Collecting the Contemporary

January 28, 2017 Perspectives 1 Comment

On this occasion, we have set down with collectors Thea & Ethan Wagner, and Massimo Antichi, with the aim to understand when they started the adventure of collecting art as well as to grasp their slippery, time-based criteria to collect art.

Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner have been collecting contemporary art for three decades and, notably, they did that on their own before joining together their forces and interests. Of their independent first steps, Msr. Westreich Wagner told us that: “I can barely recall the artists I encountered in my early years in Washington DC, going back to the 1970s, but what I do vividly remember is how interested I was even then in visual art. When I returned to New York City, in the 1980s, I became enthusiastic about the programs of several of the then prominent East Village galleries—Peter Nagy, Nature Morte, International With Monument and of course Pat Hearn and Colin DeLand, among them. There was a lot to see and learn, and it was then that I began my practice of following up my interests with studio visits and time in conversation with artists. Also, in the early 1980s, I met Christopher Wool, who had a defining influence on how I processed art, visually and intellectually.” Mr Wagner instead remembers that: “in the early 1980’s, I had begun collecting the work of what are often called “outsider” artists—in my collecting, mostly untrained African-American artists from the South. As much as I appreciate the genuineness of this kind of work I came to feel it was largely disconnected from the cultural issues of the day. Soon I turned my attention to contemporary art, to grapple with our time and issues of the moment.”



Installation view of “Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner” at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (November 20, 2015 – March 6, 2016). Photo: Ronald Amstutz


Now their collection comprises both historicized and emerging artists, but it is true that they collected “the work of the ‘historicised’ artists well before their practices were accorded widespread recognition.” As they explain, “we have always been compelled—for more than thirty years now and counting—by the challenges implicit in identifying young and emerging artists who are expressing themselves in strong, original and historically meaningful ways. We search for artists that are adding significantly to the canon of visual expression and doing so in ways that affect us emotionally and intellectually. This inner directive has enabled us, as you put it in your question, to traverse history: to continually be engaged with the socio-political issues and art making practices of the moment. Our orientation to the new has the added benefit of assuaging the misery we experience when artists that we have collected reach price points that make it difficult for us to continue to acquire their work.”

Massimo Antichi is an entrepreneur based in Modena, who collects art since he was young: “I got passionate at contemporary art out of curiosity, to be honest; I wanted to try to understand an unknown world to me, but ‘contemporary’ to my existence. From an early age, I was interested in ancient art and antiques and, having opted out the whole modern art, it is easy to say that in my collection there is the contrast between ancient and contemporary art—I like that these two extremes coexist. The spark for me to start to collect was then the passion for investigating and learning, by consuming many shoe soles and gradually confronting myself with so much more experienced people than me.”



Installation view of “Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner” at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (November 20, 2015 – March 6, 2016). Photo: Ronald Amstutz


For him, “there was not an initial concern for a specific artist. In fact, I can say that everything began when I firstly accompanied an enthusiastic group of friends from Modena to the vernissage of a small but interesting Venice gallery run by the legendary Bruna Aickelin. The first works that I purchased are related to the Anglo-American area because Aickelin’s gallery has mostly artists from that region. My approach to art does not envision the potentiality of the investment as a priority—of course, if over time there is a re-evaluation of the work, that is a rewarding surplus, but not a necessary one—. I do not also follow the market’s trends. Rather, I follow my instinct and my heart, by purchasing what excites me and thrills me, what I like in sum, which makes my daily coexistence with that as fulfilling and harmonious. In this sense, I conceive the display of the works in my collection, not as a mundane ostentation to guests with the aim of winning their consensus, but as the bold exposure of the personal, yet with the fragilities and insecurities of every human soul. It is like stepping into the intimacy of my persona, of who I am, including my qualities, flaws and life experiences—maybe this is why I appreciate both body art works and performances. In fact, the body gives a voice to everything we have inside, everything that we felt, feel and will feel (for me, time is a fundamental factor in our existences). Therefore, it might be difficult for me to individuate a common thread in my collection, because the reasons why there are some artists instead of others have coalesced spontaneously; rather, I have seen my collection changing and taking different shapes if compared with the beginnings. A curious detail: most of my choices instinctively tend towards women artists, as if there was a magnetic attraction towards their work and their artistic sensibility.”

To conclude, “I think that a transversal approach to chronology is the lifeblood of the act of collecting in itself. Everything evolves, and it is only through curiosity, research, and passion that it is possible to grasp the dynamics of art, which ultimately is what brings to life a collection and its owners. In the end, we inhabit the ‘contemporary,’ so it is only a personal view on our times that can build the common thread for a vivid and fresh collection. After all, I think that it is necessary to dare and take risks, and not only to entrench oneself behind reassuring historicized artists, even though very talented and well-known. In this guise, the transversal approach towards chronology can highlight the evolution of a collection’s common thread both in the present and in the future.”


Cover image: Hito Steyerl, Red Alert, 2007. Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; promised gift of Thea Westreitch Wagner and Ethan Wagner. Courtesy the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York