As I See It with Bruce Helander – Open This End

Oct 30, 2015

OPEN THIS END is the title of an amazing traveling exhibition of artworks from the renowned Blake Byrne collection, which was inaugurated at the Nasher Museum of Art in North Carolina earlier this year and just opened at its second venue, the Ohio State University Urban Arts Space. The show continues on the road during the next two years, stopping at the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University (Manhattan) and finishing up at the Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art at Lewis & Clark College in Portland (Oregon). Mr. Byrne recently was labeled by Blouin Artinfo as “The Good Collector,” and there’s an excellent reason for that: Byrne’s serendipitous journey towards building one of America’s great private art collections began in Providence, near the campus of the Rhode Island School of Design, which may have been his first introduction to art and artists. Eventually, he arrived in New York City, where he started collecting seriously in 1988, and with what little money he had he would peruse the galleries of 57th Street, where he met Jack Tilton, the influential dealer who talked Blake into attending Art Basel in Switzerland, and the rest is history. After selling his broadcasting company, Byrne had the ability to pursue collecting art, and with a modest amount of professional advice he set off on his own, responding to objects that he liked personally, and before long he had built a museum worthy-collection that he felt was incredibly rewarding.

As a graduate student at RISD, I naturally became interested in saving found items that had an anonymous aesthetic quality after being introduced to the joys of flea markets by my colleague, glass artist Dale Chihuly, who went on to amass abundant, fascinating collections of utilitarian objects that surpassed those of Andy Warhol. This type of activity was a normal extension of an artist’s curiosity in a variety of things, begun initially without knowing much about them. This passion developed into an interest in collecting small works of art, which most of my fellow artists felt was a valuable intuitive activity that brought wonderful, non-monetary rewards on a regular basis. Ironically, some of those early works originally purchased for a few hundred dollars became worth much more, and were donated to museums decades later. I always had a particularly strong opinion about collecting, appreciating and understanding art, figuring that an artist knows best and has the eye and incentive to make decisions without advice. When I was first introduced to Martin Margulies in Miami by the late Ivan Karp, Leo Castelli’s former gallery director and founder of O.K. Harris, I wondered just how a real estate developer would have an accurate idea about how to evaluate a work of art, much less be able to talk about it. Boy, was I wrong. I will never forget the first time I heard him speak about his collection, and I had never heard such an insightful, intelligent overview presented with such passion and descriptive analysis. Listening to Blake Byrne’s in-depth recorded interview ( about his current show offered the same conclusive evidence that if you are serious about what you collect, this addiction becomes a pleasant part of your life, and with any measure of aptitude, research and analytical skills you also can become an enthusiastic expert with a polished, informed perspective.

So the moral of this short story and perspective on collecting is that anyone who takes up the challenge of accumulating contemporary art, with the right attitude, intelligence, motivation and some good advice from the get-go can assemble a terrific collection that can continue to expand and appreciate in value (although Byrne generally does not “de-acquisition” works from his collection). Those who do buy just to flip the artworks as soon as possible are just as interested in potential profits of pork belly futures as the art that is often just hidden away in storage, just waiting for the right opportunity to be sold. This is one negative side to the art world, especially now that financial advisors are recommending a portion of one’s investment portfolio be devoted to contemporary art as an exotic commodity, which has outdistanced many other conventional investment commodities.

Space limitations here preclude me from elaborating on the extent of the Byrne collection or details of his current traveling show, but you can get a very accurate perspective by looking it up here:, as well as making a note of the upcoming venues that shouldn’t be missed. Despite his remarkable donations to institutions like MOCA LA (which received about 123 artworks, the largest private gift ever for that institution) and works out on loan to “Open This End,” Byrne’s home is packed with art, including recent purchases that he always is proud to talk about. Like many great collectors, he likes to keep his art in constant rotation so that he has the opportunity for a constant, personal dialogue with them. “They are always speaking to me,” Byrne said, and that is the best example of a thoughtful collector who truly loves living with art. For one thing, even if you’re alone, there always is ‘someone’ with whom to strike up a stimulating conversation!


Bruce Helander

Bruce Helander is a former White House Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and is the former Editor-in-Chief of The Art Economist magazine. His columns on art, values, and investing in art appear regularly in The Huffington Post.

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