Art | Finders Keepers

Contemporary art

Canny commercial instincts and a genuine interest in artists themselves unite this collector and adviser. Gareth Harris reports.

January 22 2012
Gareth Harris

Boston businesswoman Bridgitt Evans is nothing if not pragmatic. With a sharp eye and astute entrepreneurial sense, she has amassed a collection of contemporary abstract art that not only hits the mark aesthetically, but in the long run should pay dividends. Choice works by artists with critical and commercial clout, including Christopher Wool, Albert Oehlen, Rudolf Stingel, Mark Bradford and Mark Grotjahn, fill her stylish five-storey, mid-19th-century town house in a well-heeled district of central Boston.

The Evans residence is like no other; prepare, for instance, to be overwhelmed by a large eight-panel piece by Aaron Young (Untitled, 2007) and an imposing neon by Glenn Ligon (Ruckenfigur, 2009) displayed on the 15m-high atrium wall that runs the height of the building.

Lisa Schiff, her New York-based art adviser, has been pivotal in building the collection over the past 10 years. “There are too many collectors chasing too few artists for quality work. It all boils down to access,” notes Evans, who stresses that Schiff is her gateway to major dealers.

The savvy pair met through a mutual friend at the Art Basel fair in Switzerland a decade ago and have been good friends, and art-world stalwarts, ever since. “We have learnt together and kept our noses to the ground,” says Schiff, smiling.

Sparking off each other, their harmonious dynamic is clearly in evidence when discussing purchasing strategies. “We have a golden rule: we try not to buy at auction,” explains Schiff. “We prefer to buy primary market pieces [selling for the first time] selected by gallerists we have relationships with; it is a more enriching acquisition experience.”

They often talk of securing “The One” – that elusive work of art that Schiff knows will hit the spot for Evans. This principle came into play when Evans pledged to find a work by Venice Beach-based artist Raymond Pettibon, who references high and low culture in his comic-like creations. “We waited and waited for an opportunity to buy ‘The One’. Then, a gallerist we know well selected one of his surfer works [No Title (I Work Upstairs), 2011] for Bridgitt, which she held for us in Art Basel,” says Schiff. The deal was sealed and the piece hangs in the stairwell, its bewitching waves enveloping the spectator.

This tenacious approach was also applied to the acquisition of works by other influential artists such as Oehlen and Wool. Schiff details how the duo honed in on a large-scale, vibrant oil by Oehlen (FN 11, 1990) that hangs in the dining area. “We knew that Oehlen’s works were undervalued,” comments Schiff. “That piece, which came from a private collection, took a year to shake out. It’s his most sought-after time period.”

The vendor backed out initially and then raised the price, but the pair persisted – and the move should pay off. For although the shrewd duo decline to say what they paid, Oehlen, who recently signed with über-dealer Larry Gagosian, is gaining momentum and his prices at auction are decidedly healthy – a 1988 work Untitled was sold for £193,250 in London last February.

Turning the corner from the Oehlen, a large piece by Wool deftly dovetails with a neon-light sculpture by Ligon (Impediment, 2006). Wool’s black, white and blue enamel painting on aluminium (Untitled (P232), 1995) is, again, a canny buy (Wool’s 1999 enamel-on-linen Night of the Cookers I was available for $1.5m at the Tefaf Maastricht fair earlier this year).

For Evans, Wool “pushes the edge of painting”, while for Schiff, “his career has followed a near perfect trajectory: a slow, steady and well-earned rise in prices over a long period of time, with smart management by his galleries, who kept primary prices reasonable”.

The relationship between Schiff and Evans is clearly underpinned by business acumen, hardly surprising given Evans’ experience in real estate. After time as a portfolio and investment manager at Aldrich, Eastman & Waltch (now AEW Capital), she founded Evans Real Estate Management in 2007. Among other assets, Evans has a stake in Hotel Columbia, a boutique establishment in the town of Telluride, Colorado. Schiff is just as switched on, with stints at Phillips, Pury and Luxembourg auction house (now Phillips de Pury) and the high-profile Manhattan gallery Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art under her belt.

“I am willing to pay full price for quality assets,” says Evans. “We rationalise from an investment viewpoint: where is the artist in his or her career? Have the prices increased recently? Is the work under- or over-valued? We are pragmatic; we have to understand what we’re buying. But the aesthetic beauty of the art is equally important,” she explains.

It’s not all about the money; Schiff says that she’s taken on a curatorial role in the house, learning how the art sets off Evans’ design and architecture scheme (vintage light fittings, for instance, complement the art). Meanwhile, the journey towards abstraction has proved illuminating for Evans, who stresses how Schiff has shaped her vision.

“I’ve progressed from figurative paintings by artists such as Alice Neel to more abstract and conceptual works. I ask why did the artist paint this? What is the artist trying to communicate?” she says, launching into an impassioned debate about how Ligon’s text paintings evince the power of the written word.

Two such vast works, one in black and the other in white (Stranger#32, 2007, and Stranger#25, 2006), dominate the lounge, their monochromatic aspect in stark contrast to a garish blue and yellow sculpture by Rachel Harrison (A Whole New Game, 2008). Evans’ predilection for Ligon puts her in good company: his 1992 work Black Like Me No.2 was selected by President Obama for the White House collection, while Jennifer Aniston snapped up his Stranger#44 for $450,000 at a recent charity auction.

So who’s next on their shopping list? Schiff mentions David Hammons, Rebecca Warren and Sigmar Polke. But it’s not all plain sailing. “We are both good at saying no to each other,” quips Schiff. There is another more pressing problem though: how to work art fairs without distracting each other. “We like to split up at fairs… but we should have walkie talkies!” exclaims Evans. And with that, they rock back with laughter.

See also

Paintings, Collecting