Contemporary Art

The Pritzker Legacy

By James Reginato

NEW YORK – A hotel lobby is not the place one would expect to find a painting that shatters the record price for the work of a living artist. Unless the hotel was built by the Pritzker family.

Hence, Gerhard Richter’s Domplatz, Mailand (1968), which adorned the lobby of Park Hyatt Chicago since it was acquired for the hotel at Sotheby’s London in 1998 for £2.2 million, fetched an astonishing $37.1 million last May when it went back on the block at Sotheby’s New York.

According to Thomas J. Pritzker, CEO of The Pritzker Organization, the acquisition of the picture was consistent with his family’s desire for quality.

“When we were building the hotel, my cousin, Nick, said, ‘Let’s go all in and get a great piece of art,’” Pritzker recalls during a recent chat alongside his wife, Margot, in the boardroom of Park Hyatt. “So he chose the Richter. It worked out really well,” he says with a grin.

Margot and Tom Pritzker at Park Hyatt Chicago with the company's latest acquisition, Tropicana/Channel (1971), by Robert Rauschenberg. Photograph by Jeff Sciortino.

“When we were updating our insurance policies, we figured out the value,” continues Tom, as he is known to family and friends. “I was astounded. Hyatt is a public company and our job is to create shareholder value, so we decided it was in the best interest to sell it. But we would redeploy that capital in an art programme.”

Thus, Robert Rauschenberg’s Tropicana/Channel (1971) has recently been hung on the wall previously occupied by the Richter. Mr and Mrs Pritzker were immediately taken by it when they spotted it on a gallery tour in New York.

“We just fell in love with it,” says Tom of the work, which the artist constructed amid the chaos of his move from New York to Florida using the only materials he had on hand – cardboard boxes. “It was playful, yet structurally serious. But it’s not a simple or easy-to-understand piece.”

It took an email from the family’s ultimate authority to proceed with the acquisition. “We sent an image to
Tom’s mom, Cindy, who is 90,” says Margot. “She just wrote back, ‘Really cool. Get it.’”

Clearly the Pritzkers are an adventurous family. Following their 1977 wedding, Tom and Margot spent their extended honeymoon trekking north over the Himalayas, then walking some 500 miles along the range’s northeast slope, journeying into areas very few Westerners had ever been to. 

“We had an arranged marriage,” recounts Margot, who was born in Britain. “Tom’s mother met me in the South of France in 1975. We had some mutual family friends. Mom decided I was the one for her son, then she got us together.”

Certainly, the pair shared many interests – notably, a love of South Asia. “For fifteen years, we took every vacation in India, which we studied chronologically,” says Tom. “That led us to an area on the border of India and Tibet, where we discovered a monastery, which was completely covered with wall paintings from the 11th century. This was the kingdom that had imported Buddhism into Tibet. We’ve spent the last 30 years doing archaeology around this kingdom.”

Margot and Tom Pritzker with their son David in West Tibet in 2011.

Over the years, the couple has engaged in exploits worthy of Indiana Jones. With the aid of a military convoy, they have journeyed into areas completely off-limits to Westerners. But one of their most colourful trips was on a horse they had borrowed from a local lama to cross a mountain. The high priest, who accompanied the couple, mentioned on the journey an ancient legend about a secret library hidden somewhere in his village’s temple.

“I thought this must just be a myth; we didn’t expect to find anything. But we sent over a team of experts,” recalls Tom.

“I was back in the States at a board meeting when I was told, ‘You have a call from Nepal. Somebody on a satellite phone.’ The person on the line then told me that they’d found a chamber behind the altar, with a library of 700 volumes from the 13th and 14th centuries. The Pritzkers subsequently arranged for the collection to be catalogued and properly housed.

During their marriage, the couple has also assembled an outstanding collection of art from South Asia in their home in Chicago. “When you collect together it imposes a discipline,” says Margot. “We both have to agree. A piece has to sing to both of us.”

“We are pretty much in synch in our tastes,” says Tom. “But she’s better at iconography, and at spotting a fake.”

According to Tom, the Pritzker family’s extensive legacy of philanthropy began with his great-grandfather, who emigrated from Ukraine to Chicago when he was ten years old. “It’s very much a Horatio Alger story. He was poverty-stricken as a kid and started selling newspapers on the street. But by his early 20s he began to do charity work in orphanages. That set a tone of responsibility to the community in our family.”

The huge fortune created by Tom’s father, Jay, and his two brothers, allowed the family to become extraordinary philanthropists. Jay founded the Hyatt Hotel chain in 1957, and their business empire over the years included interests in Braniff Airlines, McCall’s magazine and Ticketmaster.

Between them, Tom and Margot serve on a dizzying array of charitable boards and pursue unique initiatives. In addition to her extensive work improving education for underprivileged children in the developing world as well as in the United States, Margot serves on the boards of such institutions as the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, the Rubin Museum of Art and the Aspen Institute.

Twenty years ago, she decided there was a need to commission a complete translation into English of the Zohar, the canonical work of Jewish mysticism; then she drafted preeminent translator Daniel Matt to take on the job – much against his initial inclinations.

“When I first called him, he said, ‘Are you out of your mind? This will take a lifetime.’ I said, ‘Well you better get started now.’” Eight volumes of the Pritzker Zohar have been published so far, with four more scheduled before the endeavour is complete in 2016.

Tom’s long résumé includes trusteeships at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he has been Chairman of the Board for the past eight years, and the University of Chicago. He also chairs the Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the über-prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Park Hyatt New York, the company's new flagship property, is set to open this summer. Photograph courtesy of Park Hyatt.

The creation of the award in 1979 was surprisingly humble, Tom recalls. “My father got a cold call one day from a stringer journalist named Carlton Smith – he pitched an idea to create a prize in a field overlooked by the Nobel Prize. Architecture was one of them, and that’s what dad picked. He had seen the effect architecture could have on people when he built Hyatt Regency Atlanta, the first atrium hotel.

“Then the Prize took on an interesting life of its own. When we were formulating the award we thought about how to make it meaningful, how to give it currency, and we decided the currency would be created by the quality of the jury – that would create respect for the laureate. The jury was the secret sauce, so to speak. We erected a big wall between us and the jury, so they are very independent.”

The Pritzker family does, however, meticulously organise the award ceremonies, which unfailingly are held in magnificent locations. On 13 June, the 2014 prize will be given to Shigeru Ban at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Past venues include the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, the White House and Japan’s Nara Temple, which never before in its 1000-year history allowed a non-religious ceremony.

“What we are trying to do with the prize is heighten people’s awareness of the importance of architecture. It can actually change your brain chemistry, it can change the human experience,” says Tom.

Pritzker’s cultural and philanthropic interests mesh very much with his business interests. “In our hotels we are focused on creating an experience for our guests, and art and architecture play a big role in forming that experience.”

That will be evident this summer with the opening of the Park Hyatt brand’s global flagship property, Park Hyatt New York, located in the much-heralded new One57 tower, designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc (a Pritzker Prize laureate).

“It should be the best hotel in New York,” announces Tom confidently. Its 350-piece art collection – much of which are creations of New York artists – as well as a special arrangement with Museum of Modern Art and other nearby cultural institutions, will help ensure that.

“We are exploring as many ways as we can to connect our guests to art. We think it will broaden us, and our guests. Fine arts elevate everybody.”

James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.

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