Art Institute, those paintings were purchased by collectors, mostly from Lake Forest, who were trustees at the Art Institute, and they gave it to the Art Institute—they actually foisted it upon the Art Institute. The next generation were people who went to Europe—I think, the next generation that I know of—since I’m from New York I may have skipped one, were the Surrealists, the people, the Morton Neumanns who went out and hung out with Jacqueline Roque and Pablo Picasso. There are pictures of them all over their house having fun at their homes and at the beach. Muriel Newman and Claire Zeisler went to New York in the fifties and completely gave into Abstract Expressionism and then Pop Art and Rauschenberg. Not Jasper Johns so much. I once asked Mort why he didn’t have a Johns. He said “Missed it. Too expensive.” He was buying Picassos then for fourteen-thousand dollars. So, when Donald Young and I opened the gallery, we were relying on the fact that there was this history of people who were interested in art and who in fact collected art.
OK: And when exactly was that? Was it exactly forty years ago?
RH: Exactly. October 1976.
OK: Wow. So at that time you were in a partnership with your ex-husband. And I’m curious, were you looking at things that were both your taste, or was it a negotiation at first?
RH: It wasn’t. We liked the same things exactly, which was very nice.
OK: What was the initial reception to the opening of the gallery?
RH: We didn’t just open with our own tastes. With regards to the Chicago gallery situation at the time, there were a lot of local artists, wonderful and not so wonderful. At the time when we opened, the Neo-Realists were still in favor, and we had gotten a very fortunate offer to look at some. There was a very nice man from Detroit, a collector, who had collected all the great American Realist painters. He put us in touch with one of the widows. So Donald Young and I went to New York and we picked up art in New York and we drove the truck to Detroit. We loaded the truck with this great art. We came back to Chicago. We hung the art. We had a party, and that was that.
During that show, I’m sitting at the desk, and I hear this couple saying “Don’t we have four of those? Don’t we have…Oh we have a bunch of those!” Of course it got my attention and I went out to introduce myself. They were Paul and Camille Oliver-Hoffmann and they became clients of ours, big time. The second exhibition was Abstract Expressionism, second generation mostly. At the time Harold Rosenberg was living in Chicago. We showed Joan Mitchell, [Jack] Tworkov, Michael Goldberg, etcetera. That show was well received, because no one had really shown them. For the third show, we went to Bob [Robert] Feldman, who was at Parasol Press and who had done these amazing prints with everybody we liked: Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Agnes Martin, Bob Mangold, Silvia Mangold. We did this whole panoply of really fine prints. After that, we started with LeWitt, Acconci and Tuttle, and a program of Minimal conceptual artists that we both loved.
OK: Looking at the MCA’s collection, a lot of that wonderful post-Minimal work has ended up in the MCA’s collection.
OK: For example, [Jerry] Gerald Elliott’s marvelous collection, a huge chunk of it, and many others. As we come up to our fiftieth anniversary and you’re coming up to your fortieth, I have been trying to think about this as a rubbing, a conversation between how different kinds of institutions enable the existence of each other. If Rhona Hoffman Gallery didn’t exist then I would be very curious to know what would be at the MCA, because those collectors would then have bought something completely different and the perspective would have been shifted. Do you think we have enough people in Chicago who support different perspectives?
RH: Maybe they support the zeitgeist, or some combination of it?
OK: Maybe, I believe that the zeitgeist emerges from an informal network of word of mouth. But tell me, you started working when a Picasso could be fifteen-thousand dollars, and now is a time where everyone is thinking “This is over a million dollars, so I have to really think carefully about this thing, whether I like it or not.” How has that changed the landscape of how you tell the story of art?
RH: Well, I think in terms of Chicago, I cheated a little bit. I was on the Women’s Board at the MCA before the museum opened, and before that, I was also asked to be on the Women’s Board of the Art Institute. So, let’s say that I knew so many people. When I got divorced in 1974, Grace Hokin came and said, “Why don’t you come across the street and be the director of my gallery?” and I said, “I don’t know how to run a gallery.” She said, “All the collectors are your friends, you’re a collector, you studied art history. You ran a business for the MCA, you and Helyn Goldenberg ran a store. I’ll teach you the rest in ten to fifteen minutes.”
RH: So, I started, but her tastes and my tastes were so divergent, and I was there for less than a year. Then Donald and I decided to open a gallery. Knowing all the collectors was certainly an advantage for us. At the MCA at that time, Judith Kirshner was the curator. She’s the one who invited Gordon Matta-Clark to use the building that was going to be added on to the MCA. Jan van der Marck being the first director—brilliant director—did amazing exhibitions. So, between our gallery and the MCA and Jim Speyer at the Art Institute, who was then doing these brilliant shows every few years called “The American Show,” the collectors, if they were really interested in art—and they were all on the boards of one or the other museum—were getting a collective education, which made them very, very close to being able to collect what we were showing. Sol LeWitt wasn’t a household name at the time. They hadn’t seen a lot of it, except for Jim’s “American Show.” Bruce Nauman had been in Jim’s show. Anne Rorimer was the curator at the Art Institute for many, many years and she did wonderful exhibitions. She did this thing called “Europe in the Seventies.”
OK: How do you feel that changed over time as art became more expensive, as people have started to think about their collections as commodities, as people get divorced and have to fight over art, both people loving the same thing that they may have bought for ten-thousand dollars but now is worth $1.5 million?
RH: Someone just gave a piece to the Art Institute that they bought from me not so long ago, maybe ten years ago, that they paid a little under two-hundred thousand for, and now they gift it to the Art Institute and it’s nine-hundred thousand. But that’s like in ten years, not even ten years. That’s preposterous!
OK: Have you been concerned about the changing price structures?
RH: Yes, I find it loathsome.
OK: The back and forth between the for-profit and not-for-profit world; between auction houses, fairs and museums raises so many questions about how we assess what the avant-garde is now. Do you think there is a way out, another model or do you think that we should just try and persevere and all will correct itself?
RH: [Sighs.] I think a lot about this. I think that, in the seventies and eighties, although there were auction houses, it was very different and art was not a monied situation. We were selling five-, six-, eight-, ten-thousand dollar works of art that are now considered masterworks. People weren’t so conscious about it; there weren’t art fairs. There was an art fair—it was in Cologne. There was one or two. But art became a social enterprise at some point in the eighties with the Pictures Generation, and it became a fun thing to do. I enjoyed it. I’ve traveled the world with the same people: Jerry Elliott, Emily and Jerry Spiegel, the Dannheissers. We went from place to place looking, going to exhibitions, not art fairs.
Suddenly, art became a social endeavor as much as it was a collecting endeavor. A lot of people without much knowledge of art started collecting and never got to educating themselves. They bought what their friends bought. They’d buy what Jerry would buy, they’d buy what Lew Manilow would buy. Now art is an entree into a world of parties, I think it’s become a world like Wall Street. These people are forming their own…
RH: Societies, clubs affiliated with museums. And then going to their constituents and getting more money. I think I can name the time when art changed, art collecting and art giving. It’s when the Tate went searching internationally for members of the Tate. Was that in the eighties or the nineties?
OK: I believe it started in the nineties in the lead up to the opening of Tate Modern.
RH: Right. And it became an international committee of sorts, followed by MoMA and Whitney getting their board members not to be from New York but to be national. It became another use of art for money-raising and socializing. I think that some of the art got lost in it.
OK: I certainly think that this economy sustains many more institutions and enables them to have bigger endowments, but it also damages others that are more peripheral, because they are not as visible.
RH: But maybe donors won’t give as much as they would have had they not been diversified?
OK: I think that most people now see particular museums as baby boards to get onto the big board of the bigger museum—the bigger the museum, the more status you have, unless you really are a specialist of a particular kind of art.
RH: That isn’t always true, but I understand and believe you. There are exceptions, for example, Howard and Donna Stone have been beyond extraordinary, generous to both the big museums in the city, giving huge swathes of their collection first to the MCA and then AIC.
OK: That’s true, but as I have come from the UK, where there is a culture of government funding, I wonder whether you think we are at all handicapped by the kind of funding art gets?
RH: I don’t think so—America is probably more philanthropic than any other country in the world. I mean, unless there’s some better place in South America! In Europe there is no incentive to support because of high government taxation and the resultant government support. However, there are some exceptions. For instance, when I went to the opening of Mönchengladbach, Sammlung Marx’s collection was all throughout that museum. I’ve seen a couple of situations where collections are being gifted to the state or the city museums, but I think that is the exception to the general rule, whereas here in America, it is the rule, and not giving is the exception.
OK: I want to jump back to something I was excited about earlier. You mentioned Jerry Elliott and Lew Manilow, and we’ve talked before about this idea of a globalized art world and something that is much more open to thinking about artists who don’t necessarily fit into the Western purview. Lew Manilow, I think, was always looking and thinking globally. Can you reflect on that moment in Chicago art history?
RH: Well, I’ve known Lew since I was in my twenties, so I can go back that far. For his first collection, prior to his marriage to Susan, he was collecting Chicago artists. He had the great Golub that the MCA now owns, and also the Art Institute has a Golub from Lew. In fact, the one that’s from Lew that’s now at the Art Institute, Lew paid Leon twelve-thousand dollars for it and that’s how Leon and Nancy got to Europe.
Lew collected [H.C.] Westermann, he collected Hairy Who. He also collected amazing prayer rugs. He and Laurie broke up that collection, and he went on to collect Rothko and Duchamp. But then he expanded; he was the first person I think in America to buy a Franz Gertsch; this humongous painting. He just kept looking forward, the same way that Jerry Elliott kept looking beyond what they had and into what was going on with artists. Lew loved entertaining artists, they would go to Europe. They all went in 1982. 1982 is what I consider to be the year that Americans realized that there was art going on in Europe, that it was worthwhile to look at.
RH: It was the documenta of ‘82. The MCA, with John Neff as the director, took an airplane-load of collectors from Chicago. In that particular documenta were people like Tony Cragg, Kiefer, Boltanski, Baselitz and Beuys. They all had had careers in Europe but had never been asked after by Americans, who were concentrating solely on American art. But they went, and they were astonished by the quality and the excitement of these other artists. And so it began, that love affair, with Lew in particular.
OK: How did you respond in that moment?
RH: Donald and I did a Georg Baselitz exhibition in 1982, but we sold only two. We had the last of the right-side up paintings, the first of the upside-down paintings, we had the Orange Eater.
OK: As you’ve moved through time, I’ve observed that a lot of great families that you’ve known collected and gave to museums: the Manilows, Jerry Elliott, Howard and Donna Stone. But let’s think about the younger generation.
RH: I don’t have a clue.
OK: Yeah. Who will it be? Will they give?
RH: I think the younger generation will come around.
OK: I certainly hope so. The pieces that our collectors have donated to us have become touchstone pieces that anchor us in art history. I can say this is true of the Manilows, Jerry Elliott, the Mayers, Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson, the incredible Helen and Sam Zell, to name a few. They have given me a curatorial context to work from. Now we just need someone to step up and lay down a billion-dollar overall endowment, so we can drive next level.
RH: A billion?
OK: Having that financial security allows museums to be more entrepreneurial in different ways, I believe.
RH: How do we get the people who don’t collect art to give? Those who simply want to be civically engaged in the city, we need to make sure they contribute.
OK: Yes, but let us stop talking money and go back to art and living artists.
From the beginning—the artists that you were first representing—who has continued to be loyal with you no matter what, and who was able to create a through-line through the program?
RH: Sol LeWitt, first and primary. You are sitting at a Sol LeWitt table right now.
OK: What an honor. What about Tuttle?
RH: Richard Tuttle stayed at the apartment. Sol never wanted to—he needed a place to swim. To finish the question, the artists with whom I’ve stayed really close to are: Bob Mangold, Richard Tuttle, Sol. I had fourteen, fifteen shows with Sol. I think he is the monumental artist of America. And now Spencer Finch is a great artist too who I work with.
OK: How have you continued to stay on the pulse with younger artists?
RH: Oh, and Gordon Matta-Clark.
OK: Yes, how did Gordon, Sol and Tuttle influence your program?
RH: They introduced me to artists. We went to see [Julian] Schnabel in 1978, and Sol wouldn’t let us go out in New York without going to see his friends. The artists would always tell us, “Go look at this, go look at that.” Recently, Nathaniel Mary Quinn came to my attention because of Jessamyn Fiore, who is a curator and who is Jane Crawford and Bob Fiore’s daughter. She said, “You’re going to love this,” and I went from LaGuardia to his studio, and I’ve never done this before, but by the time I left I’d given him a one-person show.
OK: And what about Michael Rakowitz, how did he come into your life?
RH: I was reading about those expandable houses he was doing for the homeless. It was just on every level perfect, on every level. So I called him—easy.
OK: One of the things that struck me about your generosity toward Michael with your most recent show here and the support of that project for the Istanbul Biennial, which we recently saw re-presented here in this city, was that it was not necessarily something that you can sell to a single collector, or even to a single museum.
RH: No, obviously. [laughs]
OK: I say that honestly because in a way sometimes, actually, in many cases, few dealers will make shows unless there are some photographs of the thing that can easily be sold or some other part of it that can be sold to a collector. But your project with Michael was in no way compromised and I was very stricken by that, and felt that it was a truly heartfelt gesture.
RH: It’s a partnership: I’m the person with the money and they’re the ones with the art. The gallery, to be totally honest, has to make things work in different ways; the older artists support the younger ones, and like many dealers, to be completely transparent, I sell works on the secondary market to help enable the artists I represent have the best experience possible.
OK: So, it’s been forty years, what keeps you going? And what do you regret?
RH: I should have made more money.
OK: Why didn’t you make more money?
RH: Because I show artists when they’re young.
OK and RH: [laughing]
RH: Because I love—look, I’m enjoying my life—because the fascination is to see not just the flower, but the bloom.
OK: And that means sometimes you wait out with stuff and you live with it…
RH: Yeah, and it grows and grows and grows, and the artist is taken away by a New York gallery and then that’s it.
OK: But you still manage to do something that I think speaks to a very contemporary condition. For example, you’re going to be putting Nathaniel Mary Quinn in conversation with [Alighiero] Boetti, and, I am assuming, with Mel Bochner, with LeWitt in your anniversary show. I don’t know many people in Chicago who are doing that right now.
OK: What do you think we need to do to ensure that this city continues to be a thriving contemporary art scene?
RH: We need more galleries here.
OK: Do you think that other cities the size of Chicago tend to have more galleries?
RH: Los Angeles is amazingly active.
OK: If you could have turned back time and done one thing differently, what would it have been?
RH: I would have borrowed money from the bank to keep one of everything I ever sold, and then I could give you a billion dollars for your museum.
RH and OK: [laughing]
OK: Are you happy to stay in Chicago?
RH: Yes, I am because I have friends here, and my kids were here. It’s a nice city and I have a very nice life here.
OK: I think Chicago is the future for artists. New York is suffering.
RH: I think New York and Chicago suffer from the same thing, although Chicago suffers more. There used to be a center—when there was SoHo, there was a center; when there was Uptown, there was a center. Now, everything is all over, particularly in Chicago.
Chicago people, and I don’t care who’s listening, have this notion that they can open up a gallery in any neighborhood they want, which is baloney. I might go once, chances are rather slim, but I’m not going back. Not everyone has a car, not everyone has the time to travel. If the smaller galleries in Chicago would join together in a neighborhood, so that people could go to an art center, there would be more success, because good artists come to school here and they meet here. There is a list of artists who are famous who went to the School of the Art Institute, and there are more and more young artists who go to school here—UIC, Columbia, and Northwestern, etcetera.
OK: Indeed. And we have to keep them here. Chicago has to be the future!
Rhona Hoffman Gallery celebrates its fortieth year with a three-part group exhibition, Part I opens September 16, 2016. Dr. Omar Kholeif is a writer and the Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.