In the Mag: Chicago-Based Collectors Rich and Beth Heller

Whitewall‘s fall 2013 Fashion Issue is out today, making its debut at EXPO Chicago. You’ll find a few articles in the issue devoted to the mid-west fair, including this interview with collectors Rich and Beth Heller.

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Collectors from the United States and abroad will flock to the windy city in late September, thanks to the success of its inaugural year on the pier. The excitement around the fair is in part thanks to the city’s enthusiastic local art aficionados. Among them are Beth and Rich Heller, young collectors and founding members of Emerge, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s donor affinity group.

Whitewall recently visited the home of the Hellers, who despite their age, have already created quite a focused collection of works by the likes of Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, and Marilyn Minter.

WHITEWALL: When did you first start collecting?

RICH HELLER: With my wife, and we collect as a team, but I started collecting when I was in medical school. My grandfather was a surgeon and was great with his hands, and he was a sculptor. He would go to Europe every year and he would do sculpture and work for artists over there. My grandparents collected art, so their home certainly had art in it. My father was also a radiologist and he collected art, European art, so I certainly got a lot of exposure to art. They all did it in a way that was part of their life, but it was never dominating their life.

I took no art history classes in college and I had very limited knowledge. But for some reason in medical school I became interested, and I think it’s because my grandparents’ best friends had one of the finest collections probably in the world during their heyday. In the 1960s they were already creating a private museum in their home in the North Shore here in Chicago. So I started reading more about art and going to museums, and I probably did that for a year or two before I bought my first piece. I actually did all the reading, all the work first, so by the time I had bought a piece, I was actually somewhat knowledgeable about what I was buying, where I was buying it, what I was looking at, what the differences were. The first thing I ever bought was a print of a Jasper Johns.

WW: And Beth, was art in your life early on?

BETH HELLER: Not really. It all came when I met Rich. It was such a part of his life, so I basically dove in, read everything I could to sort of learn more about this passion that Rich had. What was that first book we bought, Rich, that I bought you?

RH: She bought me this book on 20th-century art. She put in little Post-it notes all over the place. Beth really didn’t know anything about art when we were dating, which was very funny because I was sure I would meet somebody in the art world. I met a girl who knew practically nothing about art, then I realized how wonderful that was because I could raise her in my own image and teach her what I liked and what we would like together [laughs], but plans went astray.

BH: Although we have very similar tastes.

RH: We have very similar tastes, but at some point Beth developed her own aesthetic and her own taste, which has been nothing but fantastic. I’ll give you one example. We were at the Whitney Biennial a couple years ago and she saw a piece by Marilyn Minter that she loved and she said, “We should consider it.” I didn’t feel like it, and I said, “No, I don’t think so,” and she was persistent and she convinced me that I was wrong and I was wrong.

Now we have several pieces by Marilyn Minter in the collection, and I’ve gotten to know Marilyn, and I love her and I owe all that to Beth because Beth had the eye first to say this is someone we should be considering, she’s very interesting, so I give full credit to my wife.

BH: Because during that time, we missed a couple pieces.

RH: Which I am fully responsible for.

WW: Okay, so back to the first piece in the collection, the screen print by Jasper Johns . . .

BH: Do you want to tell her the little story about the print?

RH: Sure. So the first thing out of medical school, I decided not to buy a car or anything like that, but I bought a Jasper Johns print. It was very expensive, but I didn’t have that much money, so my grandmother said, “I’ll split it with you.” And I said, “That’s fantastic, but I can’t afford my half.” And she said, “I’ll pay for half and I’ll lend you your half and you can pay me back your half in monthly installments.” So for ten months I paid my grandmother back, by monthly payments until in the ten months I had paid her off and I owned it completely. And I wrote Jasper a letter through his gallery just telling him how pleased I was to be starting my adventure as an art collector and the first piece I bought was Jasper Johns. And I had a lovely letter back from Jasper telling me how pleased he was to hear that, and I have that letter framed in our home.

WW: How did your collecting grow from there? Did you have any focus at the beginning? Did that idea change once you met Beth?

BH: We had a focus, but we didn’t have the focus that we have now. Someone was over and they looked around and saw that we really have a lot of text-based pieces, conceptual pieces.

RH: That was the first time I realized we do! We never thought about it in that sense, I never had that perspective, I just bought what I liked, but I looked around and I was like, “Yeah, you’re right, it’s a lot of text-based work, isn’t it?” That was the first time that we thought about what the collection should be and that of the lots of things we like, we need to focus on what we want it to be. It became a more formal process, talking about any artists we want to bring to the collection, asking, does it fit with what we want the collection to be, does it fit with our vision? We only want to collect more of our generation and so we try to focus on that—not chase past generations, not chase things that are very expensive and of another time. We’d rather spend it on an artist of our time.

BH: Well, I mean, generally we collect living artists. I would say the exception is the Warhol.

WW: Was that because it would make more financial sense to create a collection, or was it also because those collections of past artists already exist and are fantastic?

RH: Absolutely, you know, I think it’s exactly that—I think it’s both of those things. I can afford to have a great work by Rashid Johnson or a small work by Motherwell. Rashid Johnson is of our time and I think he is more relevant to our lives in terms of him being one of our contemporaries.

BH: We do have a really great piece by Rashid, that’s actually on tour right now. We’re going to visit it on Friday—the Rashid Johnson show is opening the High Museum in Atlana. We’re flying with the kids because the piece is gone for two years and we miss it.

WW: You have two young boys. How do they influence your colleting or how you buy art?

RH: In terms of buying at international fairs, we have not yet but the two on our list are, I would say, Basel and Frieze in London. It’s hard to travel because of the children. I think that in a few years we’ll have more flexibility and we’ll be attending those, but for right now I think we have to accept certain limitations.

BH: Yes, it’s tricky to leave the kids and go to Europe. So it’s something we’re very interested in doing now that our kids are getting a little bit older, it’s going to be easier for us. We’re looking forward to it.

RH: A lot of our collection is shaped by the fact that we live with it and that we live with the children, so it shapes what we buy, how we buy. It really shapes the entire direction of the collection.

BH: We have boys that run around with light sabers. And then you have to be careful with text. We can teach our children what a word means and why we don’t say it, but then you have kids over for a play date and they go home to their moms and they say, “Mom, this is what we learned.” And we get the call, so we have to be very careful with just, you know, thinking through what we buy.

WW: So you really collect not just as a couple, but as a family.

RH: We absolutely collect as a family, because the reality is the children will see the work just as much as we do. I really want them to appreciate it as well. And I’m not really hesitant about nudity or other issues, but I do want to be cognizant of the things they’re going to want to live with.

WW: Within your home, do you change around where the work stays? You said you have a Rashid Johnson on loan—are you often sending out works on loan?

RH: We do lend works; we do do re-installations. The re-installations tend to not be because we want to do a re-installation but because we bought a new piece and we like to live with the work, not keep it in storage. We find interesting locations. For example, we have Jeff Koons—who is a wonderful acquaintance of ours—Jeff did a project at my hospital for our CT scan room, so we got to know Jeff and just genuinely loved him. We installed one of his works above our bed, and I heard that Jeff loved the fact that we installed his images above our bed. He very much appreciates that.

WW: The Jeff Koons installation at your hospital was done in collaboration with RxArt, right? How did that come about?

RH: My wife reached out to Diane Brown, the head of RxArt, about doing a project at the hospital that I work at, Advocate Children’s Hospital.

BH: We were reading in a magazine about RxArt, and the connection for us with hospitals and children and art was something very interesting. At that time, like nine years ago, were looking to give back, and we felt it would be a perfect fit for us.

RH: Diane’s first idea was to get a CT scan, so we only had to choose an artist. I really wanted to find somebody who had some link to Chicago, and they should be somebody that was very children-friendly. So, Jeff Koons was on the top of our list. But the reality is that Jeff has a million opportunities and a million options every day and this was one of those millions, so we felt very blessed that Jeff had so much on his plate and said, “Yes, I will do this,” and then he followed through and was really involved.

It’s one of those pieces that I think really works because you don’t have to know who Jeff is or have any information on Jeff’s body of work to really appreciate it. And the reality is that the vast majority of our patients, both children and adults, have no idea who Jeff Koons is and they love the work just as much.

BH: After this whole project, Jeff sent each of our boys limited-edition skateboards that hang in our home. He sent them each skateboards and made a little drawing on the back side with their names on it and signed it.

WW: You are both still so young, but as your collection becomes more substantial, have you started to think about what will happen to it later? Will it go to your sons?

BH: That’s an interesting question [laughs].

RH: That’s actually a very interesting question. I met an interesting person on a panel who is not an art person at all, but does estate planning. What he pointed out to us is that art has been a large part of our investments and overall portfolio. We hadn’t thought about that in an estate-planning sense. So, after that panel, we met with our estate planner and we did create a trust for the collection that goes to the children if anything happens to us. Furthermore, we appointed an executor of the art trust, who is a good friend of ours, a wonderful adviser and a fantastic art dealer. The reason we did that is because the art would go to the children, but they are very young now. What if someone wanted to borrow from the trust? I didn’t want to just put it somewhere in storage until the boys were older. I wanted the works to still be able to be shown, and I needed someone who could help them make those decisions about the art.

BH: And it was important, I think, that we said the boys had to be 25 before they could sell it or something like that. They have to be old enough to make those decisions. While they’re growing up and learning about these artists and learning about all of these things. We want them to be old enough and mature enough to make a sound decision on that, not just doing it for money at 18 or something like that.

RH: I don’t want to force my passion on them. The reality is that when they’re adults, if they want to sell the collection, they can do it, it’s my passion, but it doesn’t have to be their passion.

I do think about where I want to be, as a collector in 20 years, where I want us to be in 20 years with our collection, and I would love to have an exhibition space for us.

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