The Accidental Curators
Charles and Judy Tate assembled a world-class collection of Latin American art—and then gave it all away.
Judy tate did not have a clue what was up that day in 2003 when her husband, the chairman and founder of a private equity firm, asked her to visit his new headquarters in a sleek, glassy tower in downtown Houston. “She had no interest in seeing the space—you know, just a bunch of desks,” says Charles Tate. “But finally she came by and I met her down in the lobby and said, ‘Honey, there’s something I have to tell you.’ She said, ‘What might that be?’ I said, ‘Well, actually, we own quite a few pieces of Latin American art. And they’re all upstairs.”
Oh, did they now? My goodness. For the next hour or so she ambled through the suite of offices and cubicles and conference rooms, mesmerized by the 20th-century artworks—about 30 in all—that were set off to such splendid effect against the pure white walls and streamlined architecture. “I really knew next to nothing about Latin American artists,” she says. “But omigosh, I knew enough to recognize that these were really great pieces.”
“And I knew enough to be dangerous,” Charles adds. They break out laughing at once over the fluky but felicitous circumstances that led them to build, over the next decade, a world-class collection of modern and postwar paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, and mixed media that has grown to more than 120 pieces. All of it will eventually become part of the permanent collection of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin, their alma mater. They made the gift late last year, along with an endowment contribution to support the Latin American curatorship, for a bequest that totaled $10 million.
“It all started with a house that didn’t happen,” says Judy. By that she means a contemporary hacienda that Charles had planned to build as a surprise for her at Rancho San Carlos, a 20,000-acre luxury development near Carmel, Calif. As surprises go, it had a distinct Texas-style, swashbuckling panache. Guided by a New York art consultant, Wendy Hoff Evans, Charles had also been secretly buying Latin American pieces for three years at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions, not with the notion of putting together a collection, but simply as decorative elements for the Spanish-style architecture. But every time he dropped a hint about wanting a house in California, Judy resisted—too far removed for a getaway, and besides, they already had a ranch in Texas. So be it. There would be no hacienda. But Charles still had all that art in storage. Why not just install it in his workplace?
The focus of this nascent collection was predominantly figurative works by pioneers of modernism, with pieces by pivotal figures in the Mexican muralism movement—Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, Carlos Mérida, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros—and the surrealist-inspired artists Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington. But there were also major pieces by a disparate group from other countries, including the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam’s cubist-style gouache that was influenced by Picasso, and Pedro Figari’s paintings depicting rural life in his native Uruguay.
Judy was fired up, a convert. She wanted to learn everything she could about these artists and their art. First she read Twentieth-Century Art of Latin America, an eye-opening book by Jacqueline Barnitz, a UT art professor who presented an overarching survey of the historical and cultural contexts of modernismo and its dynamic traditions. Then she took a leap and sent photographs of all the pieces Charles had assembled to the Blanton: “I asked, what’s the deal with these? Tell me what y’all think of this stuff.” She could not have chosen a better source for finding out whether they were onto something. The museum has one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Latin American art in the country—some 2,100 works by more than 700 artists from Mexico, South and Central America, and the Caribbean—and a well-earned reputation for in-depth research and scholarship. Beginning in the late 1960s, the museum was one of the first to collect contemporary Latin American works, and the first, in 1988, to establish a curatorship devoted exclusively to the field.
Enter Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, then the Blanton’s Latin American curator and now the director and chief curator of the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros in New York City, the most important private collection of Latin American art in the world. He looked through the Tates’ portfolio of photos and was astounded by what he saw. “I thought, wow, this is a really first-rate collection—how do I not know about these people?” he recalls. “At the time, most collectors of Latin American art were either Latinos who were recent arrivals or who had been here for only a couple of generations. I e-mailed Judy and said, I’d love to talk to you, find out more, just, you know . . . who are you?” Thus began a fruitful relationship that marked a turning point for the Tates and signaled a windfall for the Blanton.
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