Whitehot Magazine

April 2011: Amy Phelan Interview

 Marilyn Minter, Untitled (Study of Amy Phelan), 2004
Collection of John and Amy Phelan.

Interview with Amy Phelan

Amy Phelan is an art aficionada, collector, and philanthropist. She serves on numerous museum boards and councils including the Guggenheim, MoMA, and Aspen Art Museum, and has chaired and co-chaired benefits such as the Guggenheim Foundation’s 2008 International Gala, the Whitney Museum’s 2007 Fall Gala, and Aspen Art Museum’s Annual Summer Benefit artCRUSH in 2006, 2008, and 2010. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Phelan maintains a southern charisma even after over a decade under her belt in New York City. This interview took place on Tuesday, March 15, 2011 at Amy’s posh Park Avenue apartment.

Rebecca Rothberg: Though you don’t have a formal background in art history, were you always passionate about art? And when did you become interested in collecting?
Amy Phelan: I became interested in collecting about 10 years ago when I first moved to New York and my husband and I bought this apartment. We renovated the space and wanted to start collecting art together to hang on the walls of our new home. We were newly married, so doing something together was really sweet and important to us. We first started collecting very safe, modern pieces like the Picasso etchings, De Kooning, Dubuffet and Chagall - those were some of the first pieces. When we bought our first piece of contemporary art, our collecting style changed dramatically. What I will tell you about me personally is that I have zero artistic ability. (Laughs) I cannot play an instrument, I cannot sing even though I would really like to, and I can’t draw or sculpt. For me, buying and collecting art and supporting art institutions and organizations is my way of expressing myself. That is my artistic outlet, having the ability to choose things that I like. It is a form of self-expression.

Rothberg: What was that first piece of contemporary art that you purchased?
Phelan: Right behind you. It’s a Thomas Ruff nude photograph. The Ruff was our first piece of photography and real first piece of contemporary art. The piece is sexy, fresh and alive and continues to make us feel this way.

Rothberg: That really is an incredible photograph. Did you style this room around the piece? It works in so well.
Phelan: No, it actually just fit right in. We don’t buy works of art to “fit in the house.” We do ask ourselves logistically if it will fit in the house, but our buying philosophy is simple – “we buy what we like."

Living Room at the Phelan residence in New York City
Photo courtesy Manhattan Society

Rothberg: How would you describe your taste in art?
Phelan: We collect all types of art, whether it is video, painting, sculpture, photography, and we tend to be drawn more towards figurative work. And figurative could be of a person or figurative could be words. We like pieces that are beautiful, that tell a story, are humorous, dark, sexy and sometimes difficult.

Rothberg: Would you say there is a psychological component to the art that you purchase? It sounds like the work has to really hit you on a visceral level and appeal to more of an instictual attraction as opposed to say, a landscape, or something that may have certain aesthetic appeal?
Phelan: That’s a great question, and I am so excited to answer this because I was actually having dinner with Roni Horn last night and we were talking about art and collectors versus artists, and about how differently we think about a lot of things. Talking about collecting, one of the things that she said that was so perfect to me is that art is, how did she put this, it’s like human sexuality. When you walk into a room of people, you know immediately who you are attracted to. It’s the same way for me with collecting art. When I walk into a gallery or any exhibition space, I know immediately which pieces I am attracted to. So yes, it is a visceral reaction. It’s something that I know I can look at for a really long time and be excited about.

Rothberg: I know you said collecting started out as something you and John could do together, to look at art and buy art together. What was his interest in art initially? And what about your daughter?
Phelan: John had some art pieces before we met, which were really terriffic pieces, but he wasn’t a serious collector. I think that we became very interested because we have the same taste, we like the same things, and it became really fun. He is very, very much involved. We have a partnership. We do it all together, and it’s not only a fun activity that is just something we share together, but we are also creating this collection that we hope will someday go to different museuems or to our daughter, who is a little artist herself. She is a terriffic photographer, an amazing writer, and she can draw beautifully. I think the older she gets, the more she really starts appreciating what she is seeing. She is fascinated with Marilyn Minter, and when she has the ability to meet artists like Marilyn, Richard Phillips, Mickelene Thomas, Roni Horn or Delia Brown, she now knows whose work she is looking at. She can see a piece and go “Oh is that Delia’s work?” and it gives her a huge sense of pride to be able to recognize work and talk about it. Every year we try to give her a small amount of money to purchase works. We really feel it deepens her connection to art and the art of collecting. A dear friend of mine Jennifer Stockman did this with her daughters and I thought “Gosh, that is such a great idea” and so she gets to really go and look and find work within her budget and those are her pieces. It’s a great way to get her interested, and then she is building her own little special collection. So when she goes to college she’s got a couple things to hang.

Richard Phillips, Red, Blonde, and Blue, 2010
Image Jeff Wells Photography. Collection of John and Amy Phelan.

 Rothberg: Do you have a favorite piece or favorite artist, either a work that you own or that you admire, artists that you’ve met, artists in your collection?
Phelan: To answer that very simply, I don’t have one favorite artist - there are so many that I admire and love personally and adore their work. One of our other collecting philosophies is that we don’t buy it unless we can’t live without it, so I love it all. If I could hang it all, I would. One of the really amazing things to me about collecting contemporary art, and especially collecting living artists, is the opportunity to meet them, if you’re lucky enough to be friends with them, and to talk to them about their work. It adds, personally, such a priceless value. I mean these are such amazing stories that I have, and I think artists are really such incredibly special people who have this God-given talent, and they are sharing it with the world and expressing themselves through their work.

Rothberg: Along those lines, I know that you are considered one of Marilyn Minter’s muses – what an honor! Could you tell me a little bit about your relationship with her and what it was like modeling for some of her work?
Phelan: Marilyn is amazing, fantastic on every level. Her studio was the first artist studio I visited. I met her through the late Harley Baldwin and his partner Richard Edwards who own the Baldwin Gallery in Aspen. Marilyn had a show at Baldwin and my husband and I were crazy for the work. Of course, the one piece that we liked the best in the show was sold, and so at Harley’s suggestion, he said “Well John, why don’t we see if Marilyn will agree to do a comission piece of Amy?” And at first I thought, “Oh my gosh, Really??” But then we left and figured “Hmm… well, maybe! That could be really cool.” And so we went to Marilyn’s studio, we met her, she agreed to do the comission, she gave me a list of things to bring, and Harley, myself, Richard and my husband all went down to her studio with wine and jewels, and we shot photographs. We laughed and you know, it was really synergistic. It was a teriffic afternoon, and Marilyn and I, I think that we pulled a lot out of eachother during that shoot in a short period of time and she ended up making quite a few photographs and paintings from that one afternoon we spent together.

Marilyn Minter, Scrumptious, 2004
Collection of John and Amy Phelan.

Rothberg: That sounds like so much fun.
Phelan: It was so much fun! It was a priceless experience that I feel so lucky to have been a part of. She totally took a chance on me.

Rothberg: Because of the nature of her work, how do you feel about being featured anonymously as just these lips in her work, given that it is provocative and sexual and has all of these connotations? Does being a part of that work change your perception of it, as opposed to if you were seeing someone else’s body parts in her work?
Phelan: I think it’s very cool, its like this little secret thing. I mean, there is a voyeuristic part of it that’s kind of fun.

Rothberg: You get to objectify yourself in a way.
Phelan: Yeah, don’t we all to some extent? (Laughs) But no, it’s cool. It’s been a humbling and exciting experience and again, you know, I look at the cover of this book, which is her first run, and I’m like “How did I get here? Why me?” It’s just such an honor.

Rothberg: When you first moved to the city, did you find it difficult to become accepted in the New York art scene, given how insular it’s known to be?
Phelan: No, because I had no expectations or agenda other than to have fun and learn. I was, and still am, a student, and as long as I am alive I will continue to be a student of art. The only way to learn and to experience is to get out and see as much art as you can, be open to what you like, and trust your instincts. You’re always learning about new artists, and you’re learning about new bodies of work, or older bodies of work that maybe we didn’t know about before we started collecting, so there is always something. We are genuine collectors and rarely sell pieces in our collection. We always lend to museums and shows. It’s the right thing, and the best thing for the artist. I have found the art world to be open, welcoming and pretty much a wonderful place.

Amy Phelan at Rob Pruitt's 2010 Art Awards
Photo courtesy Patrick McMullan

Rothberg: Now even the experience of viewing art is going virtual, thanks to social media and the Google Art Project where you can go through all these museums online and get a virtual tour. Have you done that?
Phelan: I have not, but I think it’s such a great idea. It’s a really smart idea for museums to get in front of that. I would love for the Guggenheim or the Whitney or MoMA to. I mean, I would pay a fee to see an exhibition online if I couldn’t get there. And that’s another source of revenue for the organizations, too. It would of course cost money up front to get it all set up, but just think about how many more visitors they could get and how many more people could see these amazing exhibitions that cost millions of dollars to put together. And the museum would probably get to record that for their numbers, which are really important.

Rothberg: You are on numerous art committees, boards, councils, including MoMA, the Tate, the Aspen Art Museum, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, etc. and you’ve co-chaired multiple museum galas over the past couple of years. How do manage to do it all?
Phelan: Well, it goes back to the student portion of it. I think it’s an honor and a priviledge to be asked to serve on the board of a museum or the board of a public art organization, and I take that very seriously. I hope that I am giving as much to them as I am taking, which is learning and meeting wonderful people. As an art collector, serving on different art councils is incredibly educational. You really learn a lot. When you go to an acquisitions committee meeting, you’re not only looking at artworks but you’re also learning about the artists who created them. People find time to do what they like. As long as it’s fun and pleasureable, you’ll find the time to do it.

Rebecca Rothberg

California native Rebecca Rothberg graduated from Washington University in St. Louis where she received a B.A. in Art History. She worked in several museums and galleries specializing in modern and contemporary art including the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Beverly Hills, White Flag Projects in St. Louis, and The Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She has also worked with fashion photographers Ash Gupta and Guiliano Bekor. Rebecca currently resides in New York City. Contact her at rebeccarothberg@gmail.com.

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