Interview with Susan and Michael Hort

February 26, 2009

Susan and Michael Hort began amassing a notable collection of contemporary art in the mid ’80s. Early supporters of artists such as Karen Kilimnik, John Bock, John Currin, Marlene Dumas, Neo Rauch and Wilhelm Sasnal, the Hort’s collecting has always revolved around emerging art, with the resulting cache of over 2,000 works now displayed on the four floors of their Tribeca space. Along with being avid collectors, they have also established the Rema Hort Mann Foundation — named after their late daughter, who died of cancer in 1995 — whose double mission includes giving unrestricted grants to artists during the early stages of their careers, as well as providing support for individuals suffering from cancer through grants to bring them together with their families. To date, the Foundation has given its $10,000 artist grant to over 90 artists including Gedi Sibony, Aïda Ruilova and Dana Schutz. In 2004, their son Peter Hort — who sits on the foundation’s board — caused some controversy in the otherwise left-leaning and progressive New York art world by running as a Republican candidate for US representative. The Hort’s maintain that Peter, who is “pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and a big Obama supporter,” was simply running against the Democratic incumbent on a liberal platform.

João Ribas:I seem to remember that the first contemporary piece you acquired for the collection was Jack Pierson’s Being Alive (1996), which had particular significance for you…

Susan Hort: No, the first thing we bought after Rema died.

Michael Hort: After my daughter died, obviously things fell down. And we were walking around — you know, we were art collectors so we walked around in Soho but had not purchased any art, just sort of looked a little. Luhring Augustine had this Jack Pierson show, and there was this piece with the letters “Being Alive,” and it sort of rekindled our reason for collecting. The piece made us think about Rema, and made us think about how you have to go on. So that is the first piece that we bought after she died, and that piece therefore is hanging always. So we re-hang but that piece is always there. The first piece we bought actually was by [Italian sculptor] Paolo Icaro. Susan bought it alone. She called me at work and said, “When are you getting home tonight?” And I said, “What’s up?” And she answered, “I just bought a piece of contemporary art.” I didn’t know what it meant exactly until she said, “and the artist is coming home tonight to hang it.” So he came with his dealer Jack Tilton to our house in Westchester at the time with this big box and had dinner with us and hung the piece. The art was interesting, but he was fantastic, and that’s how I really got excited about it.

JR: Was that something that was important to you about collecting contemporary art — to have that personal connection with the artist.

SH: Michael didn’t understand what a personal connection with an artist was. It wasn’t until that happened that he started realizing, and that’s why we switched from buying dead artists — turn of the century art — to living artists.

JR: So your collecting impulse really started with 19th and early 20th-century art?

MH: Susan had some really nice 19th-century American art, but I didn’t really have a passion for it. But when I talked to Paolo, he was so enthusiastic about art, and so smart, it was very easy to fall under his spell. Then we just started going to up to the Lower East Side, and 57th street and Soho, and really got into it.

JR: When you became aware of or animated by this personal connection aspect, were you aware of starting to build a contemporary art collection?

SH: We didn’t realize we had a collection until we moved into our big space and had to think in terms of what we were going to show (we re-hang our collection every year with the help of our friend and curator Simon Watson). That’s when we started thinking about it as a collection. If there’s an artist that we like, we like to collect in depth, and if we start buying them, we’ll keep buying them until we’re priced out of their market. We bought the first painting John Currin ever sold — at White Columns. We bought Karen Kilimnik from her first painting show, we bought Elizabeth Peyton early, we bought Marlene Dumas when the drawings were $500.

MH: But it’s still one at a time. We don’t think about the future at all. We just buy what we like and sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we’re not.

JR: What do you mean by “right?”

MH: Sometimes we live with it and grow out of it. We’re now hanging art that we bought recently. Some of it I’m not sure I’m going to like in a year. You buy it and you think it’s great, but when you have it for months on end sometimes you grow tired of looking at, sometimes you keep looking at it.

JR: If you can’t stand it, do you sell it?

MH: We haven’t done it yet. We try to give it away. We actually just gave some things to the TangMuseum, not because we didn’t like them, but because they’re going to show it and we’re not.

JR: Is that why you’ve also always had this emphasis on showing the collection, and having it be visible etc…which is a common complaint about private collections: that things go into them and are never seen again. You lend a lot…

SH: We lend so much that sometimes I think it’s out of hand.

MH: We’ve had 150 pieces on loan at any one time in the last 3-4 years.

JR: How did you become interested in East European painting — particularly Romania and Hungary — which is something you’ve become quite involved with recently?

MH: It started with Polish artists like Wilhelm Sasnal and now we are collecting Victor Man, Adrian Ghenie, Oana Fărcaş, Cantemir Hauşi, Serban Savu, Ciprian Mureşan, Peter Sudár and Mircea Suciu. One of the biggest advantages of living in Romania or Poland as opposed to living in New York was that when you got out of your MFA program, if you wanted to live in New York you would have to spend 3-4 thousand dollars a month minimum for an apartment and a studio, plus other expenses etc. To do that you either have to sell right away, or you have to get a job and therefore you couldn’t really do your art full-time. But if you went to Berlin, as Matt Saunders did, if you live in Poland or Romania, as these artists do, you didn’t have to worry about selling. You can work on your art and make mistakes — these artists have really worked at it for years…

JR: The issue of financial pressure actually relates to the Rema Hort Mann Foundation you’ve started….

MH: Well, my daughter died and she was very interested in contemporary art. She died of cancer — and you know with cancer, as opposed to getting hit by a car, there are many months when you realize that you’re very, very sick. So we talked about having something for artists. At that time, there was nothing for artists when they got out of school. The galleries didn’t pick them up, so they had no money. In order to decide to be artists they really had to suffer, from hand to mouth basically. So the concept was to give money to artists who were not in school and not in a gallery… Kehinde Wiley actually said recently that when he got out of school there was nothing and all of a sudden he got this big check and it was like his life vest. That was the idea. The second thing was that when Rema was sick, she had tremendous support from her parents, family and friends. But many people she met had no support. With fighting cancer, support is very important, because chemotherapy is one of the worst things you can go through. So the idea was that we should give money to people so that they can be with their loved ones when they’re having treatment — so their mother, father, grandmother can be with them… It’s to bring them together with their loved ones, and it’s automatic. If they fit it, they get it. No one is ever turned down… It gave a little more reason for her life…

SH: We said something good had to come out of her death, and this is how we figure out how to do it… The first year she died we gave the first artist grant, in 1995.

JR: How do you see this current major contraction in the art world?

MH: What we worry about more than the art market is what’s going on in the world. Our personal funds have been impacted every way they can be — everything that we were invested in. So we’re being very, very cautious in our purchases now.

SH: We basically said that we’re going back to our roots. We started buying very young artists, and we’re going to back to very young artists… We were there in the late ’80s and early ’90s when the market dropped out and that’s when we started collecting. A lot of people didn’t take us seriously because we were young collectors — but when the market dropped out and we were still collecting, we started being taken seriously. Now we have a new project… our friend Robin Lipson is starting NJ MOCA, a contemporary art museum in New Jersey — which doesn’t have any contemporary art museums. We’re actively involved in this. It’s on the ground floor right now, but it’s going to happen…

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