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A Portrait of Grace and Strength

A prominent collector of contemporary art, the first female president of the Guggenheim Foundation, a successful businesswoman and national leader for a woman’s right to choose, Jennifer Stockman is a true force in more than just the art world



Photograph by William Taufic

Almost every room of Jennifer and David Stockman’s shingle-and-stone home in Conyers Farm bursts with works of art—many by such contemporary stars as Gerhard Richter and Richard Prince and Sigmar Polke, others by emerging artists better known to art-world insiders.

“This is not a collection where you go and say, ‘There’s a Picasso and there’s a Matisse,’” Jennifer comments during a tour of her collection, trailed by two lively Maltese dogs, Buster and Mini. “It’s not about the name of the artist. It’s a very personal collection where each piece has some meaning to me, some major attraction.” One example is a recently purchased work with multiple cartoon-like heads of humans and animals by Gelitin Collective, a consortium of four Austrian artists. “It’s a bizarre piece, but it’s fun and makes me smile,” she says. “I see James Ensor [Belgian artist of late 1880s and early 1900s] in it—that’s what attracted me.”

Jennifer’s art collection reflects exactly who she is, says Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Guggenheim Foundation. “I think her biggest attribute is that she is an open person, yet she’s discerning. She is very inquisitive and has an ability to enjoy a broad range of contemporary art—slightly unusual for someone of her stature. Typically, people get seized up by some sort of dogma. They think they have to have all black-and-white paintings, or all blue sculptures, or everything made by a left-handed artist from Argentina. She doesn’t have that kind of conscription.”

 
A World-Class Collection

The variety of art that appeals to her is evident in the Stockman’s large front hall. Abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Christopher Wool and Barnett Newman, among others, hang on the walls. The sculpture ranges from a one-legged creature by Anne Chu, made of bronze, ceramic and concrete and titled Hellish Spirit on a Horse, to an amber-colored curved block of glass ceramic by Roni Horn titled Georgia. In the center of the hall there’s an oversized ceramic bowl resembling antique Chinese export porcelain with figures of women wearing stylish dresses and stiletto shoes but missing heads and arms. Called Games, Jennifer says that the artist, Liu Jianhua, is commenting on how Chinese culture views women. A balcony up above contains photographs, three by the German artist Andreas Gursky that frame famous J. M. W. Turner paintings at the Tate in London. “My husband always said that his dream was to own a Turner some day,” Jennifer remarks, laughing. “This is as close as we are going to get.”

An arresting 5½-by-8-foot photograph by Wang Quinsong in a nearby guest bedroom, titled Dormitory, shows dozens of mostly nude men and women in what look like cells. “When you go into rural China, families don’t have much space and create their entire home in a small space,” Jennifer observes. “This photograph could be about a lack of freedom or a lack of privacy.”

Sigmar Polke, a German artist famous for devising new painting techniques, is one of Jennifer’s favorites. “He is an adventurer who finds materials that have never been used before,” she says, in front of a painting made of multiple layers of fabric pieced together that took the artist twenty-five years to complete. Turning to a Polke work with grid-like Benday marks, Jennifer says, “This is an artwork that in my wildest imagination I could never recreate. I think Polke is interesting because one example doesn’t explain who he is, and that’s why we have him in depth.

“In general I like art that is difficult; I like to see complicated techniques that are hard to understand at first glance,” she explains. “I prefer subject matter that is not obvious and also that is provocative, that is about ideas, that stays with you even if you don’t like it.”

In another room, she singles out a work by John Baldessari, who’s been a major influence on many younger artists, some of whose works she’s purchased. Called Raised Eyebrows/Furrowed Foreheads, the wall-mounted sculpture has eyes from an old film still and painted carved ridges on the brow.

A number of photographs by Thomas Struth from his Museum series are part of the tour. In one, a group of placid-looking people in the Louvre stand before Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, a horrific painting of dying and dead victims of a shipwreck. Another positions present-day visitors walking around Greek and Roman artifacts in a Berlin museum.

In the living room, Jennifer points out a painting by Willem de Kooning from 1988 filled with vivid yellow, red and blue strokes. “I looked at this and saw a retrospective of his career—the women, the shapes, the colors,” she remarks. Next to the de Kooning hangs a painting by Richard Prince. “He always idolized de Kooning,” Jennifer says. “In this painting he literally took women from a de Kooning catalog and turned them into men or eunuchs.” Next there’s a de Kooning sketch of a woman, followed by a multicolored, abstract de Kooning drawing from 1955. “This is my little ode to de Kooning,” she notes.

There are more than enough works of art to fill a museum, and the Stockmans have another home in Aspen with more art. Although they put the Greenwich house on the market in May, they plan to keep the collection together.

“Collecting art is an addiction,” Jennifer says. “It’s hard to explain why you can’t stop.”

Family Business

Jennifer always loved art but never had time to pursue that interest until after her second daughter was born, and she decided to stop working full time because of the long hours and travel. In 1991 she sold Stockman & Associates, an international consulting firm specializing in technology that she had founded in 1986. A graduate of the University of Maryland with an MBA from George Washington University, Jennifer first worked for IBM selling technology to the Defense Department, the White House and Congress. It was there she met David Stockman, a congressman from Michigan, who became the youngest cabinet officer in a century when he was appointed President Reagan’s budget director in the early 1980s. The Stockmans were married in 1983 and have two children, Rachel, a reporter for NBC in Phoenix, and Victoria, a fellow at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Chicago.

After leaving the government in 1985, David Stockman was a managing director at two Wall Street firms, then the founding partner of a private equity fund, Heartland Industrial Partners. In the wake of the bankruptcy in 2005 of one of the fund’s companies that he ran, auto-parts maker Collins & Aikman, he was indicted by federal prosecutors. He pleaded innocent and all charges were dropped in early 2009.

A SEC lawsuit was settled last April. David is currently writing a book about the recent financial crisis called Triumph of Crony Capitalism.
“It was a tough time for us,” Jennifer says. “You hope your children learn from it. I think they learned not to take anything for granted because life can change on a dime. Hard times can either ruin you as a family or bring you closer together. Thank God, they brought us even closer together.”

Back in the early nineties, Jennifer had taken art history classes at MoMA and other places—“anywhere I could catch
a class”—to educate herself about art. She visited museums and galleries and met a number of dealers, then started collecting photographs by people like Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman. “Photography was more affordable than paintings; back then you could buy great work for nothing,” she recalls.

When she began buying paintings, Jennifer says her curiosity about what inspired the artists whose works she saw in galleries led her to focus on contemporary art. “I would go the artists’ studios and talk to them and try to understand the connection between the artists and their work.” She recalls the thrill of finally meeting the famously private Sigmar Polke at the 2007 Venice Biennale. “He’s not the sort of artist where you can call up and say, ‘I’m in Cologne; can I pop by?’ He’d throw you out,” she says.

Her initial purchases were made because she had a passion for a particular work or artist. “But you get to a point where you have to feel that the investment is sound, and there is a lot to choose from so you have to be very discriminating.” Jennifer says she never buys a work of art for purely investment purposes, but adds, “I think it’s intriguing and fun to try to understand enough about the work and the artist to be able to say, this is someone who will be important in a hundred years. Of course, you won’t be around to find out,” she adds, smiling, “so it’s a pretty safe bet.”

Jennifer and David often lend works to museums and host visits ranging from art-world institutions like the Whitney, SFMOMA and the New Museum to groups such as the Smith College Club of Greenwich-Stamford. They also make their home available for events that benefit the Bruce Museum, where Jennifer and Kathy Fuld created a Museum Council eight years ago to broaden support for the museum. “I’m so fortunate to live with these objects,” Jennifer says. “I feel I’m only their temporary custodian, and they should be shared.”

A Solid Foundation

When Jennifer became a trustee of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 2002, it was famous in the museum world for pioneering global expansion. Anchored by the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Guggenheim Museum in New York, the institution’s constellation included the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry that opened in Spain in 1997. Jennifer became president of the foundation in 2005, and the next year the internationally renowned Gehry was commissioned to design another Guggenheim museum on Saadiyat Island, “island of happiness,” off Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, scheduled to open in 2013, will be unlike any other museum in the world, Jennifer says. “It will be almost ten times the size of the New York Guggenheim, maybe four times the size of Bilbao. The architecture is monumental and unique, and we will build a collection from scratch. It’s requiring enormous board and staff time.”

“How can you not be global?” she asks. “Every important business is international; why not art and music and theater? I think Abu Dhabi will be an olive branch—call it cultural diplomacy. Art is a way to bridge cultures in parts of the world that have proven challenging for America.”

One of Jennifer’s biggest responsibilities as president was cochairing with board chairman William Mack the search committee to replace the longtime director of the foundation and New York museum, Thomas Krens, who left two years ago. It was a time-consuming job that involved interviewing candidates from across the country and abroad and initiating a number of organizational changes. She regards the new director, Richard Armstrong, a former director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, as “a seasoned expert” who is giving priority to the needs of the New York museum while successfully managing the foundation’s global network.

Armstrong says Jennifer had an influential role in his decision to accept the position. “I recognized that she was a great ally and leader, so I felt comfortable taking on an overly large responsibility. I think one of her great charms and skills—I’m not even sure she is aware of it—is that she attracts people because of her openness, so in many ways she is an unusually big magnet for things that we do together.”
A significant donation of money is one of the obligations that museum board members take on. A story in the New York Times last spring reported that the initial cost when becoming a trustee at the Metropolitan Museum is $10 million dollars and at MoMA, $5 to $10 million. It is also assumed that they will buy tables at benefits and help fund acquisitions, the article stated. At the Guggenheim, Jennifer says a $2.5 million commitment over five years is expected from board members but there are exemptions for scholars. “We depend on our trustees and our close friends to support us,” she says, adding that her goal is to bring the endowment to $200 million. “We are at a little more than half that, so we have a lot of work to do.”

Another goal is to build attendance. Jennifer says the New York museum  gets a million visitors a year, but 25 percent come mainly to see the Frank Lloyd Wright building. “If that’s all they want to see,” she observes, “they will only come once. So what’s important is the quality of the shows you put on.” Last year when the museum celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its building, it attracted record-breaking attendance with a number of special exhibitions, including a Kandinsky retrospective of more than a hundred paintings.

In contrast, last February the Guggen-heim held a show with no paintings. Created by the European conceptual artist Tino Sehgal, it was called This Progress and focused on “lived experience” rather than art objects. When visitors entered the museum, they encountered two dancers on the ground floor moving in a sensuous embrace titled The Kiss. Then at the bottom of the spiral ramp that winds up to the rotunda, they were approached by a child who asked them, “What is progress?” Next a teenager, then a middle-aged person and finally an older man or woman continued to engage them in similar conversations as they climbed to the top.

In the future, the Guggenheim will continue to engage and to connect with living artists, Richard Armstrong says. “We will follow where the artists take us.”

So will Jennifer Stockman.     

 

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