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Gael Neeson and Stefan Edlis at the MCA Chicago in front of Cattelan's Felix

Interview with Gael Neeson

Bianca Bova
Production / Direction

B: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Gael. You and your late husband, Stefan, have done so much for Chicago as philanthropists. We are all--everyone in the city’s cultural sector--direct beneficiaries of your generosity, and I wanted to thank you for that first.

G: We were happy to do that. Thank you.

B: Apart from being philanthropists, you and your husband are, of course, known as art collectors. Was that something you were both doing independently before you knew one another, or something you began together after you were married?

G: It was something that really came about after we were together. Stefan was a little interested in it to start. Gerry Elliott lived above us, in the Hancock Building, and he had been talking to Stefan about art. He was a lawyer with the firm that Stefan used, and they had struck up a friendship. Gerry encouraged us to join the MCA, and we did that. I began going to lectures about contemporary art. We just shared it, and grew together, into collectors. Stefan really first discovered art when he saw Ed Kienholz at the Art Institute. The Beanery, that’s at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam now, the whole room. And that struck him at the time, as contemporary art, and he really liked it. We have a couple of Kienholz’s in our collection. He was an artist we both loved. And we met him once, and visited his studio in Berlin. He was living and working over there at the time, he and Nancy, and we looked him up, and he had us for a visit. He took us out to dinner at this wonderful restaurant, The Big Window, a place with an enormous picture window on the front. Really, he was a lot of fun.

B: What was his studio like?

G: It was very busy. It was a full floor, and I remember it had all these things that you see in his artwork around. I think they were making a carousel at the time, but all sorts of parts and bodies and objects they were making. It was full of organized clutter, everything you could imagine. And Kienholz was such a satirical, political artist, he was very sharp. He had a real edge to him. He was very much collected in Cologne at the time. The museum there, the Ludwig, had a big collection of his work. So at the time we visited him, the Germans really loved and appreciated his work. I think much more than he was appreciated here. Though he did have a second coming here. David Zwirner helped create a second wave of interest in his work because, I think, he realized how many young artists come out of Kienholz’s work.

B: Was that something you did often? Met, or formed friendships, with the artists you collect?

G: Well, we really collected first, before we had a friendship. Stef didn’t want friendship to get in the way of whether he liked an artwork or not. Usually after we bought the work and enjoyed it, then we would meet the artist, and often became friends. Stef was always very frank with artists, he told them what he thought. He wouldn’t just buy a work out of obligation. Most of our friends were artists and collectors and museum curators, and that made for an exciting and international social world, which it still is.

B: Of the American cities, aside maybe from New York, Chicago seems like a great city to engage in that way. We’ve been fortunate to have always had a deep art community here.

G: I agree. Everyone is so friendly in Chicago, it was a good place to start collecting. It’s still a good place to collect. No one gets jealous. Everyone is so happy if you buy something. At the time, all our friends would say, “Oh, show me. When can I come and see it?” Everyone was genuinely happy for each other, it wasn’t competitive. I think it’s still that way here. I’m so proud we can maintain that as Chicagoans. That was always the way we felt, and that was the reason we gave our collection to the Art Institute. We were proud of the city and proud that that was something we could do for the people of Chicago..

B: It is an incredible collection that you gave, and I want to delve further into that soon, but to go back for a moment to your early days as collectors, did you make a deliberate choice to  strictly buy contemporary art? Or was that just the direction your taste ran?

G: No, we started with the school of Paris. We had Kandinsky, we had Dubuffet, we had Mondrian. We had a fantastic Balthus, and Picasso, we had a really good collection going, and at the same time, we began collecting pop art. That seemed to be where we started focusing, not just contemporary art, but pop art. This was in the 1970’s. We started around ‘74, ‘75.

B: What galleries were you purchasing work from at that time?

G: We collected locally of course. We bought work from Phyllis Kind, Marianne Deson, Bud Holland, Dick Gray, Rhona Hoffman and Donald Young. We loved and enjoyed visiting the local galleries, and buying what they were showing. The pop art collection, though, that came mainly from attending auctions. Stef was very brave, he was one of the first collectors that went straight to the auction houses, and started collecting directly from them. That hadn’t really been done much up until then. He believed in his judgment. And he certainly had the eye, he had a super eye, and he believed in what he was doing. So we were one of the few that bought at auction at that time, as collectors.  

B: What did the other collectors you were friends with and the dealers that you worked with think of that? What were they focusing on?

G: Well, Gerry Elliot was really seriously collecting AbEx at the time, and then he began to disperse that and turned to extremely contemporary work, and started collecting Robert Gober, Jeff Koons, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman. He and Elaine Danheiser in New York, they were always competing with each other to get to the dealers, to get the best piece of new work. We learned a lot from that. We got into that kind of work then, but we still went for artists with a connection to pop art. We didn’t go for Bruce Nauman or those sorts of conceptual artists. We mainly went for figurative art, that was more our thing.

Neeson and Edlis posing with a Charles Ray mannequin

B: I remember reading once, that you had a highly specific model for collecting that you followed? Only a certain number of works at a time, by only a certain number of artists. Is that right?

G: Yes! Stefan loved this. He had come up with: 40 artists and 100 works. Sometimes we went a little over. Mostly we were right on the mark. If we decided we wanted a new artist, we had to look at our collection and decide who we would deaccession. It was difficult, but we stuck to it. There are a lot of things that I see today in museums that passed through our collection. It’s always exciting to see them, it’s fun, and great to know they’ve been passed on, that other people are enjoying them. It’s a part of the history of the work, and our personal history. It brings me back to what we were doing at that time, where we were in our lives when we owned the piece.

B: It must be like seeing an old friend.

G: Yes, exactly. That’s what it is. And you realize how good the work really was, too. We tried to get the best we could of the artists we were collecting. That was always important to us.

B: Thinking about that aspect of your collecting habits, I have to go back to the gift the two of you made in 2015 to the Art Institute of Chicago, the largest single gift in the museum’s history. The scope of that collection is remarkable, and the donation beyond generous. I wonder, five year later, what it’s like to look at it in the galleries, knowing it’s there long-term, knowing the impact it’s had on the museum and the museum-going public.

G: Well, I have to tell you, Stefan loved it. I love it. He would go down often, and just look at people looking at the art. We received some amazing letters, from people who felt it had given them a new feeling about art, and the museum. Before Stefan came out to Aspen in 2019, one of the last things he did was go to the Art institute and just hang around, and watch people enjoy those galleries. This year, I stayed in Aspen when things were bad everywhere, and I didn’t come back until October. When I got back, James [Rondeau] asked me to the Art Institute, so of course I went, and I looked in on the collection again. You know, they rehang it sometimes. Pictures go out like when they loaned the Warhol’s and they rehang the collection. I think it’s been done four or five times. We would always love to go down and see the rehang, it was always interesting to see what they had done. Of course we did that ourselves, whenever a piece went out. We would then rearrange some of the artworks to have a better feel if a piece was gone. So I love the fact they do that, that the collection’s always evolving and not static at the museum.

B: Have you found that there are patterns that emerge between how you hung the works in your home and how the museum hangs them?  Particular works that naturally seem to best live in proximity to one another?

G: Well of course the museum has much more advantage than we had hanging them. Hanging work in a home is, you know, such a different thing. And some of the works were in our home in Aspen--the John Currin, the Murakami--so those were never really hung with the other works the Art Institute has them with. Also the Cindy Sherman’s, the centerfolds, those were in Aspen as well. We have other Cindy’s here, but they’re not centerfolds. It’s different to see it at the museum than in your own home, but I love living with art. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t look at things and feel so happy that I have the opportunity to live with and enjoy these works.

B: On the subject of living with art, I have to ask: you famously own Jeff Koons’ Rabbit, a sculpture that I personally love, that from the first time I saw it, I found almost morbidly compelling. It has its own gravity, it just draws you in. I have always wondered what it must be like to live with that sculpture. Can you tell me?

G: Well, it’s absolutely fantastic. When Stefan first bought that, I knew it was an amazing moment. We just loved it. The first time we had it, we had it with--you know the Jasper Johns Target? We had that hung, and then on the same wall, there was Rabbit. It was really fun, we just loved getting up every day and seeing that. It was really dynamic, it gave us so much pleasure. Rabbit didn’t go to the Art Institute, but the Johns did. We gave another Johns to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago as well as a Rauschenberg, and then, when the MCA had a new director come on, Robert Fitzpatrick I believe it was, Stef gave them the pick of the collection. And they chose Rabbit. We were happy to give them the major ownership--we still retain 10% of it--but it’s in their collection as a partial and promised gift. Consequently they have a major say in where it goes and when it goes on loan, but it still comes home to us, we always have it when it is here in Chicago and not on view, so we could still enjoy it. So I guess to answer your question briefly, it's a fun thing to live with.

Stefan Edlis and Maurizio Cattelan  with one of Cattelan's works

B: Koons was an artist you began collecting very early on in his career, yes?

G: Yes, yes. Donald Young really instigated our collecting of Koons. When he first started out, he showed with Donald Young, Ileana Sonnabend, and Max Hetzler in Germany. Sonnabend was his main dealer, but for this one show, they all had the works. At the time, Jeff came to Chicago and spoke. It was amazing. I’ve forgotten where it was held, but a lot of collectors were there--we were all there--on a Friday night, and the show opened then on Saturday. And on Saturday, we all ran over to Donald’s gallery. We took one look at the art, and everybody bought a piece. Everybody. We were all just enthralled. From then on, we’ve always understood his work, and we’ve always followed him. Jeff is really an amazing artist and man. Stef was very interested in the way he fabricated his works, the mechanical way he creates things. You know, Stef was an engineer, so he especially appreciated the degree of perfection, and how Jeff’s mind works in creating art.

B: That makes a lot of sense, but it’s fascinating to me to hear that the fabrication process was an influential aspect that informed the desire to collect. That sort of consideration seems like one that’s often overlooked. Though I can fully understand how you’d spend an hour in front of Jeff Koons and then run out and buy something if you could. I’ve had the opportunity to see him lecture a couple of times, and I always think I could listen to him for hours. He’s the most charismatic, compelling speaker.

G: Exactly. As they say now, we drank the Kool Aid.

B: That’s too funny, I’m so happy to hear he’s always had that effect on everyone.

G: He was collected widely from the beginning. Lew Manilow was an early collector, the Hoffmans had him, we all went in for it. Gerry Elliot was the first one, I think. The MCA was the first museum to give him a show, and it had Gerry’s rowboat, which the MCA has permanently now, and a number of other works, I can’t remember them all now. This was in the early ‘80s.

B: The equilibrium tanks and the vacuums were in that show as well, right? I have a copy of the catalog somewhere on my bookshelf.

G: Yes, I think so. Actually, the vacuums I’m not so sure about, I think Suzanne Ghez showed those first, at the Renaissance Society. That was the very first we knew of his work, the vacuum cleaners at the Ren. Then came Donald’s show and the lecture, when we first met Jeff, then the show at the MCA. By then it had fallen in place, we were all already collecting him.

B: The show the vacuum works were in at the Ren, was that the Robert Gober/Jeff Koons/Haim Steinbach show?

G: I don’t remember. I seem to recall the vacuum cleaners on their own, but it could have been. They’re what I remember clearly. Which is funny, we have so much Gober in our collection, we always loved Bob Gober, too.

B: When did you start collecting Gober? Was he another artist you began supporting early in his career?

G: No, we weren’t early on. We loved his work, but we just didn’t seem to be able to get in there. I think he showed with Paula Cooper then, and then James Rondeau did a show at the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and I think it was at that time that we bought the gin bottle. And then, Francesco Bonami was at the MCA, and Stefan and I really got on well with Francesco. He’s the only person that Stefan ever listened to. But Stefan wanted to get a leg, or something in that line of sculpture, and Francesco said, “Oh, why don’t you just call Gober? You know, he doesn’t have a dealer right now.” So Francesco called Bob Gober and told him  that Stefan would give him “an Arm for a Leg”. Francesco’s and Stefan’s humor they enjoyed.  So we got in touch with Bob, and we went to his home and visited with him, and that’s how we came to get the leg that we have. Then we bought the newspaper stacks, the rat bait, and the kitty litter, and then he loaned us a drain. We have it on our wall. And you know the bride work?

B: Yes, of course, the Art Institute has that as well, that’s such a striking installation.

G: We gave a significant contribution that went towards the purchase of that work. And shortly thereafter, Bob sent us a drain. He knew Stefan was just fascinated with those works. So it’s a loan that we have, and Bob continues to loan it to us, even though Stefan is gone. We just sign a paper every year that it belongs to him, and we have it insured here. It’s so wonderful to have an artist feel that way, to share his work that way.

B: Forgive me, but I think that’s the first I’ve ever heard of an artist making a direct loan of a work to a private collection. Can you tell me more about it? I’m fascinated by the unorthodoxy of this.

G: Well, yes, and no one really knows about it, I suppose. Matthew Marks is his dealer now and Matthew is the one who keeps in touch and handles the paperwork. It’s an amazing--I don’t even know what to call it--gift of one’s self, to do that. It means so much.

B: It really seems to speak to the level of respect that the artist must have for the both of you, and his appreciation for your sincerity as collectors.

G: I agree, and he’s a wonderful artist. He’s very personal in his art. The drain remains installed in our Gober corner.

B: You have a Gober corner?

G: Yes, the leg we bought was a corner piece, so we have the leg of his partner with sock, the stacks of newspapers, the drain, the rat bait on the floor, the kitty litter on the floor, we have a paint can, one of the glass ones, on a stand, and then we have the gin bottle, which also sits on the floor. It leans up against the wall. And it’s funny, whenever I had caterers in here, they’d look at that gin bottle and say, “Oh, may I get that off the floor for you?” And I’d always have to catch them and say, “No! Please leave it alone!” It fooled everybody.

B: I love the idea of the Gober corner. Do you often display your work by artist groupings?

G: We loved to do that. We had a Lichtenstein bedroom, when we had all those Lichtensteins. Now our bedroom is Richard Prince. My office was Gerhard Richter for a time and now it’s Eric Fischl. We always liked that, having the artists have their space.

B: It almost feels like a museum approach, to go back to our earlier conversation. Dedicated galleries.

G: Yes, and when we had the Warhols at home, we had them leading from the front door. A Warhol trail coming in the front door into the living room, where we kept the rest of the Warhol’s. I loved that.

B: What a way to greet your guests!

G: It was enjoyed. We always had fun with our art collection. That’s why you have it, for the pleasure, to have it around.

Stefan and Gael at home with a Ruscha

B: Is there art in every room of your house?

G: Yes! Even in the garage in Aspen! We always tried to hang everything we have. Everything. We might have had a couple of really big pictures in storage at a time, because you only have so much wall space, but other than that, everything hangs. That’s been our thing, that’s why we don’t collect and put them in storage. If things can’t be hung, we don’t collect them. And that’s always been our stipulation. We don’t have storage. We like our art where we can see it.

B: That’s such a service to the artists, too, keeping their work visible and appreciated.

G: I hope so. I was so happy when I went to the Art Institute last and they had up a Sol LeWitt pencil drawing that we gave them years ago, that Rhona sold us. They wanted a Sol LeWitt at the time, so we gave it to them. It was never shown until they put up our collection, and they brought it out, and it’s still up. It’s wonderful that they went back and took it out, put it with the rest of the collection. The same goes for another Jeff Koons we gave them long ago, Woman in Tub in our collection rooms now. It’s wonderful to see.

B: Specific works I imagine they were seeking out, as you said with the LeWitt. But how did you decide what to give them as a part of the major gift?

G: We didn’t. We gave them pick of the collection, anything they wanted from us. They were restricted somewhat by the size of the hanging space they had, but that was all. James Rondeau and Dougals Druick chose what they wanted for the museum.

B: Was there anything you held back, anything they couldn’t have had if they had wanted it?

G: No, they could have absolutely anything they wanted. The only exceptions were works that had already been partially gifted or promised to the MCA.

B: That is such an incredible act of generosity. I don’t know what to say.

G: It was simple, we wanted it to hang, to be seen and appreciated the way we appreciated it. That was Stefan, he said “I’m not going to give things away only to have them end up in the basement.” And the Art Institute came up and said, “We’ll do it. We’ll hang it for twenty-five years, and then the next twenty-five years it’ll hang among our own collection.” And Stef thought that was brilliant. That’s exactly the way he wanted it. We were very happy. And  another nice thing was, the School of the Art Institute was so happy to have all this contemporary art coming in, for the students to have at hand, that they gave Stef and I honorary doctorates of fine art. We graduated the same year they gave one to Jim Nutt as well. It was May of 2016. And it was a wonderful thing. For Stefan, as you know, couldn't finish school when he was young, because he was in Vienna and was not allowed to attend school when the Nazi's took over. So for him, as someone who didn’t have a complete high school education, to be given an honorary doctorate, he was so thrilled by that, as was I.

B: How well-deserved. A collection like the two of you built doesn’t come together without scholarship, regardless of whether formal education is involved. Which really seems like part of the legacy of your gift to the Art Institute, the depth of your collecting habits. In my own professional life, I’ve had a window into what the acquisitions process in museums can be like, and it seems impossible that the works you gave all would have eventually found their way into the same museum by any other means. Not just because of the volume of work involved, just the selection. Not to mention the embedded historical relationships to Chicago galleries and dealers, and other art collectors that it brings to the table. It’s staggering, and personally, it has had a very formative impact on the way I think about collecting and the relationship between collectors and museums, and I’m confident I’m not alone in that. You not only gave the city this incredible gift, you set a standard for what those relationships can look like.

G: Thank you, really. It’s because that was our life. We looked at art, we collected art, we went everywhere for it, we traveled. Our eyes were always opened wide, and we were always, always thinking about art. It was a great adventure together.

B: You mentioned having been away from the city recently, that you were in Aspen for the better part of the year as the pandemic came on. I wonder, since museums have only been open off and on--I say this as we’re going back into a shutdown here in Chicago tomorrow--and galleries were forced to close their doors for a time, if that limited access to looking at new art changed your relationship to the art that you live with?

G: Absolutely. Though I must say, the galleries have been very prolific in showing their artists virtually. And while it’s never the same as being confronted with an artwork, there has been a lot of great art shown over the internet, and that’s wonderful to see. Still, it did give me great solace to have art hanging in my home and being able to live with it in that time. I did go to the Art Institute and the MCA as soon as I got back, and I was in New York briefly, so I went to the Whitney and the New Museum and the Met, and some of the galleries, and it was fantastic. And now it’s all going to close down again, I fear. So I’m glad I made it just under the wire.

B: I have to ask, while I know your husband passed away last year, and that must have changed things, do you still collect art? Or, when things are closer to being back to normal, do you intend to continue?

G: Yes, I’ve made a couple of smaller purchases. You know what they say, once a collector, always a collector. You just can’t help yourself, you try, but I think I’ve bought maybe three works this year.

B: That’s what every collector tells me, “don’t start buying art, you’ll never stop.”

G: They’re right. It’s not nearly as many as we used to buy, but I have to do it, there are things here and there I need to own for myself, to collect myself. And I’m sure Stef would have loved them too.

B: Do you still abide by the 100 works, 40 artists model?

G: I don’t think we have that many works now. We gave 44 works to the Art Institute, and I’m not sure how many we have now, if that caught up. I know there’s only two big pictures in storage (we have three, but only one wall for them), but we rotate those out. I just bought a sculpture from the New Museum, Ugo Rondinoni did a wonderful eighteen piece edition for them of The Sun. Did you see that sculpture at Barbara Gladstone?

B: Yes, I know the work you mean. I didn’t know it was being produced as an edition on a small scale.

G: Yes. So it’s that, and we have a number of Ugo’s works, and this little Sun is so beautiful, I just loved it. I wanted to support the New Museum in that case, but I also just wanted it because I saw it and I just loved it.

B: Are you the sort of collector that believes in “see it, fall in love with it, buy it right away” or are you generally more inclined towards “see it, sleep on it, do your research first”?

G: First of all, we never ran around and were the first to buy an artist. We weren’t the sort of collectors that created the artist. You know what I mean. We would always wait. Except maybe Jeff Koons. But we preferred to make sure the artist was going to be there, so to speak. To be confronted with making a new work of art every day is not an easy road to travel, and we appreciated that. As far as instinct goes, at least for us it was, “I have to have it. I can’t live without it.” That euphoria. You know. And at the time we began collecting, you didn’t have to make a decision instantly. You could let it go a day or two and the work wasn’t going to disappear out from under you. We had the advantage of perhaps being able to think things through a little bit if we needed to. And with auctions, of course you look at it and think about it before you make the purchase. But instinctually, I think if you like it, and you can get it, you should get it. The other side of that is whether you think it’s going to stick with you. If it’s too pretty or too this or that, are you going to get sick of it? You’re the one who's going to be living with the art. And for us, we generally lived with it a long time. So when we made the decision, it was a long term choice. But you have to follow your instincts. And there are a lot of good galleries here, and there have been some excellent shows in Chicago recently, despite everything. It’s still a great time to be collecting art in Chicago.

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