E mily Fisher Landau loved nothing more than encouraging emerging talent and sharing her love of art. In doing so, she assembled a preeminent collection of contemporary art and became a remarkably effective philanthropist.
Easily one of the greatest art patrons of the last century, Emily Fisher Landau assembled an inimitable collection of modern and contemporary art – 120 works from which are coming to auction at Sotheby’s on 8–9 November. Her collection was born from her dedication to artists and the organizations that buttress them. In equal measure, she supported artists personally and museums institutionally.
“With her own museum, she was a great example of the premier collectors in history who collect not just for themselves but for posterity. She was buying more for tomorrow than for today.”
“I like the fact that the Whitney isn’t afraid to expose the public to the work of young artists before they are accepted,” she said after she joined the board of that institution in 1989. Not long afterwards, she established an endowment to fund the Whitney Biennial, knowing that it was a cornerstone of the museum’s objective to present work by risk-taking contemporary artists, many of whom were not yet recognized.
“She just jumped in with both feet,” says Mrs. Landau’s daughter, Candia Fisher. “When she committed herself to something, she was all in.”
In recognition of her leadership, the Whitney named the fourth floor of its Marcel Breuer–designed landmark building on Madison Avenue, soon to be Sotheby’s New York headquarters, in her honor. Yet Landau subsequently threw her support behind the museum’s then-controversial plans to relocate to the Meatpacking District closer to the city’s major contemporary art galleries. Though only after she had done her due diligence: “Emily has been downtown to see the site. She loves the energy there,” the Whitney’s director, Adam D. Weinberg, noted in 2010.
That year, Landau announced a historic gift to the museum – 367 works in all media by nearly 100 key figures in American art, including Carl Andre, Willem de Kooning, Glenn Ligon, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. According to Weinberg, the donation ranks among the foremost gifts of collections to the Whitney, alongside those of founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and longtime trustee Leonard A. Lauder.
“Never stop learning. Never stop looking. Art is the greatest teacher.”
“I have been continually inspired by her keen eye for talent and deep curiosity about all that is new,” Weinberg comments. “Mrs. Landau consistently supported risk-taking artists who, in her words, ‘portray the world we are living in now.’”
Even as Landau dedicated herself to the Whitney, she opened the Fisher Landau Center for Art, housed in a 25,000-square-foot former parachute-harness factory in Long Island City, which architect Max Gordon reimagined for her. Initially, Landau planned to use the building to store her 1,500-work collection. Soon enough, she thought it would make a wonderful exhibition and study space. From 1991 to 2017, the Center presented – free of charge to the public – insightful exhibitions of works by such luminaries as Johns, Rauschenberg, Ruscha and Twombly.
Once a year, however, when Landau hosted the annual presentations of the Columbia University School of Visual Arts MFA Thesis Exhibitions, the building was filled with brand-new creations (some with the paint barely dry) by total unknowns. “It was the highlight of her year – the day these kids had their opening,” Candia Fisher recalls. “None of them had had a gallery show before, and they were ecstatic to have their work shown. My mother loved supporting these young, emerging artists – it was so in her wheelhouse.”
“Never stop learning. Never stop looking. Art is the greatest teacher,” Landau once stated. Named by the French government a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in recognition of her arts patronage, Mrs. Landau also sat on committees at MoMA and on the boards of the Metropolitan Opera, SITE Santa Fe and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in New Mexico. Outside the art world, she established the Fisher Landau Foundation for research on dyslexia and assistance to dyslexic children – she herself was dyslexic – and the Fisher Landau Center for the Treatment of Learning Disabilities for children, adolescents and adults at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “She was very hands on. She helped developed programs and always followed up,” says Candia Fisher. “She put her money where her mouth was.”
“She probably has been one of the most important trustees in Whitney history,” remarks Mr. Lauder of Emily Fisher Landau. “With her own museum, she was a great example of the premier collectors in history who collect not just for themselves but for posterity. She was buying more for tomorrow than for today.”
Banner: Emily Fisher Landau in front of Fernand Leger’s Etude pour les constructeurs in her New York home, 2002. Photo © Chester Higgins, Jr. / The New York Times / Redus. Art © 2023 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York