Forbes: Inside Guttman Collection

September 29, 2014

Forbes: Inside Steven Guttman’s World-Class  Art Collection

 

Steven Guttman fell in love with art at the heels of a hound. “I grew up in Pittsburgh, in a modest family, and we had no art in our house,” says the 68-year-old collector at his Greenwich Village town house. The founder of Storage Deluxe Management Corp. and former CEO of the Federal Realty Investment Trust, Guttman is surrounded by hundreds of paintings, sculptures and furniture created by some of the world’s most desired artists. Along with his wife, Kathy, he has amassed one of the nation’s foremost collections of American folk and contemporary art, but he still remembers when he was a blank canvas.

“No one in my family had ever really been exposed to art,” Guttman says. “I certainly wasn’t at all artistic. But then I moved to Washington, D.C. I lived in Georgetown, and I had this dog that I loved. We went on lots of walks–I mean long walks–and there were some English furniture stores on my route. As I walked the dog, I would look in the windows. And I found myself becoming interested in English furniture.”

Occasionally, Guttman would step inside the dimly lit stores and ask an owner about his favorite pieces: What decade was it from? Which region? What type of wood? The twentysomething future real estate developer soon realized that he could buy the same pieces he admired for considerably less if he went straight to the sources in London. So he did.

“There was something about the texture that attracted me,” he explains. “I loved oak and the detail of gateleg tables. I was always interested in the way things are assembled, in identifying the age of pieces and in the joinery.”

That attraction has resulted in a decades-long pursuit of dressers, sofas, chairs, cabinets and tables crafted by British and American folk artists, as well as paintings and photographs. The 500-plus-piece Guttman collection–which is divided among four houses and storage spaces in Paris, New York and Maryland–includes conceptual, LED, wooden and painted pieces by Andreas Eriksson, Jim Campbell, Analia Saban and Cheyney Thompson, among others. The Guttmans’ work is “more fun” to pursue as a pair, he admits. “I’ve been known to buy a few pieces without talking to her, which is not something I like,” Guttman says, with a chuckle. “Sometimes Kathy puts the brakes on me–usually correctly.”

The first piece he bought–aside from random wooden English artifacts for a thousand dollars or less in the early 1970s–was a painting by Willem de Looper. Gene Davis was another artist he collected as his passion grew. Washington galleries owned by Harry Lunn and Max Protetch furthered his fervor. Nowadays a geometric psychedelic painting by Matthias Bitzer, “The Soft Needs,” and a Droog cabinet designed by Tejo Remy called “You Can’t Lay Down Your Memories” are more to his taste. An enormous ivory lamp that resembles the branches of a dead willow (“On a Limb,” by Charles Trevelyan, 2009) is another favorite.

The key to his collecting, then as now, Guttman says, is to discover and support young artists who are underappreciated: to identify the quiet detail that separates kitsch from classic. “To me, it’s all the same: furniture, clothing, sculpture, video–it’s all art. You can’t distinguish one from another,” he says about his omnivorous taste. “I mean, who is to say the person who made that lamp right there isn’t as creative or talented as the person who made this piece over here? If there’s no precedent for something, if you’re creating something for the first time, to me that’s creating art.”

His passion for collecting has also dovetailed naturally with his career: After graduating with honors from George Washington Law School in 1972, Guttman joined the Federal Realty Investment Trust as a junior acquisitions officer. Within seven years, he had risen to a managing trustee and, in 1980, was elected president and chief executive officer. By 2001, he had become CEO and chairman of the board, a position he held at the time of his retirement in 2003. Along the way, however, as Guttman’s collection grew, he found himself unable to house all of his art, so in 2006 he built a fine art storage space in the South Bronx. Naturally, he was not alone in his need for such a facility, and soon other collectors sought out his space. To meet the growing demand among collectors Guttman has begun building UOVO (Italian for “egg”), a pair of next-generation high-tech facilities for fine art storage. The first, a 280,000-square-foot space, sits across the 59th Street Bridge in Queens’ Long Island City, complete with 24-hour security, humidity control, fully enclosed loading docks and daily shuttles to Chelsea. A second facility, 100,000 square feet, is planned for upstate New York.

Over the years, Guttman has earned staunch support in the art world as a collector who thinks for himself and is an astute spotter of talent. He now chairs the American Friends of the Centre Pompidou Foundation, having donated multiple works to the museum, and is a former member of the Miami Art Museum’s board of trustees. He regularly attends Frieze London, Frieze New York, Art Basel and multiple regional art fairs in order to discover new artists–and especially undervalued older ones. A new game he’ll play at Frieze London and the Frieze Masters shows this fall will be to seek out “a 60-year-old artist with a lot of potential.” (Indeed, UOVO will be a primary sponsor of Frieze New York next spring.)

“The art world is an entirely different place than it was 20 years ago,” Guttman notes. “Now there are more than 1,500 galleries in New York City alone, compared with a couple hundred two decades ago. The entire art world has become extremely professionalized, but while galleries and artists have changed to keep up with the times, art storage has largely remained an outmoded sector. No one was approaching art storage from the perspective of a collector.”

And even Guttman concedes that not everything he collects is appreciating–or even appreciated. “The Americana pieces and the English furniture are not that in demand,” he says. “People have less space. They want simpler lives. But Americana will become popular again. I have a lot in storage.”

 

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