Artist David Altmejd, Stephanie Seymour, Peter Brant and their daughter.

NEW YORK - Peter Brant has been collecting art since his teenage years–before he made a name for himself in the paper industry, publishing and polo. Now the Brant Foundation Art Study Center has given him a forum for sharing his impressive collection and knowledge.

Whether or not they admit it, it’s practically a rite of passage for serious collectors to try their hands at making art. They look at a Jackson Pollock, say, or perhaps an even more deceptively simple abstraction by Ellsworth Kelly or Josef Albers hanging on their walls, and think, “I could do that.” Their furtive attempts, which quickly end up in landfills, dispel any notions of grandeur, and the would-be artists humbly return to their rightful role in the art world.

Not so Peter Brant. The American collector, famed for his trove of Warhols, Koonses and Cattelans, amongst others, swears he never dared pick up a brush or sketch an idea for a sculpture. “No talent,” he says with a small smile. “I knew it from kindergarten.”
But after 45 years of collecting, he has found his own channel for creative expression: curating. His Brant Foundation Art Study Center, housed in a 110-year-old stone barn, meticulously renovated by art world favourite Gluckman Mayner Architects, on Brant’s sprawling Greenwich, Connecticut estate, has become Brant’s platform for displaying his treasures.

The Brant Foundation Art Study Center is housed in a 110-year old barn, renovated by Gluckman Mayner Architects.

“I’ve been going to shows for many, many years,” Brant says, sipping coffee from a paper cup in a cosy, light-filled sitting area of the centre with a view of Urs Fischer’s sculpture Big Clay on the lush green field beyond. He is surrounded by weirdly captivating two-way heads by David Altmejd, whose well-received show closed in March. “I’m not trained as a curator, but I’m confident in my ability to do shows.” For him, the driving force is passion. “I do not think I have natural talent,” he says, but rather a well-trained eye.

Urs Fischer’s monumental sculpture Big Clay, on permanent display at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center

Since 2009, the centre’s exhibitions, highlighting such artists as Fischer and Josh Smith, have made the pastoral setting, a short drive from New York City, another destination on the contemporary art trail. The openings themselves have become chic country-afternoon gatherings where aficionados mingle with supermodel friends of Brant’s wife, Stephanie Seymour. The latest show is a survey of mid-career American artist Karen Kilimnik that opened 6 May and will run through September. Brant has curated all of them. “I don’t have any other curators here, but my method of curating,” Brant says, “is basically to determine how much I can lead the artist in the right direction.”

Like many individuals of vast wealth and considerable accomplishment, Brant, a publishing and paper magnate, is used to getting his way. As a curator, however, he has found that he does not always get to play quarterback. In the case of the current exhibit, for example, Brant describes Kilimnik as a “lovely” collaborator, but one gets the sense that he was not always running the show. “You have to give her freedom,” he admits by phone during the show’s installation, but adds, “If she believes you know her work and understand her work–and I’ve been collecting her work for a long time–then I think she listens. She listens, [but] if she doesn’t agree, you’re not going to get your way. It’s a discussion.”

An installation view of the David Altmejd exhibtion at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center.

Even for artists like Kilimnik and Altmejd, both of whom Brant says have “strong sensibilities” about how their work should be displayed, he serves as a sounding board. “Anybody needs someone to hit balls off of,” he says. Other artists “don’t see their work in the clearest way. They just make it.” Then, he says, it becomes “my job” to deliver the message.

The shows have been met with solid reviews. Artforum’s positive write-up of Altmejd’s exhibition gave a nod to the centre as a “surprisingly sympathetic setting for the riotous dazzle and decay of David Altmejd’s work.” All in all, though, Brant still finds the process of assembling a museum-quality exhibition something of a mystery and does not pretend to know all the answers. “I’m not shy to ask artists their opinion,” he says. “I feel I have very good working relationships with them.”

Brant’s daughter Allison serves as the foundation’s director and credits her father with possessing a keen understanding of how viewers experience art in the space, the same way he has always had a knack for hanging acquisitions in the family’s houses. “Peter knows all the works so well,” says Allison, collegially referring to her father by his first name, “and feels strongly about artists showing every period of their practice.”

Foundation director Allison Brant and artist Karen Kilimnik at the opening reception of Kilimnik’s exhibition.

Brant’s passion for art was nurtured by his father from a young age. “My first interest was in Old Master pictures,” he says. “My dad was really interested in that.”

There were monthly visits together to the Frick Collection, and regular excursions to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I remember in the early 1960s when the Met bought Rembrandt’s Aristotle With a Bust of Homer [which was sold at Parke-Bernet, later to become Sotheby’s]. It brought a record price–two or three million dollars, which in the early Sixties was a fortune,” he says. “There was a line going out the door past Central Park. I was one of those guys in line with my father. We really wanted to see that picture.” It was worth the wait, Brant recalls. “I just thought, Wow. Incredible.”

By the time Brant was a teenager, he was collecting Warhol. (For years as a collector, he says, “I was always the youngest guy in the room.”) He also came to count the artist as a friend. “He was very generous, very, very bright, very quiet,” Brant recalls. “He appeared to be vulnerable, but he was a Leo and not really vulnerable.” Brant, on the other hand, is a Pisces, an astrological sign that he points out is marked by creativity and dreaminess.

His involvement in the art world long ago evolved beyond collecting. In addition to the White Birch Paper Company, a business he inherited, Brant is at the helm of Brant Publications, publisher of art magazines such as Interview and Art in America. He executive produced two highly-regarded feature films:  Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat and Ed Harris’s Pollock. Art, he says, is “what I do for my relaxation and my social life. I’ve always been known as a polo player, but it’s always been art that’s driven me.” (Fittingly, though, the centre abuts Brant’s polo field.)

As evidence, he notes that his children don’t care much about polo but are all involved in one way or another in art. Allison recalls how he indoctrinated his brood from the time they were very small. “He would play all sorts of games,” she says. “He would open a book and tell us to find a piece of art in the house by the same artist.”

An installation by Karen Kilimnik at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center.

Brant formed the foundation in the early 1990s and began to draw up plans for the Art Study Center several years later. The initial idea was to use the barn as a showcase for his late Warhol paintings. “Then I decided that was too restrictive,” Brant says. Organising a couple of shows a year, he reasoned, would not only serve the public but would stimulate his own intellect and keep him current. Remaining on top of new artistic directions is of primary importance to him. Unlike many collectors, he says, “I haven’t stopped with one period.” He compares artists to scientists, building on the past’s discoveries, and he argues that their output should be a type of salve. “The world is in such a confusing state right now. Maybe people should spend more time with art. Maybe the answers lie there.”

Brant’s collection is marked by substantial acquisitions from relatively few artists. All of the centre’s solo exhibitions feature artists already in the collection; Brant owns roughly half of the pieces that appeared in the Altmejd show, with Altmejd making the other half, much of which the foundation will buy, specially for the exhibit. Brant first took close notice of Altmejd at the 2007 Venice Biennale, where he represented Canada. “David is an artist I have been watching now for five years,” Brant says, “and I have had work for four and a half of those five years.”   


An installation by Karen Kilimnik at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center.

As for Kilimnik, a pivotal American artist who has remained somewhat under the radar, Brant began to acquire her paintings, drawings and installations more than a decade ago and now owns at least 25 pieces. He recently promised to donate her breakthrough 1989 installation The Hellfire Club episode of The Avengers to the Whitney Museum of American Art, which honoured him in May with its Whitney American Art Award. “I don’t think most people understand how important she is,” Brant says. “She’s a wonderful painter. She paints the kind of world she lives in, and she has a tremendous imagination. You feel you’re very close to the subject matter when looking at her work. It’s very dreamy.”

Next up, in November, is Nate Lowman. Then, in May 2013, comes the apogee of Brant’s collecting and curating career: Warhol. “That’s kind of what I’ve been dreaming about doing my whole life,” Brant says. The exhibition will feature more than 100 works. Asked how many Warhols Brant owns, he gives a little shrug: “I never counted them.”

Julie L. Belcove writes about art and culture. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Architectural Digest, Elle, Town & Country and The Financial Times, amongst other publications.

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