Peter Hort is a contemporary art collector and heir to the Hort Family Collection. He is also a founding member of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation, which awards grants to emerging artists.
AF: Can you tell us the history behind the Hort Family Collection?
PH: My mother, Susan Hort, grew up around art. Her mother was an artist. She was a painter and a sculptress. Not bad work. Years ago, my family moved into a more substantial house, my mother asked her mother if she could have some of her art to hang on the walls. My grandmother said no. My mother asked if she could purchase my grandmothers art to hang on our walls. My grandmother still said no. “Listen,” my mother said, “if you don’t want me to buy your art, I guess I will have to collect someone else.” My grandmother seemed not to care.
So, with encouragement from my father, my mother started collecting art. At first it was turn of the century (19thto 20th century) American art. It’s fine if ‘naked ladies lying on a rock reaching down to a stream beside them’ is your thing. But it is not mine. I never got the sense that that work really moved my father either. But that is what they were interested in back then. At the time, my mother was expanding her art education. She was introduced by a friend of my father, Edgar House, to a gallerist named Jack Tilton. So she started walking around looking at contemporary art – meaning living artists – with them.
One day, my mother called my father at work. “Michael,” she said, “When are you getting home tonight?”
““What’s up?” he responded tersely as my father was always too busy to talk when he was at work.
“Michael,” she continued, “I just bought a piece of contemporary art.” As my father tells the story, at the time, he didn’t know what that meant.
“How much?” he asked. She told him the price, whatever it was. “No problem,” he answered.
“Michael, it’s not like the other art we own. It’s a piece of contemporary art – from a living artist. It’s an abstract sculpture.”
My father, so I am told, was surprised but he wasn’t that concerned. Making my mother happy was his primary job: “Whatever you want.”
“And the artist is coming over for dinner tonight to hang it,” my mother at last told my father. “So don’t be too late.” This last sentence was especially strange for my father since up until this point all of the works of art that my parents had purchased had been from dead artists.
That evening, with this large create, an Italian artist name Paolo Icaro, and dealer Jack Tilton came over to our house in Westchester for dinner. As my father said years later, “The art was interesting, but he was fantastic.” Paolo was energetic, and interesting, and everyone was drawn to him. At the time we didn’t understand what a personal connection with an artist was.
After dinner the sculpture was taken out of the box. From my perspective, it was strange. My love for contemporary art did not come until later.
My parents allowed Paolo to choose the placement for the piece. He scoured the house for the perfect spot to hang the work. We had ample wall space – over the fire place, in the living room – but he was looking for something in particular. In a back room with a high ceiling and plenty of windows, he chose his spot. My father and I had to go to fetch a ladder. My father and I were both skeptical of Paolo’s placement of this work, but as we were returning with the ladder, my father reminded me that we can always move it later.
The next morning we realized the importance of the placement. In the early morning as the sun rises, the shards of glass that shoot out from the piece glow like they are on fire. He wasn’t just being peculiar; Paolo was looking for a spot to highlight the work thinking about how the work interacted with the space.
My parents never bought another piece of turn of the century American art. From here on in it was only emerging contemporary art, and it didn’t take long for their children to join in.
It fast became an integral part of our lives. When traveling through Europe as a college student, I visited the artist Alan Johnston who took me on a studio visit with Douglas Gordon who was a student at the time.
When my parents began to cover over perfectly good windows in order to have more wall space, I knew that they had contracted the art collecting bug.
AF: How important to you is having a personal connection with the artists you collect and why?
PH: That’s a really tough question.
I do like to have a personal connection with an artist that I collect. One of the advantages of collecting living artists is you can talk to them about their work and gain insight that is not mere speculation of another. I think that often there is a disconnect between the collector and artist with too much interference involving other peoples interpretation of what the work is about.
I like to know as much about an artwork and artist as I can because I feel that this information gives me a better understanding of what the artists is trying to communicate. Sometimes seeing a body of work in a show is a good way of seeing the work in context; but, the fact is, I find the best way is to speak to the artist, unfiltered, one on one. That personal connection provides me tremendous insight to their work. Knowing many of the artists whose work I collect has given me a deeper understanding that others may not have. Often times it is the ideas behind the artwork that make the piece so special. I see it when I am with people at a gallery or when I give tours of the collection. Often times people will passively not really consider a work and move on based on a two second glance. If I happen to know a thing or two about the artist or their work, and then I talk about it, those very same people who moments ago dismissed the work, may come to love it based on their new deeper understanding.
On the other hand, knowing an artist, and having a personal connection to them, could also cloud your judgment. If you know an artist and regard them as a friend, you may find yourself buying a piece based on the relationship – that is convincing yourself that you like the work based on the artistic value of the work, when you really like it based on your personal feelings for the person. As long as you like the piece, I have no issues with it. But you may lose some credibility singing the praises of a b-artist whom you happen to like as a person.
As for me, I try to get a basic understanding of a work of art before I meet the artist; and then allow that personal connection to enhance the experience for me. You have to be disciplined; and I think knowing and identifying these pressures, before a decision is made helps me snap back to the fact, that the artwork has to stand alone.
AF: What do you look for when you do a studio visit?
PH: There are two types of studio visits I go on – one, where I am unfamiliar with the work and want to know more; and two, where I am familiar with the work and I have an idea that I am already interested in the artist. In either case, I go on studio visits to get a better understanding of an artist’s body of work.
I am interested in a behind-the-scenes look at an artist’s work and a personal dialogue about their inspiration and process behind the work. Some people don’t want the artist to talk about their work. The thinking goes, “If I can’t figure it out myself, then no one else can either.” And those people note that the artist won’t be standing next to every observer looking at the piece in the future. I am not one of those people. I believe that understanding the work and the process adds to the viewing experience. I don’t want the host to read their artist’s statement which, truth be told, most collectors do not understand. Be brief and clear about your work, and be authentic. I am already interested, that’s why I am there. Yet, sometimes the feedback can be critical. Such opinions can always be touchy but if you have an honest dialogue it can be productive. So just listen with an open mind.
Let’s focus on your work. I want to see art; so don’t tell me that you only have a few pieces and the rest is elsewhere or already spoken for. It is really disappointing when you go on a studio visit and the artist really has nothing to show. Don’t invite a collector over unless you have work to show them. It is a waste of everyone’s time. I would prefer to see more work than less. You don’t have to show me everything in your studio, but I am there to see art. I understand that much of the art in a studio is not gallery ready and is a work in progress, but that’s okay. Works in progress are often helpful to illustrate the process. Some of the best studio visits I’ve gone to, I found things that the artist was hesitant about bringing something out because it was unfinished. I like to look through everything especially the work turned around against the wall or hiding in a flat file. I like to look through everything and ask a lot of questions.
If it goes well, I might ask to purchase a piece. There are no guarantees. I might pass on something that is great simply because it is not my esthetic; or I may like the work but do not have the budget for it at the moment. There may be many unspoken things, but if I do ask to purchase a piece, know your answer. Have a price. Yes, it can be negotiated, but asking me to set prices and then purchase from that base line that I set up is awkward. Or perhaps if you have a gallery, you prefer to leave these conversations to them. That’s fine. Just be clear and ask your gallery to follow up. If you don’t hear anything back from me, it is okay occasionally to reach out and let me know what you are up to.
Lastly, have a good time.
AF: What was the last great show you saw at a gallery?
PH: Heck, I saw three last week. Hanging now is the Tim Rollins & the KOS at Lehmann Maupin, I especially loved the pieces from the pages of WEB Dubois’ Dark Waters. Ann Craven always surprises me, in a good way. She has a show up now at Maccarone. Ben Degen currently has a great show at Susan Inglett Gallery, and Paul Ramirez Jonas has a fabulous show at Koenig & Clinton. In Brooklyn, I recently saw a Jon Pestoni show at Real Fine Arts. Uptown at the Marianne Boesky Gallery at 64 Street, I loved a group show they had with Njideka Akunyili, N. Dash and Matthias Bitzer. And in September I saw a show at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, Ruby Sky Stiler’s work, it was great. The things I’ve listed here are generally my favorites in the last month or so, and I could go on and on.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me in the last six months or so was a video show at Luhring Augustine, Ragnar Kjartansson’s work. There are a number of large video screens in the spacious dark gallery. As you walk in you see the artist in a bathtub, strumming a guitar, singing to himself. On each of the other screens in the gallery, other people playing different instruments in different rooms of an old but beautiful house are singing the same refrain. “There are stars exploding around you, and there’s nothing, nothing you can do.” The voices fall and rise on their own and in unison with the others, each looking as if in a painting. The fact is, I generally prefer painters and this was a video piece, but I don’t’ know anyone who saw that show and wasn’t blown away.
But this is a totally unfair question. I see great gallery shows often. I think that the real question is how many shows do I have to see before I expect to see one that I think is great. Unfortunately, the more you see the more likely you are to hit upon the great ones. If you would like to get a small sense of what I am looking at you can always follow me on Twitter, I’m @Hortxp.
AF: I heard about the show at at Luhring Augustine for Ragnar Kjartansson’s work, but never made it to see it. Thanks for sharing that. How do you decide what shows to attend and how many shows per week do you usually try to go to?
PH: I can’t see everything but that doesn’t stop me from trying. The show’s that are at the top of my priority list to see are shows of artists that I really love. If someone who has a good track record of recommending quality shows suggests something, I’ll try to see that, too. Then there are artists, emerging and established, that I am interested is seeing how their work is progressing, I will try to make those shows. The galleries and artists whose programs I find interesting are next on my priority list. Then lastly, the shows that everybody is talking about. I like to see them if I get a chance, but honestly, they are at the bottom of my priority list. But the truth is, I might set aside time to see an exhibition, and then try to figure out how to go to as many interesting shows nearby as I can. “http://artcards.cc/newyork/” is a great website for that.
AF: What work of art do you wish you owned and why?
PH: I am a collector… there are a lot of works of art that I wish I owned but for one reason or another do not. Many of the pieces that fall into that category, I simply cannot afford, or are not for sale. My favorite painting is in New York’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ‘Woman with a Towel’ by Edgar Degas. You see the anonymous woman holding the towel just below her lower back, her red hair, just a hint of her tush; and the profile of her breast. It is really beautiful. I think about the anonymous woman and wonder who she is, what she is thinking about. It engages me every time I look at it. I wish I owned that one, but of course, do not.
With regards to more realistic interests, I try to be philosophical about missing out on a piece – I should not dwell on one missed purchase or other. I only have a finite amount of money and there is always something else. The fact is when it comes to art, my wants are greater than my means.
There are a few pieces that I had a chance of purchasing and now regret not buying. One that lingers with me is a small Tom Otterness sculpture called ‘Free Speech’. I really loved the piece – the idea, the substance of it, and the form itself. Well, I was offered the piece. I passed; as it was more that I wanted to spend at the moment. After a few months of rethinking my decision, I re-approached the owner, I learned that they had put it up at auction. I registered to bid, but it sold at Phillips for significantly more than the original price. I missed out, but still think about it.
AF: Can you give me and our readers some tips on collecting art? What is your secret?
PH: First and foremost, in my opinion, the most important thing is buy what you love. If you really buy what you love, you’ll be happy with your purchase. Second, and still important, enjoy the process – finding, collecting and sharing. If you are not enjoying the process, then perhaps you are doing something wrong.
For a more in depth answer, it can depend on what stage you are at in collecting art: are you purchasing your first piece; or, are you adding to your collection?
If you are buying your first piece of art, I would recommend before you make the purchase, figure out what kind of art you like best. Open yourself to new things. The best way to do this is to see a lot of art. Visit museums and galleries, talk to other collectors and artists; try to familiarize yourself with various periods, mediums and styles. The first important thing to do is really get a sense of your taste and what you like.
If you are a sophisticated collector and adding to your collection, I would recommend going after that tough piece. I am talking about that work by an artist that really challenges you. In most gallery shows, easy pieces sell first, but it is the tougher pieces that over time shine, the ones that you don’t get bored with. So find an artist that you like, and let them challenge you with a work that really speaks to you.
As for me, I try to keep myself as open as possible; that is open to new things. For example, when I go to art fairs, what excites me is not the works that I am already familiar with; what excites me is that thing that is a surprise. It may be a new artist that I never heard of, or a gallery program that hadn’t made it onto my radar for one reason or other, or it may be a new body of work by an artist I am already watching – whatever it may be, when I come across this surprise (and at almost every fair I usually come across at least one thing), my heart beats harder and I am told you can see it in my eyes. That’s what excitement looks like.
AF: Thanks for this great advice Peter. Do you see any particular direction or movement in art right now?
PH: Fashions and trends come and go. Predicting what is in or out of favor – I don’t really worry about these things. I buy what I like and try not to follow trends. On the other hand, I will follow gallery programs and artists that I am interested in; but, in general, I do not worry about “the direction” of the art market.
What I do see as a direction is a democratization in the art world. There are more artists now than ever in my memory; there are more galleries now as well. I remember a time when you could spend an afternoon in Soho and see most everything. I remember the expensive slides artists and galleries would have to create – the expense and sheer volume of slides – it was burdensome. I think that it is easier to be a gallery, artist or even a collector now than ever before. Not everything is what I collect, but that is okay. I think that more art in a society is good.
Interview and photos by Jamie Martinez