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Collector interview: Lew Manilow on art and Chicago

It is fifty years since this collector and essentially American philanthropist was turned on to art while at Harvard. He has been an integral part of the art establishment in Chicago for decades

Contemporary art has no more consistent supporter in Chicago than Lew Manilow. As a collector, philanthropist, and promoter of culture, he has been active for fifty years and he is broadening his role. He has taken an abandoned bus terminal south of the Art Institute of Chicago and plans to renovate it to bring art galleries to the centre of town—although a projected opening in time for Art Chicago 2000 turned out to be optimistic.

Mr Manilow is also a proponent of expanding the role of culture in Chicago's economy and rates the mayor's policies in that direction "eleven on a scale of ten." Until the summer, "Drawing on the figure," a selection of works on paper from Mr Manilow’s collection can be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), where he has sat on the board for decades. The Art Newspaper talked to Mr Manilow, seventy-two, about art and Chicago.

Are you going to Art Chicago 2000? Is that an important event for you in the season here?

First of all, with the possible exception of Basel, it's the best art fair in the world, with very good stuff. There's a certain amount of Chicago pride, that it's a good show and people come. We always have at least half a dozen groups that want to come to our house on a ferry—curators—and we try to make room for them. I have found that there's a lot of good work that I buy. Good dealers from around the world as well as dealers I know in Chicago—they all tend to bring their best stock to art fairs.

What is the most misunderstood thing about the Chicago art scene outside Chicago?

The best thing right now, which a few insiders in the art world understand, is that we've got some of the best art historians in the world right now with the addition of Francesco Bonami, Elizabeth Smith at the MCA, and now Neil Ben-ezra at the Art Institute. We can match up with any group anywhere, as far as I'm concerned. And we have, I believe, the best alternative space anywhere, with Suzanne Ghez and the Renaissance Society. She's ahead of the curve; the kinds of things she does are astonishing.

If there is a trend in the kind of art being shown in Chicago right now, what would you say it was?

Good question. The old surrealist days are long gone. Imagists, except for Ed Pashke, are pretty well gone. I can tell you what I collect. I've got a lot of Cindy Sherman, Thomas Struth, but my own trend has been to buy lots and lots of drawings in the last couple of years. I'm still buying Kiefers. I'm still buying Richters. I'm still buying de Koonings, but it's not at the kind of feverish pace we had in the 80s.

What sorts of Kiefers are you buying now?

I just bought an 18-footer and a sculpture. An 18-foot painting and sculpture. His sculptures of women are just fantastic. They haven't really been publicised at all. One show in Paris..

Did you buy that on the secondary market?

No, no. I rarely buy on the secondary market.

How did you get started collecting? Did your parents collect?

No. My last year at law school at Harvard, I started going to the Busch Reisinger Museum. It turned me on to art. When I came back to Chicago I was a modest collector. Then when the museum was founded, I was kind of part of the art scene. I became one of the founders. Lo and behold, ten years later I became president. And in those days, I still never considered myself a serious collector, really. I never put myself in a league with the Shapiros and Bergmans—many of them great Chicago collectors. In the late 70s and mostly the early 80s I became a serious collector, particularly with the Germans such as Kiefer, Richter, Baselitz, and a few others.

What have you focused on other than the Germans?

We buy a lot of Americans of the post-Schnabel/Fishl generation: Jeff Koons, Kiki Smith and now these younger people: Kara Walker, Kerry James Marshall, some Africans. Look around and we've got about ten or twelve pieces by Africans, from the Congo, from Mali, from Nigeria. Interesting work is coming from all over.

What percentage of the work that you collect now is from Chicago and how has it evolved over the years?

I've been a steady collector of Chicago art since the 50s, going back to Golub and moving on to imagists like Pashke and Nutt. I still buy Nutts—a Nutt is in my drawing show. As for the recent Chicago artists, I’ve got some of the recent ones, some Inigo Manglano-Ovalle and a lot of Kerry James Marshall. I've got a couple of paintings by Dan Peterman and I used to be a huge Westerman collector.

Do you still have those?

The Westermans went to museums a lot of them elsewhere. I move on. One's at the Art Institute. I achieved senior citizen status a while ago, but I still get probably my biggest kicks in really contemporary art. I love it and I think some wonderful things are happening, so I continue to be a player.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Lew Manilow’s half ton'