Collector Visit with Gary Metzner and Scott Johnson
Gary Metzner and Scott Johnson call one of the upper floors of Chicago’s Montgomery Tower, built by Minoru Yamasaki in 1972, home. The building stands in the River North neighborhood, where, as Metzner recalls, he grew up visiting galleries with his parents in the eighties. The area has changed quite a bit since then, but the building’s modernity has retained its influence.
Metzner and Johnson’s home is full of contemporary objects, both design and art. The couple, a senior vice president and fine arts specialist at Sotheby’s and medical physicist, respectively, have lived there for eight years, acquiring works by artists like Chris Garofalo, Hiro Yokose, Thaddeus Wolfe, Andrew Holmquist, Carrie Schneider, Roger Brown, William O’Brien, Jefferson Godard, and Paula Hayes. They even asked Edie Fake to design their wedding invitation (which now hangs framed in their office).
Over the summer, Whitewall visited Metzner and Johnson at their home to learn about how they collect together, their relationship with Chicago galleries, and how their approach to acquiring new works to live with has evolved.
WHITEWALL: How did you start collecting? Gary, I imagine it was something you were interested in given your career in the arts before you met Scott?
GARY METZNER: Yes, I was. But more than half of this is since we met.
SCOTT JOHNSON: Yeah, I would say that would be 75 to 80 percent of what’s up is after we met. I’m a scientist by background, but I had an interest in art. I would go to galleries and certainly go to museums, but I wasn’t buying anything until we met because I didn’t really know how that whole process would work. It was intimidating.
WW: What was the first piece you purchased together?
GM: Together? I bought a Hiro Yokose at Carrie Secrist gallery when Scott was living in California. We met and then he moved to California.
SJ: I was in Chicago, I signed papers to take the job in California, and we met one week after I had made the decision to move to California, of course.
GM: So three months later he moved, and we were going back and forth, and I think for his house warming in San Francisco I bought him the Hiro Yokose piece. I bought it with the hope that one day I would get it back, because he would move back to Chicago and it would be both of ours.
SJ: So it worked!
WW: Did either of you grow up around collecting?
SJ: For me, definitely not. I grew up in the South in Virginia Beach. My parents didn’t have art in the house.
GM: I grew up with not only going to the Art Institute, but even my high school would take us down to the galleries just as they were starting to open in River North, which is now our neighborhood. I’d never thought I’d live where the galleries are!
I wouldn’t say my parents were collectors, but they bought some interesting pieces, and as I got into the business I directed them to buy a few good works, but I definitely grew up with it. Now my brother and sister are not interested at all. It just rubbed off on me.
WW: And so once the two of you were finally in the same city, the Yosoke is back in Chicago, was collecting together something that came naturally?
GM: We always say that we can go to an art fair and make a list of our ten favorite things and maybe four of the five would be the same.
WW: Which is not always the case with a collecting couple.
GM: No. I remember working at the gallery and one person would come in from a couple and say, “I’m going to buy a present.” And we would wait and see, three weeks and it would come back almost all the time. It’s not always the norm, but when it works, it’s great because I think it makes going to art fairs really fun.
SJ: And a little dangerous because we’re both like, “Oh, I really love it, and we should get it.”
GM: Like we were at the Armory Show, and before we said, “We’re buying nothing at the Armory Show.” But of course we did, and now we’re taking things down and putting them in storage, which is something we said we’d never do, but it happens.
WW: And how long did it take to get to that point?
GM: I think in just the last year.
SJ: We’ve been here for eight years, so we decided to take everything down and have the entire place painted. It just needed it. When we went to put things back up, we thought, “Let’s really think about where things should go.” As opposed to after living here for eight years, we buy one thing we just find a place to squeeze it in between.
WW: So as you got to know each other’s taste, what kind of things are you both drawn to? Is it always contemporary?
SJ: Its always contemporary.
GM: There’s something in the front hall from the 1800s that I bought from Sotheby’s, but there was just something contemporary maybe even about it. I would say it’s quite accessible. Even though I’m around so many different types of art all the time, I think what we live with kind of makes you smile. You may question the meaning but, generally speaking, it’s something that you can be drawn to instantly.
SJ: Not too scary.
WW: And you don’t seem to shy away from a variety of mediums.
SJ: No, I like that I like having photos and paintings. I’m really attracted to sculpture. And I like things that kind of border those, so paintings that are kind of sculptural and videos that are like paintings.
GM: We’ve been going toward some smaller-scale sculpture like in ceramics and glass, like Chris Garofalo, who shows with Rhona Hoffman. And the objects on the bar are by an up-and-coming artist that works in glass, Thaddeus Wolfe. So objects have always been really interesting to us and when you run out of wall space . . .
SJ: We’re looking for something for the ceiling.
WW: And then in terms of acquisitions, do you prefer to go to galleries that are local? Do you travel for fairs?
GM: Well, last time we went to Miami we bought three pieces, and two were from Chicago galleries. It’s very comfortable when you walk in and you know the dealer and you just have a nice repertoire. But we bought something from a new gallery we hadn’t gone to before.
We actually went to Zona Maco in Mexico City one year, which was great. We went to a couple of artists’ studios and we were with some people that were originally from Mexico City. We haven’t gone to Europe to any fairs at this point.
WW: Did you find any artists while you were there that you hadn’t known before?
GM: Yeah, there were a few things. We ended up meeting a couple of interesting artists. Our friend introduced us to kurimanzutto, which is just a great gallery.
WW: And for the artists whose work you have purchased, is it important for you follow that artist along through their career?
SJ: We do try to keep tabs on them, especially the ones that we’ve just met, and they end up being really interesting and nice people. You want to keep in touch with them and see what’s happening with their careers. We do tend to not buy the same artist over and over and over again. There are too many things that are out there.
GM: Like Andrew Holmquist—we eventually met him, we liked his work and we bought two ceramics. He just moved to Berlin. So we are paying attention to what’s going on with him. I think in a way we sort of maybe pay attention to the galleries.
WW: Aside from the art in your home, you really have an eye for design as well.
SJ: I’m really interested in interior design. Like our dining room table we designed with our good friend and an interior designer, and with the design of several pieces of the furniture.
GM: We were looking for a seventies table. This building was built in 1972. We have pieces from the architect Gae Aulenti; we have another piece from her in the bedroom. And we like a lot of light. We have a couple different light boxes.
SJ: Like Johanna Grawunder.
GM: And that’s an homage to Gio Ponti. I like when design sort of crosses over into art. There’s that line there, but we like to blur that line, I think.
WW: Going forward, now that you’ve had to put things in storage, has the way you’ve collected changed or become more focused?
GM: I would say that, but we probably do a little more research. Because our tastes are similar and we see a lot of art, we probably could buy one thing a week. But I think at this point we would do a little research on the artist, we would probably spend a little more money, and I think I’d rather wait.
SJ: In the beginning we definitely had blank spaces. We need something to go here in this spot and this spot. But at this point we don’t need anything else. If we add any more, it will start to look a little junky. But we still love going to look, and I think we would wait to save up and buy something that’s maybe three or four times more than what we had been spending.
GM: But I have wonderful clients that are collectors that do fill their walls and then they’re done. And then there are the real collectors that will never be done. So I don’t think we’ll ever be done and that’s what makes it fun.
This article is published in Whitewall’s winter 2017 Luxury Issue.