This interview was conducted at the home of husband and wife art collecting team, Howard and Judie Ganek. The Ganeks recently made news with a gift of more than 100 works from their prized collection to the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach as part of the Museum’s expansion. The gift includes works by Ed Ruscha, Damien Hirst, Kara Walker, Cindy Sherman, Anish Kapoor, and Jeff Koons. The interview was conducted by Sophia News Publisher, George Magalios. Scott Benarde, the Norton’s Director of Communication contributed.
Sophia News: Can you tell us a little bit about the origin of your collection, how you started, and what motivated you?
Howard Ganek: Well, I was always interested in art as a hobby. I used to take classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston on Saturdays, and that’s really when I got my first exposure to the art world. That made me more aware of what artists had to go through. As a result of that, I turned down a scholarship at the School of Art and got a degree in Economics from Emory University. It might have been worthwhile doing the other thing, art that is, but that’s how it worked out for me.
In terms of starting a collection, I was thinking about that myself today. Out of the various things you can buy you’ve got photographs—I know you can get really good photographs at reasonable prices, and by reasonable prices I mean $500 to $5,000. You can pay more—Judie one time was going to buy a piece at $1 million. It does not take millions to start a collection and it is possible to start small like I did.
SN: So, did you start the collection before you were married, or did you start it together as a couple?
HG: No, I really started before we were married, but the collection was only four pieces.
SN: Who were the artists?
HG: Gilbert and George were among the first I purchased. Now, you know, one of the things you want to try to do if you’re building a collection, is go visit people who have an art collection. Now you might say “How do you do that?” and I can’t give you a game plan or a map how to do it, but it’s doable. People like George, you get to know, and you ask, “What interesting artists or collections should I know?” and they’ll say, “Let me call so-and-so and arrange for you to go over there and take a look at it.” And really, what you want to do is talk to people and learn why they like artists or why they don’t like certain artists. I, many times, want to talk to someone who has a more critical take for better or worse, on any given artist just to learn.
SN: Judie, tell me a little about your evolution and meeting Mr. Ganek and what role the collection played for you both after you got married. How did your marriage end up affecting your tastes in contemporary art and acquisition of new pieces?
Judie Ganek: I didn’t really have a big interest in art before we got married…because Howard was off with his scholarship and went to museums more often than I did—it just grew, I suppose is the best way to describe it. And it was interesting because we lived in New York City when we were first married, and we lived in a building that had fine moldings and fancy walls, and of course every painting I liked was big, so you couldn’t hang it on those walls. Finally, I fell in love with Gilbert and George, and I said well, we have to do something about this, so we decided to buy Gilbert and George and I remember the painter—the wall painter at the apartment—we had him come over, and he’s standing on a ladder and said, “Now we’re going to take down this molding. If I take it down, it can’t ever be put up the same way because this is the way it originally was. I’m going to do it in five minutes; you have five minutes to change your mind.” It was very cute, and I closed my eyes and said, “Okay, go for it–.”
HG: Do it!
JG: And that was the beginning. We bought Gilbert and George. It was our first painting, the one that is in our bedroom, and that’s how we started our collection. It was dramatic, taking molding off the walls.
SN: That’s a good story right there. It’s your home—you’re bringing the world into your home, and you’re altering your home. How did your children relate to the art? Did they become lovers of contemporary art as well?
SN: Could you tell me a little about the role of art fairs in your travels and collecting habits? Do you travel a lot these days?
HG: Yes, we’ve traveled all over the world, really. Looked at artists from numerous countries—most of which I didn’t like. You can’t just take me to see a piece. I need to see many things by any given artist for a fuller understanding. I might think it’s really good, but part of the whole game is understanding the artist and seeing what the artist is trying to say, and once you’ve done that, you’ve unlocked one little piece of the puzzle. As you said, you’ve got to buy pieces you like. I don’t necessarily mean pieces everyone likes, but the things you like, stay with you.
SN: In terms of your relationship to the Norton Museum, could you tell us little about the evolution of how you came to the decision to give over 100 works from your collection to them?
JG: Well, The Norton was a really relatively small and mostly locally-oriented museum before the great expansion. When you live in New York City around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum and the next museum is five or six blocks away, you expect more from your art visits at major institutions. So, when we came down here we saw the Norton a couple of times and we… felt Palm Beach County should have a much better museum than this. Then we heard about what they were doing, you know, adding and building and thought it was exciting. Interestingly, we lived across the street from the architect when we first rented a house in Palm Beach.
SN: Norman Foster?
JG: That’s it. Yes. At the time what happened was we thought we might want to rent something in the winter, and we did, and across the street from us was Norman Foster. And we knew the name because his wife has a famous restaurant in London, and we had a friend that it was his favorite restaurant. I can’t remember the name, but it was on the water. We always went there because it was his favorite restaurant.
SN: So you were obligated.
JG: We were obligated. What were we going to do? We said fine, we like it. So that’s how we got to know more about Norman Foster and we ended up becoming friends.
Scott Benarde: Did you meet him before the actual project here at the museum?
JG: Yes. And then he quickly built the first building in New York, the Hearst building, which we fell in love with, and I don’t know, time went on.
SB: Just to skip back a minute, when you said Howard got you into art and you weren’t that interested, but once he got you interested, I was waiting for you to say “My tastes are completely different from his or our tastes are exactly the same,” so when you go looking for art, is it a little bit of a scrum or do you mostly agree?
JG: No, we mostly agree.
SN: Could you tell me a little about your feelings concerning the Norton Museum’s expansion. How do you like the new building and its grounds?
HG: I think it’s spectacular.
JG: We love it. We don’t know why it hadn’t been built yet.
HG: It exceeds, by far, anything I imagined. I think I told somebody when we decided to do this we talked about it and had different ideas. In the back of my mind I thought this is so natural, that it’s going to be absolutely spectacular and people are going to be talking about the Norton Museum from far. It’s going to be a very important museum, and people will want to look and see, and we have good curators, and they do an excellent job. The Norton has become a destination museum.
JG: I think it turned out to be a destination museum.
HG: One of our close friends is a major collector, and she and her family have given a whole group of art, and I spoke to her and she said “Howard look, one thing you don’t want to do is give your collection to the MET or MoMa.” So I said “Why?” and she said, “Because they’ll end up in the basement.” A couple months later an article came out in The New York Times saying exactly that, that they don’t have room. And I was trying to think how we could create some vehicle for the major museums we have good contact with—to lend the Norton the art for an exhibition, because they don’t have the room to show it.
SN: Could you tell me a little about the relationships with the artists you’ve developed over the years? Who are your favorites?
HG: Gilbert and George—we’d actually gone to an art tour connected to England, and saw all the English artists. And all they carry there is English art. We got to know the galleries or museum people, and they educate you, and that’s how we learned what we liked and didn’t like. We didn’t have a game plan— but figurative art is, as it turns out, very much a part of our collection.
SN: Do you see a distinction or an evolution between modernism versus post-World War II, to the 1970s and modern work. Tell us about your relation to that and art history.
HG: Well, I’m not an MFA, so I can’t talk about art history. I would say in my case it didn’t happen because I was looking for it. Each work is different and speaks to me or to us in a unique way. We don’t really have a plan or guidelines other than to buy what we love.
JG: We would spend every Saturday in SoHo going to galleries back in the 1970s and 1980s. We would get to know more than the artists—we got to know the dealers. Those used to be our favorite days of the week.
HG: We miss it.
JG: It’s a big change. The streets are separated; we used to be able to walk up and down the street. New York nowadays is different and most of the galleries are now in Chelsea where it is not as easy to get around and explore.
SN: So that was a big part of your knowledge of art history and contemporary art.
JG: Yes, and I took courses at the time where women or men took you from gallery to gallery and you got to understand the art.
HG: And luckily for me, two things happened. I joined an investment firm called Neuberger and Berman. They’re an art-oriented firm. Roy Neuberger was a great collector and mentor for me. As a bit of background, he had a relative who died and left him some money. Roy wanted to be an artist and study with the Impressionists. So, he took his money, went to Paris, had a good time with the ladies, and found out he was not a good artist. But he figured if he could not be a good artist, he could be a good collector. Roy bought a lot of things over the years—some of which are priceless.
SN: Can you tell me about young artists today that you follow that intrigue you?
JG: We’re not in New York, so when we do go, we go to artists we know, we don’t often go to the new ones. We are more in tune with artists over 30.
SN: Tell me a little about your roles, how you see yourself, and how important it is to be seen as cultural stewards, benefactors to the greater good beyond a museum, and if you influence others to do the same thing.
JG: I don’t think we really think about that. We have a lot of friends who come over to see the collection and say we’d like to take you to SoHo to see what you like, but we mostly really just collect for ourselves.
HG: But it’s changed. What we had in SoHo was a great medium, and now it’s expanded so you’re almost overwhelmed, and you can’t have the same feeling for it—well, I can’t. Somebody else says it’s the greatest because the large expanse of collectors, artists, and museums, but it’s too much for me to handle today. For us, a few years back, the intimacy of the art experience was very special. Today, there is too much for us to keep track of.
SN: South Florida is a very unique place with many transient residents, both full time and part time. Because of the unique and ever-changing demographics of the area there aren’t always enough people that make an impact on the culture life area. You’re an exception for what you’ve done.
JG: We could never understand why there wasn’t a better museum. There are so many tourists, and they need more culture here. And now, with the new Norton, we have more!