Art | Finders Keepers

John Baldessari

Craig Robins owns about 35 Baldessaris. He and his adviser, Jack Tilton, talk to Bettina von Hase about the art of collecting in depth.

July 26 2010
Bettina von Hase

Craig Robins is Mr Miami, and for good reason. His decision to put art, design and his collections of both at the heart of his global real estate development company Dacra (of which he is CEO and president) has made him a leading force in the revitalisation of the city as a cultural hub. He lives and breathes art, and has amassed about 1,500 pieces by more than 100 artists, including many from India, China and Latin America.

Robins credits his art adviser Jack Tilton, a New York-based gallerist and dealer, with helping him build a collection of breadth and depth. Robins’ cousin David Ross, former director of New York’s Whitney Museum, introduced them about 10 years ago and Tilton soon became indispensable.

“It’s an enormous job, especially to understand the global aspect of it,” says Robins. “Jack comes out of the 1960s; he’s utopian, open-minded. He is interested in getting you involved rather than making transactions.” Tilton is a quiet, professorial-looking man, the visual opposite of Robins, who is a wiry, barely controlled ball of energy. “We met, and Craig said, ‘Let’s try it,’” Tilton says. “We strategised a bit, and talked about what he already had. He had John Baldessari, and I said, ‘Craig, we should collect him in depth. You might as well become his number-one collector.’ I believe in in-depth.” Robins now owns about 35 Baldessaris. “Craig was very trusting very quickly, and is a great listener,” says Tilton. “He’s in Miami, so has to be sensitive to Latin American art. In this job, you are always art-world channel-surfing – in his case, from conceptual to Latin American, which is quite a change.”

Robins was instrumental in launching Art Basel Miami Beach in 2002, now the most important American art fair, and he started the fair’s twin sister, Design Miami, in December 2005. He founded Dacra in 1987, which played a central part in the rejuvenation of Miami’s South Beach District with its restored art deco landmark hotels. The company also commissions public works in the neighbourhoods it develops by the likes of Zaha Hadid, Marc Newson, Richard Tuttle and Guillermo Kuitca – all designers and artists Robins believes in and collects himself. Other artists in his collection include Rirkrit Tiravanija, Francis Alÿs, Marlene Dumas, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy and Kai Althoff.

Robins’ collecting strategy is to buy the best he can afford, and concentrate on certain artists in depth – “the very young ones, or the more advanced, where the market hasn’t come in line with their talent”, he says, sitting at a Jean Prouvé desk in his office in Miami’s design district. Robins started collecting in earnest more than 15 years ago: “I had done it for years, but wanted to get more sophisticated about it; I was ready to put significant resources into art.”

Enter Jack Tilton, whose relationship with Robins feels like a father-son model without the bad bits. Their relationship is intense and, when Robins’ schedule allows, they spend large amounts of time together, power-walking around Central Park or climbing in Aspen. Otherwise it’s all e-mail and phone conversations, sometimes 20 to 30 communications a day. “Part of it is throwing stuff at me that was thrown at him,” Tilton says. “Often galleries don’t want to work with advisers. I’ll be advising him, but they don’t know. They think they’re going behind my back, but they aren’t.” Robins and Tilton focus on quality and connoisseurship. “You want to get them A pieces, not B and C pieces,” the latter says of his clients.

Sitting with the two of them in Robins’ office in Miami, you can immediately see why they get on so well. They share a passion for art and a wry sense of humour. There is also mutual respect, with Robins saying: “As a rule, if he feels it’s a mistake, I would be reluctant to buy.” Tilton, in turn, says working with Robins is fun. “We were fighting over a girl,” Robins says when I ask him how they met. The fruits of their labours are all around; first-rate art and design pieces juxtaposed carefully in various rooms.

With its high ceilings and white walls, the office itself is an art space in all but name. Robins takes a tour of Art Basel Miami Beach visitors around, clearly enjoying stopping in front of every picture and telling a story. “My education is oriented around Picasso and Duchamp,” he says. “I like painting and conceptual art.” We look at Baldessari’s Embed Series: Four Cigarette Dreams (1974) and Throwing a Ball to Get Three Melodies and 15 Chords (1973); Buckminster Fuller’s Rowing Needle (1970); Zaha Hadid’s sculpture Iceberg; and two works by Guillermo Kuitca, Corona di Espinas (1993) and People on Fire (1993). He has others in his two Miami houses and New York apartment.

Robins was born in Miami Beach to parents who were interested in art but did not collect (his father bred horses). He graduated from the University of Miami law school in 1987, the same year he started Dacra. In 1999, the company acquired 8.5 acres on Allison Island in Florida to create Aqua, Allison Island, a “new urbanist” community featuring modern architecture, design and public art. Robins is also founder and chairman of the Anaphiel Foundation, a non-profit organisation supporting arts education.

His collection reflects his beliefs and what he and Dacra stand for. Both are serious, innovative and playful. When I ask whether he engaged in art collecting for business and marketing reasons – it has certainly given his company intellectual credibility – he counters that it does not help make a profit in the short term, but becomes more of a legacy.

In the future he, like Tilton, believes that important works should be in the public domain, and cites the outstanding Miami collections of the de la Cruz, Rubell and Margulies families: “The stimulus for collecting art and for commissioning private buildings [for collections] has surpassed museums. The collectors have more money and more freedom,” he says. Robins has given to museums, but is keeping his options open: “I’m still young – and not at that point yet.”

See also

Collecting, Paintings