For more than 30 years, Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner have devoted themselves to the singular passion of art collecting—separately at first, and for the last two decades as one of the international art world's preeminent couples. Their forthcoming book, Collecting Art for Love, Money and More (Phaidon, Apr. 9), was a long time coming. It is the first they've authored, together or separately, and it testifies to their combined decades of experience.
The book is, on one hand, a lively and accessible history of art collecting, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries. On the other, it's something of a best practices guide for budding collectors. In 1982 Thea founded Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services, a company that advises high-end private art collectors in the United States and Europe; her husband, after decades with a sideline as a private collector and publisher in the California art scene, left a career in public policy to help manage the firm. The couple knows the art market, and their book is a clear-eyed assessment of the collecting landscape in economic, social and art-historical terms.
The authors don't deny the importance of a shrewd investment sense when it comes to collecting. Buying and selling art for profit has rewarded them handsomely over the years. Still, a dedication to artists and to art's intellectual challenges is the book's unifying quality. It's clear they cherish their role in financially supporting working artists and their opportunity to create a legacy: Of the more than 800 works in their personal collection, most are promised to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Their holdings include pieces by artists such as Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Dan Flavin, Robert Gober, Richard Prince, Philippe Parreno and Jan Mancuska.
The couple invited A.i.A. into their spacious loft in New York's Soho district last month to talk about the book. The apartment is as much a contemporary art gallery as a living space; dozens of newly installed works by artists like Christopher Wool and James Beckett cover the walls. Their bed is even positioned in the middle of the room so it can be surrounded by art on all sides.
AUSTIN CONSIDINE You two have been collecting art for 30-plus years. Why write your first book now?
ETHAN WAGNER Our lives are really defined by the experience we've had in the art world. And the rewards-intellectual, emotional, social-have been enormous and eye-opening. The art world involves people who have greater intellects than we do—but we can keep up—and so you're going along for a ride that is enlightening and life-affirming. We thought if we could share that, and if somebody would pick up this book and say "I'm going to give that a go," that it would be a service of a kind.
THEA WESTREICH WAGNER We felt, too, that the reporting on the art world was slightly off base, and that it would be really nice to have an opportunity to offer what we feel is really happening out there and what it really means.
ETHAN We've always been disgruntled by the emphasis that's given to art as an alternative investment or when it is equated to money. I can understand the media's attention to that; it's easy to scoreboard that kind of thing. We thought, there are a lot of people in the art world—sure, they're aware of what things cost and increases in value, but they're really motivated by something different, which is the experience that significant art offers.
THEA And many people start out only wanting to invest, but eventually become collectors. It just gets you.
CONSIDINE You come back several times in the book to a sense that something changed in the early '90s. And I couldn't help sense that your writing it now was a reaction to that change.
ETHAN Exactly, exactly.
CONSIDINE How would you define that change?
THEA I started in the art world pretty early. Primarily, my involvement with the art world came out of meeting people that interested me a lot. They would speak about what they were involved in, whether it was dance or opera. Whatever it was, those people who create spirited me in a way that nothing else did. That time allowed you more intimacy with the creators. I could hang out in a studio like Christopher [Wool]'s or Jeff [Koons]'s—people who are hot, hot, hot now—and they were just doing what they do with passion. And without any support at all. It was a lovely community. It was the first time I felt like I had a home. That went on for a significant period of time, but when it stopped, it stopped. Since both Ethan and I have always been dedicated to the art of our time, we continued with the next generation.
CONSIDINE Did you find it difficult to adapt?
THEA Not at all. Quite the contrary. You do what you've always done—start talking to creators and learning from them. You fill it out with reading and you fill it out with writing and you fill it out in your business. But the center, the core, is really understanding the maker's intent and realizing when that thing they make is defining of the culture.
ETHAN There developed a lot more noise around money, and we make note of it in the book. It's disconcerting when so many people measure collecting success as correlated to price increases. When you have a real response to a work of art, as a collector, you want to own it. You want to live with it.
CONSIDINE It's not just an esthetic or moral case you're making in the book. You're also saying it's not good business to speculate on art like it's the stock market.
ETHAN It's a problematic enterprise to pick art based on what you think the market is going to do. To do that is a different calculation. I'm much more comfortable standing in front of something and saying, "I'm not interested" or "I'm swooning." I don't swoon because I think it's going to go up in value, because I have no idea.
THEA Another reason we wrote the book was to acknowledge that this has happened, that money has become an arbiter, and to give it credence where it has credence and to deny it or describe why we deny it when it doesn't. When it's only about business it means that the buyer is using business standards. And when you try to buy art with a business acumen I think you're going to get in real trouble.
CONSIDINE With the appropriate caveats about the inherent subjectivity of taste, you make a case in the book for cultivating that taste and letting it guide one's art-buying decisions. Do you feel it's more important now than in recent memory to make that case?
ETHAN Yes, if you're speaking of taste as that thing within you that finds a response in particular expressions. If you're a real collector, that's absolutely essential. That's something that people should be comfortable with.
THEA And good collectors tend to demonstrate that. Sometimes you walk into a person's home and you can almost tell what's activated their minds, what's attracted them—almost always.
ETHAN And at the other end of the scale you can see when the market has dictated someone's collecting. There are no drawings, just big examples of popular artists. That's a bit off-putting. But collectors are entitled to spend their money however they see fit.
THEA And some of them enable a lot of artists to do what they do best, which is make art. I don't think you can strut around and be all pejorative. It's a very big universe and there are lots of ways to go about doing this, and sooner or later, what is historically important wins out.