By Fred Camper
Art dealer Richard Feigen interrupts our conversation to answer the phone. He talks to another dealer about buying a couple pastel drawings by John Constable, the great 19th-century English landscape painter.
Over the next three hours, in subsequent calls, he purchases a half million dollars’ worth of British pounds, chats with a U.S. ambassador, and discusses selling two old masters to a major museum for “six”–as in six million dollars each.
After reading his new memoir, Tales From the Art Crypt, I wondered whether the 69-year-old Feigen was a name-dropper. Now I know he’s simply describing his milieu.
Starting out in 1957 with a gallery on Astor Street, Feigen became a force in Chicago’s community of art collectors during a period of remarkable activity. Dealing in classic works from the 19th and 20th centuries, he helped to shape some of the city’s greatest collections of modern art, especially strong in surrealism and German expressionism. He hosted the first meeting of what would become the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1958, nine years before that museum finally opened.
Even when recalling events that happened decades ago, Feigen is passionate. He’s a great talker whose manner reveals some of the forcefulness, and perhaps even arrogance, that’s made him a successful dealer. He genuinely loves fine art and architecture, and chastises museums for degenerating into “pleasure palaces and boutiques” run by businessmen with crowd-pleasing special exhibits. Outspoken on practically all matters relating to Chicago’s cultural institutions, he can be scathing in his criticism–a measure of how much he cares.
He’s always been a vocal champion of his hometown. When he moved to New York in 1966, he was representing Chicago artists, and for most of the last 30-odd years he’s maintained a presence here. His last outpost, Feigen Incorporated, was one of the city’s best contemporary galleries (it moved to New York in 1997). Today he deals primarily in old masters, impressionist paintings, and classic 20th century work out of an elegant Manhattan town house, but he still feels tied to Chicago and his book is rich with observations on the city’s past and present art scenes.
Growing up in Hyde Park, Feigen recalls, “I was always acquisitive of objects.” As a boy he collected coins, stamps, and rare books. A budding entrepreneur, he started a little business buying old “mustache cups” for 50 cents apiece, stocking them with flowers, and selling them in the gift shop of the Windemere East Hotel. He was inspired by a book on the House of Duveen–Sir Joseph Duveen, an art dealer who sold old masters to newly minted American millionaires in the 1920s and ’30s, more or less controlled a market. Feigen bought his first painting from a neighborhood antique shop when he was “about ten.” He obviously had an eye–he says the painting turned out to be a 16th-century Flemish work–but he hadn’t learned how to capitalize on it yet: he sold the painting for the same price he’d paid for it.
While an undergrad at the University of Chicago he was buying old master drawings and purchased art from shows at the Renaissance Society. His father was a corporate lawyer and real estate investor, but Feigen says his collecting was almost entirely funded with his own earnings. After college he worked for an insurance company and invested in the stock market. With his stock profits, he bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. His eventual sale of that seat provided the cash to open his Chicago gallery.
“I enjoy buying much more than I do selling,” he says. “I’m a dealer only because I don’t have enough money to collect”–or to collect as he would like. “If I were a dot-com billionaire, I wouldn’t be an art dealer. I would just be buying.”
He refers to a book by his psychoanalyst, Werner Muensterberger–Collecting: An Unruly Passion. “Collectors are maybe afraid of human contacts, whatever their reasons,” Feigen says, “so they have contact with objects.
“There are different ways people can collect. Some people acquire one object and get rid of another that isn’t as good, so they only end up with one thing that gets better and better. Some just keep acquiring and acquiring, whatever it might be, and they can’t get rid of anything. There came a time when I couldn’t simply keep buying and acquiring, I had to sell, so I opened an art gallery.”
Feigen says he’d returned to Chicago because the “art I was interested in was already collected there.” His first show, “Masterpieces of 20th Century German Art,” included paintings from his own collection by Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Max Beckmann. He also dealt in contemporary art, giving Francis Bacon his first one-person show in the U.S. He recalls selling one Bacon painting for $900; a few days ago at a London auction, that same painting fetched $4.6 million.
“What I’m really doing, whether for museums or collectors, is collecting for myself with their money,” Feigen says. “I enjoy leading taste. I love plugging holes in museum collections. To me, it’s nice if I can convince a museum that they ought to have something for the reasons that I believe they should.” Feigen says he’s sold more art to museums than anyone in the world. “It’s up to about 107 museums now, in Australia, Japan, Europe. I keep track of the ones we haven’t sold to and there aren’t a lot of them.”
He says most of his clients are friends and he enjoys seeing their collections grow stronger. But collecting for others is “a secondary form of pleasure–the greatest pleasure I have is in the things that I haven’t sold, because I have them at home.” At home he has works by Fra Angelico, J.M.W. Turner, Max Beckmann, Jean Dubuffet, Max Ernst, and Joseph Cornell.
Admitting to a “pedagogic streak,” Feigen says he wants to influence the tastes of collectors. “I particularly like to deal with the ones that listen to me. I don’t much enjoy being an automaton and have someone say, ‘Just execute this bid,’ because for this they don’t need me.” He says many clients expect him to use his own judgment at auctions–how high he’s willing to go depends on the quality of the object.
“On some things there would be a limit, and on some there wouldn’t be. For instance, last Thursday I flew from Copenhagen to London specifically to buy a drawing by Samuel Palmer, a 19th-century English visionary landscape painter, for a client of mine. It had an estimate of £150,000 to £200,000. I bid up to £670,000, which is a million dollars, and lost it at 680. When I got home my client predictably said, ‘Richard, why didn’t you go a little higher?’ Number one, I wasn’t going to get it. If I’m bidding against somebody, they’re usually not as practiced at this as I am, so by stepping up the pace or cutting back the pace or changing the increments I can figure out how far they’re going to go on me, and this guy wasn’t stopping. Later on, when I found out who bought it, I knew he wasn’t going to stop. Second, while this drawing was a wonderful thing, for me that was enough.
“A couple years ago there was a painting coming up in Paris, a very, very great painting by Delacroix, Clash of Arab Horses, perhaps the last great masterpiece by this artist in private hands. I hadn’t seen it.” He arranged to view the painting on the morning of the auction, but his flight was suddenly postponed. He finally departed hours late, and calling from the plane he arranged for the auction house to stay open during lunch so he could see the painting before bidding began at 2 in the afternoon. He arrived at 1:40. “I ended up paying $8.6 million. My client had given me a limit of $3 million. I know my client, I know the depth of his pockets, I know his head better than he does, and I knew that if I hadn’t bought it he’d have been disappointed–and I would have been devastated. As the hammer fell, the underbidder rushed up to me and said, ‘Richard, I was bidding for an American museum. Would you take a million dollar profit?’ Now my client did not know he had even bought it at that point. I got him on a portable phone, and of course he didn’t want to take the money. He took the painting, got it cleaned, and it’s a masterpiece”–the kind of work that, for Feigen, “you can almost never pay enough for.”
When Feigen was a youngster, he was aware of anti-Semitism, but he says he never experienced it personally. His grandfather once told him that during the Depression his family was refused an apartment on Lake Shore Drive even though the building was nearly vacant. Jews couldn’t buy homes in certain suburbs. Feigen says he heard even Art Institute trustee Leigh Block couldn’t move to Lake Forest. And Block was one of very few Jews allowed on the museum board.
According to Feigen, most American art museums were founded for two reasons: to emulate European culture and to form social clubs excluding the nouveau riche. “I remember openings at the Art Institute where there was a black-tie dinner while all the collectors who had been invited to the preview but not the dinner were assembled in street clothes looking at the exhibition. All of a sudden the doors would swing open and in come these Lake Foresters in their black ties, none of them collectors. It was almost a conscious effort to offend.”
Though anti-Semitism was probably no worse here than in most cities at that time, the negative impact was far greater, Feigen says, because of Chicago’s cultural importance. “Chicago had a very powerful cultural orientation, going back to the 19th century. We all know about the architecture, the literature. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has often been called the greatest orchestra in the world. The Art Institute is one of the greatest museums in the world. Chicago benefited from the fact that Chicago’s robber barons for one reason or another spawned progeny that were committed to culture; in other cities it was not always thus. So you had a progressively Brahminized society that sponsored the cultural life and institutions of the city, and they were even on the cutting edge. These Brahmin ladies were friends of Gertrude Stein; they brought her to Chicago. The Arts Club had exhibitions of Brancusi in the 20s that you saw nowhere else.
“What happened then is not unusual: at some point those families lost interest. They no longer were at the forefront of cultural leadership, though they retained their seats on the boards of the Art Institute and the CSO. Luckily for Chicago, another group fell into place simultaneously, so when I arrived back in Chicago in 1957, it was the golden age of Chicago collecting. The city had become the envy of every art dealer in the world. No other city had collectors like that. It was the only place in the world that was collecting Dubuffets and surrealism and German expressionism. You had Rosie and Mort Neumann collecting classic 20th century art, the Maremonts. Claire Zeisler had started earlier, and later on came the Bergmans. Joe Shapiro was collecting surrealism; Muriel Newman had this major collection of postwar American art; Nate Cummings was collecting in his way. The James Alsdorfs were collecting broadly but with great taste. There were a few residual Brahmin collectors, but you had a very powerful group of culturally interested new people. The problem was that they were cordially unwelcome at the Art Institute. Leigh and Mary Block and Sam Marx were the only Jews on the board at that time. The Art Institute then was not hospitable to contemporary art or the people who collected it, so alas there was the loss of a generation.”
Their exclusion was partly due to anti-Semitism?
“Not partly–entirely,” says Feigen. “This was very costly to the city, because they were standing there ready to take the torch in this marathon of cultural evolution, and they were refused. Simultaneously, the founding families that owned the city made a Faustian pact: in exchange for getting a
city where the trains ran on time, where
the roads had no potholes, where the mob didn’t cause any trouble, where there were no strikes, where real estate taxes were low, where the potentially unruly African-
American population was bottled up in a ghetto and the ethnics were all balkanized in their own little neighborhoods, the proprietors of the city traded a political dialogue for tranquillity and prosperity. They bought a dictatorship, but there was a price to pay. They didn’t intervene as Daley was developing the city; there was no cultural oversight. After the last Mies building, nothing went up that wasn’t a piece of crap, and Lake Shore Drive, one of the most beautiful shoreline avenues in the world, was despoiled by pulling down some buildings that were intrinsic to Chicago’s history. The Potter Palmer House, the U.S. Court of Appeals Building–all of these were replaced with tacky, tasteless, miserable buildings.
“There’s no city in the world that matters architecturally like Chicago, so the destruction of every single monument is important. The loss of the Stock Exchange and the Garrick Theater”–two major Louis Sullivan buildings–“is particularly significant because you’re talking about the birthplace of modern architecture. If the interest in culture had been retained by the proprietors of the city, or if they had passed the torch to these new Jewish culturati, it is possible that we might have had a landmarks preservation law that would have prevented the destruction of some of the buildings and still allowed the city to be built up. We might still have the Stock Exchange Building–we wouldn’t have just shrapnel at the Art Institute, which it befell me later to appraise for the destruction company so they would get a tax write-off. There’s no reason why they had to tear down the Edith Rockefeller McCormick house and allow that tacky piece of junk to go up at the corner of Oak and Michigan and Lake Shore Drive. I personally believe that had the Art Institute accepted some of these people who cared into its ranks early enough, they might have intervened with Daley and prevented some of what happened.”
Feigen has already taken some flak for his chapter on Art Institute trustees Mary and Leigh Block. He thinks the couple collected art mainly for status: “I got the feeling, through all the years I knew them, that Mary and Leigh were not at all attached to any of the paintings.” He writes that art “was the only tangible asset a Jew could own that might connect him to the establishment in general or the Art Institute in particular. Indeed, proprietorship of the city’s premier art collection might even crack open the door to the Art Institute board.” The strategy succeeded: Leigh Block was named an Art Institute trustee in 1949, and Mary followed him onto the board in 1955. “But none of this seemed to work,” Feigen writes. “Mary and Leigh’s names appeared regularly in the social columns, but they were never welcomed into Chicago society. They were not invited to join the clubs, nor were they able to move to Lake Forest. They were spoken of derisively, and in the process embarrassed and earned the disrespect of their own Jewish circle, which they had largely abandoned and in which they had few close friends.”
When Leigh Block was passed over for the job of Art Institute chairman in 1966, Feigen says, he promptly sold two of his most important paintings–Matisse’s The Young Sailor and van Gogh’s Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear and Pipe. As the museum saw the rest of his collection at risk, Block became the de facto director. He was elected president in 1970 and finally chairman in 1972. Feigen refers to the period of Leigh Block’s reign, the 1960s and ’70s, as “years of turmoil.”
Block took a hands-on approach, even intervening in curatorial matters. Feigen says Block “protected” museum director John Maxon, who in 1971 hired Alfred Jackstas as chief conservator, a position Jackstas retained until 1979. Feigen says Jackstas believed in “relining” paintings, or reinforcing the original canvas by using wax to bind a new fabric onto the backing. Occasionally the wax would seep through, affecting the painting’s surface. Jackstas also applied “nonorganic varnish” to surfaces. As the years passed, this new varnish didn’t turn yellow as traditional varnish would–it became opaque instead. Feigen writes, “These theories led Jackstas, in a frenzy of preservation, to run rampant through the museum’s collection, apparently concentrating on the most important paintings rather than just the ones that were in an acute state of deterioration…. Irreversible damage was done in those experimental years.” Feigen says that if Block hadn’t been protecting Maxon “we probably would have had a more competent director, and I can only speculate that he would have hired a better conservator.”
Feigen thinks two works may have been irreparably harmed: Manet’s The Mocking of Christ and Botticelli’s Virgin and Child With Angel. “If you look at the surface of the Manet, it’s rather dead now. It’s a tragedy because it’s one of the great masterpieces of the 19th century.” He claims neither painting was in need of restoration. “If treatments so experimental were applied to humans, the law would intervene.”
Art Institute spokesperson Eileen Harakal allows Feigen’s charges “are not without merit,” but the museum’s practices were common at the time. She says the Manet was in need of conservation and its “texture has been well-preserved.” The Botticelli “may have suffered a degree of overcleaning,” she adds, but both paintings “retain their beauty.”
“This then was the legacy of the Blocks,” Feigen writes, “mutant spawn of a provincial social system: the cream of their own paintings sold off, whole collections lost to the city through anti-Semitism, masterpieces mutilated.” He also cites the human cost–the unhappy lives of the people who had to work under them.
“God knows they were difficult, but I was friendly with them,” Feigen says. “I’m not trying to vilify the Blocks per se, but I think that had they not been so insecure they wouldn’t have minded having a few other Jews on the board to dilute their social distinction instead of making it difficult or impossible by being anti-Semitic in a sense themselves.
“I heard what they told me they thought about other collectors–they didn’t say it was because they were Jews but that they were sort of tasteless ghastly upstarts, using the language of anti-Semitism. All these Brahmins on the Art Institute board regarded Leigh Block as ‘the art person–he knows about art,’ like having a Jewish
lawyer or a Jewish accountant or something. You know, ‘let him do the art.’ Leigh could have said, look, we want this person, we want that person, but instead he kept
them all out, and a whole generation was
“It was in my apartment in 1958 that they convened the first meeting of the as-yet-to-be-conceived Museum of Contemporary Art. The only reason anybody felt a need for the Museum of Contemporary Art was simply because the Art Institute wouldn’t have any contemporary art there.
“So the Art Institute wouldn’t get freaked out, we decided that we wouldn’t have a permanent collection. We thought if we didn’t they would let us alone. We decided to go after the Court of Appeals Building at 1212 N. Lake Shore Drive, which was set to be vacated” for Mies van der Rohe’s new federal buildings in the Loop.
The group sent architect Phyllis Bronfman Lambert to check out the Court of Appeals Building and she found it ideal. “I remember going to Washington, and the General Services Administration offering us the building for one dollar, but it needed the city’s approval.”
A meeting was held at City Hall. Though Feigen didn’t attend, he says Morton Salt heiress Suzette Morton Zurcher Davidson stormed into the proceedings, determined to stop the fledgling museum from acquiring the building. “She was a client of mine, but her family had built the Morton Wing of the Art Institute and she blew us right out of the water. The whole concept of this institution was anathema to the Art Institute. Down went the Court of Appeals Building, and up went one of those tacky white brick monstrosities of the period.”
Almost a decade passed before the Museum of Contemporary Art finally opened.
In his book, Feigen decries the trend of picking American museum directors for their managerial skills. Many trustees are corporate CEOs who are not necessarily art lovers, and museums are being reorganized according to models taken from the business world. Feigen says the corporate model is
inappropriate for nonprofit institutions.
“The new breed of trustees wants an
administrator and fund-raiser. One headhunter told me at lunch that a museum
director need not know about art; that can be left to the curators. Now it is a Calvinist mind-set that you can’t be an aesthete and a businessman both; you have to be one or the other. But if you have taste, you want to show people the way. That’s what I believe a museum man should want to do. I don’t think he should want to say, ‘Hey, all you
idiots out there, what do you want to see?
I’ll dish it up for you. You want to hear The Sound of Music again? You want to see another Renoir show? I’ll dish it up for you.'”
While Feigen comes down hard on past mismanagement at the Art Institute, he says that since 1980 the museum has been run better than most.
“Nobody can say that the Monet show they did was not beautiful, that it was not constructive, that we would have been better off without it,” Feigen says. “But do I believe that an institution with one of the greatest impressionist collections in the world, including more than 30 Monets, needs to do a Monet show? No, they have
a permanent Monet show. Do I think they should have pursued a more aggressive
acquisitions policy when you could still
make acquisitions that are becoming more difficult to make? Yes. Do I think they have exploited the vast financial resources of the city to the extent that they might have? Probably not. My own guess is that had the resources of Chicago been utilized, had the people made an effort to reach out to some of the new fortunes, they could have had anything they wanted.”
Observers of Chicago’s current art scene find it troubled. Our museums have increasingly ignored important touring exhibits which could have been had for the asking. Feigen says the Art Institute, “one of the most powerful museums in the world,” has a collection that gives it “almost unlimited bargaining power.”
This spring two important local galleries closed, while a third is moving to Los Angeles. The departure of Feigen Incorporated in 1997 was a serious blow. There are still lively alternative spaces, but they are usually in out-of-the-way neighborhoods and keep irregular hours.
“Chicago has always had this second city problem,” Feigen says. “It needed to hear the world’s applause before it paid attention to what was happening in Chicago. It was thus with Second City and every other thing that no one paid attention to. When I started out I remember having a wonderful Paul Klee oil which I had gotten from a family
out in Colorado. There were very, very few people, even in Chicago, to offer a significant Paul Klee to. The price was $16,000. I called Leigh Block; he wasn’t interested. Joe Shapiro was collecting surrealism. Alsdorf wasn’t collecting Klee. I offered it to Arnold Maremont and I don’t think he even came on the phone himself. I think his secretary said, ‘Send him a transparency.’ I sent a transparency; that was in the springtime. I finally sold the painting to a gallery in London, which then sold it to Sidney Janis,” the famous New York dealer who represented many abstract painters.
“The summer came and went and in September I got a call very early one Sunday morning from my dear friend Jim Alsdorf. He said, ‘Richard, guess what? Last night we were at a dinner party at Adele and Arnold Maremont’s to celebrate his new acquisition, and when he showed us his new Paul Klee I asked, “Oh, you must have gotten that from Dick Feigen.” He said, “Dick Feigen, you must be mad. Dick Feigen would never have a painting like this. I bought this from Sidney Janis.”‘ Now what he paid was triple the price that I had it for in Chicago when he didn’t even respond to my transparency. How could little Dick Feigen who he’d known all his life and who was a friend of
his children ever have a significant painting here in Chicago? If I’d come to Chicago with a beard and a funny accent they would have paid much more attention to me than they did.
“In the late 80s, things started to change. Everyone started saying, ‘Oh my God, isn’t Chicago wonderful, isn’t it beautiful? I want to visit Chicago. It’s a great city to live in.’ When I grew up, in order to get a decent meal you had to eat at home or go to some club; now great restaurants are all over the place. And the world started to come looking for contemporary art in Chicago. Donald Young was there. Rhona Hoffman was there. They came for the art fair and it looked like that River North area was starting to bustle with galleries.”
In 1989 Feigen reopened a Chicago branch in River North. Under the direction of Lance Kinz, Feigen Incorporated showed contemporary art. “It took a long time, but all of a sudden Lance got himself to the point where collectors were all hanging out in his gallery. I felt the shows were very exciting. All the world was coming to Chicago to get new art, and soon people would be able to say that we’re getting first choice here. New York is getting what we don’t buy. Then all the world would have come there, and pretty soon there would have been all these galleries opening up in Chicago–it could have been an absolute hotbed.”
The pivotal moment, he says, came when the MCA decided to erect a new building. In his book, Feigen points out that Frank Gehry’s new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain–which has won worldwide acclaim as an architectural masterpiece and attracted many more visitors than initially projected–cost only a little more per square foot than the new MCA by architect Josef Paul Kleihues. “And it’s a lot easier to get to Chicago than to Bilbao in Spain. People could have been coming from everywhere to see our great new Frank Gehry building, our Hans Hollein or Renzo Piano building. Chicago could have been the headquarters of the whole universe–but no! These geriatrics had to build this appalling monstrous thing and scare everybody away.
“If this had been done when these people were younger they would have probably set out and said, ‘Listen, we want the best architect in the world.’ But the committee as far as I have gleaned consisted of people who’d given over a million dollars. You have to have gotten to a certain point in life to be able to give a million dollars; everybody gets old and gets off the cutting edge because they’ve got too many scars on their behind or whatever the reason. So they chose this mediocre urban planner to build a building and wouldn’t listen to anybody. When I saw that model in Alan Turner’s apartment, I was absolutely horrified, and I said so. And I ran out of there around the corner to Jay Pritzker’s apartment. I said, ‘Jay, you’ve got to stop this thing. Please, you’re the only man with the power in this town who maybe could stop it.’ He said, ‘I can’t do it.’ Then I ran around trying to get a petition together signed by Chicago architects. I was accused by several MCA people of splitting the city, and one of them threatened to punch me in the nose in the middle of a contemporary auction at Sotheby’s in New York.”
MCA spokesperson Sally Blanks says there “certainly was not” a million-dollar-donation requirement to get on the building selection committee. The group, she says, “was made up of several donors as well as a number of other individuals who were not donors,” including former New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, IIT dean of architecture Gene Summers, and former MCA director Kevin Consey.
“The building is so depressing that I think it’s done a lot to kill off the excitement that existed in Chicago when I literally thought that Chicago could take over from New York as the hub of the contemporary art world,” Feigen says. “I think that building had a lot to do with the reversion to second city syndrome. It looks to me like a design by Albert Speer for the Reichstag garage or something.” He recalls the Chicago Avenue Armory, which originally occupied the MCA’s site and was once used by the museum for a successful exhibit of installation art. “Could they not have taken that armory and made a beautiful, fine exhibition space out of it and saved, I don’t know what, $40 million?”
What can be done now to revive Chicago’s art scene?
“Get yourself some dynamite,” Feigen says.
A bit more constructively, he adds, “If I were running the Museum of Contemporary Art, I would say, Let’s look for a huge warehouse, perhaps somewhere on the west side. Let’s buy the goddamn thing. Let’s deal with the current building later, maybe hang the permanent collection there. Let’s put this Young Turk in charge. Let’s do some internationally important thing where the whole world is going to have to come to Chicago. Once you do, if they come they’re going to go to the galleries. There are going to have to be more galleries. If there are more galleries all of a sudden there’s gonna be a clatter in the press and people are going to start reading about Chicago being a hotbed and then the kids are going to come in from Winnetka and I don’t know where and buy art.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Museum of Contemporary Art uncredited photo; Feigen portrait by Charles Eschelman; Ivan Albright photo copyright Chicago Sun-Times (sidebar); Leigh Block photo copyright 1999, Art Institute of Chicago, all rights reserved; Mary Block by Ivan Albright photo copyright Art Institute of Chicago, all rights reserved (sidebar); U.S. Court of Appeals building photo by Dr. Frank E. Rice; 10,000 Doses uncredited photo..