When I first meet art adviser Allan Schwartzman, it’s the eve of an opening at Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, the contemporary-art Shangri-la in Brazil’s pastoral state of Minas Gerais. Schwartzman has served as its lead curator since Inhotim was a glint in the eye of mining magnate and megacollector Bernardo Paz, a kind of Richard- Branson-meets-Father-Time visionary. Today Schwartzman’s got a jetlag-y scruff. I find him in shorts tending to the installation of work by Romanian artist Geta Bratescu. Schwartzman, along with several other curators, is struggling to put in biblically-chronological order Bratescu’s 1974 Mitologie series of spare, Thurber-ish drawings of New Testament scenes.
“OK, wait, is that the Annunciation or the Resurrection?” Schwartzman asks. “Ack, what’s a nice Jewish boy like me…?” and trails off in contagious laughter.
In the artworld, Schwartzman is considered what Paz would call número um of a rarefied few art advisers who also function as curators and whose work for private collectors has – and will continue to have – a powerful impact on not just artists but also an unsuspecting museum-going public. Many of Schwartzman’s clients sit on the boards of top art institutions. (He himself sits on the board of New York not-for-profit Artists Space.) He estimates that a third of the dozen or so collections he advises are already bequeathed to museums, including MoMA, LACMA and the Dallas Museum of Art.
Currently he’s crammed with his team of seven into a one-room office in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, but in a few months he will take over an entire floor near Madison Square Park, where he will be joined by Amy Cappellazzo, former Christie’s chair of postwar and contemporary development. Their new venture, Art Agency, Partners, will help Schwartzman enhance services for clients, he said, like deaccessioning.
Schwartzman, fifty-seven, grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and remembers his mother taking him to the Whitney during the mid-1960s, shortly after it settled in its uptown Marcel Breuer-designed home. His lawyer dad and homemaker mum collected, but “not on a grand scale”, he says, mostly Chinese and Japanese ivories, jades and porcelain, plus a few painters, including Oscar Bluemner, Charles Burchfield and Marsden Hartley. “I don’t think their knowledge was deep, but their appreciation was great.”
An art-history major at Vassar, he interned at the Whitney, where he met curator Marcia Tucker, who took him with her when she left to start New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, where he became curator. Subsequent stints as director for Barbara Gladstone Gallery, New York, and then as an independent art-writer for prestigious print publications followed.
Before 1997, Schwartzman never considered working directly for collectors. But when art PR maven Andrea Schwan heard that Dallas collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky needed help, she recommended Schwartzman, whose writing the Rachofskys had long admired.
'Allan has that rare trait where he understands the curatorial world and the commercial world. And he is a quick study'
Howard Rachofsky says that before he met Schwartzman, he and his wife were “naive” and their collection was “a mishmash” from being “under the influence of not advisers but art gadflies”. Working with Schwartzman was a welcome “paradigm shift”, Rachofsky says, because “in essence, he is as much a teacher as an adviser”. “I think it’s because Allan has that rare trait where he understands the curatorial world and the commercial world. And he is a quick study.” At Inhotim, I ask Paz about working with Schwartzman. “Allan knows me. Allan knows everything,” Paz says, crediting Schwartzman’s fast understanding of what Inhotim could become. “He’s brilliant,” Paz adds, his admiration getting ahead of his command of English: “I never ask of him nothing. I never call him in the United States. Never. And all the pieces he brings to me, I like.”
While Schwartzman won’t name names, some sleuthing reveals that he also works with Nicolas Berggruen, the hotel-dwelling billionaire with close ties to LACMA. (Other clients include a husband-andwife team; the husband is a household name, about as far outside the artworld as one can get, and Schwartzman is supporting their broad but nascent interest in contemporary art.)
With each client, particularly for unusual exhibition spaces, such as custom pavilions in a Brazilian botanical garden or minimalist Richard Meier-designed manses like the Rachofsky House in Dallas, Schwartzman says the motivating question is, “What can resonate in this environment better than it would in any other environment?” And especially when collections are destined for institutions, it is, “What can we build where we can create a niche that is additive to scholarship?” Howard Rachofsky cites his own Schwartzman-led sorties into postwar Italian art and their debate about whether the collection “could tell a more additive story” to future generations by “having a fifth or sixth [piece by Lucio] Fontana” versus something new.
And then there’s the question of how and when to pursue work by emerging artists. “The acceleration of interest in and pricing of many emerging artists has been so rapid and heated that the nature of collecting the new is very different from how it had been in the past,” Schwartzman says. “We see the works show up at auction that are less than a year old and by artists that are less than a year old [and] that are now not even $20,000 or $30,000 but $400,000 and $800,000.” So collectors “need someone whose job it is to stay on top of it all” and to “help them suss out price and value”. He adds, “As the population of artists multiplies, the population of great artists does not.” This is how Schwartzman’s email inbox has become an unlikely lever of power. With each jpeg he deletes or forwards to clients, he plays God with an artist’s future reputation. MoMA’s associate director Kathy Halbreich doesn’t begrudge Schwartzman that power. “When generous, civic-minded individuals collect well, it can only be better for us all,” she says. “I’m always happy to know he’s working with someone who could help MoMA or another institution.”
Harking back to the cupidity of America’s Gilded Age, Inge Reist, director of the Frick Collection’s Center for the History of Collecting, offers some context: “It may come as a surprise to many that the landscape of art advising hasn’t really changed all that much.” The nineteenth and early-twentieth-century collectors, with surnames like Gardner, Havemeyer, Morgan, Frick and Carnegie, “got valuable advice from scholars, curators and dealers”, she says.
Those advisory roles were less clearly defined than they are today. Caveat emptor to collectors then or now taking advice from, as Schwartzman puts it, people whose “commitments are to the flow of merchandise that is coming through their doors”. There was no one to turn to who was wholly or professionally responsible to the interests of the collector and the collection, as Schwartzman is today.
“A big difference between then and now is that curators today don’t profit from their ‘expertise’ as they used to.”
Take art historian Bernard Berenson, who, explains Reist, “gained his reputation as the art adviser sans pareil by publishing authoritative lists of Italian paintings and then he worked behind the scenes with dealers to matchmake great works of art with eager collectors whose taste he was helping to shape”. Scholarship since Berenson’s death in 1959 suggests that secret arrangements with dealers lined Berenson’s own pockets.
“Museum curators also often served as advisers,” Reist says, noting that Henry Clay Frick, J.P. Morgan and others relied on those near and far, like Wilhelm von Bode (Berlin’s Bode Museum is named after him) and Roger Fry of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “For the collectors, befriending curators and having the assurance of their opinions, then as now, would strengthen their resolve to buy, even at a high price,” she adds. “A big difference between then and now is that curators today don’t profit from their ‘expertise’ as they used to.”
There can be little doubt that advisers like Schwartzman do. Schwartzman himself made another important distinction. Back then, he says, “what you collected was Old Master paintings that were proven”. Even though public collections are “not a place to experiment” with brand new artists, Schwartzman encourages “everyone to devote a certain amount of their budget to collecting young artists, to stay connected to art as it’s being made, to fall in love with things that haven’t yet been proven”. That, he says, is part of the fun of getting to be a big collector in the first place.
This article was first published in the November 2014 issue.