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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Pérez-Barreiro steered them in a new direction, chiefly to the abstract, geometric, and conceptual works by masterful but consistently overlooked South American artists who were in the vanguard of modernist movements in Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Uruguay. Early on, Pérez-Barreiro had taken Judy to the Sicardi Gallery in Houston, one of the first in the United States to solely represent avant-garde artists from Latin America. While they were walking around, he spotted an oil painting by Francisco Matto, a Uruguayan known for fusing geometric abstraction and pre-Columbian motifs. “The Blanton had nothing by this artist, and we didn’t have the acquisition funds to buy it, but I immediately fell in love with it,” he says. “And Judy immediately said, ‘Can I buy it for you?’ I wasn’t even daring to hope we would get it for the museum, and that kind of set a pattern path for the way we would work. She has an incredible eye, strong, instinctual reactions—and she makes quick decisions.”
The Tates traveled with Pérez-Barreiro to New York and South America, where they were exposed to a vast range of works in galleries, museums, and artists’ studios. As it happened, they were able to acquire many pieces just in time: The growth of their collection coincided with a groundswell of interest in Latin American art in the curatorial world, spurred in part by the realization that the Latino population had become demographically, politically, and culturally important in the United States. There was a huge audience out there, and it was time to engage them, to represent their rich and varied art history. Around 2005, major institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Tate Modern in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston began to buy important modern and contemporary works. Once the big players were in the game with their big checkbooks, prices soared and fewer pieces were available to collectors. In 2014, the combined auction tally for Latin American art sold by Sotheby’s and Christie’s was $141.6 million, a significant increase from 2013.
Once the Tates decided to collect in earnest, they weighed each purchase strategically, consulting Pérez-Barreiro and with the Blanton in mind: Would it fill a gap, or fit with what the museum already had? Obviously they had to love it first, but they also wanted it to make sense from a curatorial perspective. “They’re visionary philanthropists,” says the Blanton’s director, Simone Wicha. “They see themselves as stewards of these works.”
Charles is more drawn to geometrics, and Judy to figurative works with an air of whimsy—his approach is rational while hers is visceral—but they have an equal appreciation of the collection as a whole. “They’re a team, they’re in tune,” Wicha adds.
He is debonair and rangy, with a charming propensity for droll, self-mocking turns of phrase and anecdotes. She is pretty, petite, soft-spoken, and given to sudden, enthusiastic exclamations as she walks through their gracious home, pointing out one piece after another: Marcelo Pombo’s lively enamel painting suggestive of a dream landscape (“I get so excited talking about it!”), a Jorge Macchi sculpture mimicking a radiator (“It’s called Stubborn Lover. I just love it!”), the tiny Plexiglas-enclosed parts of a butterfly’s anatomy by María Fernanda Cardoso (“Omigosh, they’re so beautiful!”).
The Tates live in River Oaks, a neighborhood of majestic houses and expansive golf-course-green lawns shaded by a profusion of venerable oak trees. When the house behind theirs went on the market, the Tates could not shake a sense of unease that a new owner might replace it with, say, a lofty château that would loom over them. So they bought it, tore it down, and broadened the scope of their back garden. The grounds are now showstopping, dominated by a huge cross-shaped swimming pool and a poolhouse so resplendent it warrants a less prosaic label than “poolhouse.” Overlooking the water is a voluptuous bronze nude by Fernando Botero. Last year, another Botero bronze set a new auction record for the artist when it sold at Christie’s for $2.5 million.
Once the couple finally parts with all these glorious works of art and they are installed at the Blanton, will the Tates start a new and different collection?
“No,” says Charles.
“I can’t believe you said that,” Judy responds. “I would never say something like that. I could see if we decided to move to a contemporary house that we’d start looking at contemporary artists.”
“Identifying who the really good artists are, that is a lot of work,” he tells her.
“I think you just have to go with what you respond to, and not worry about that,” she says. “It’s fun to have a treasure hunt. So the answer to the question is, who knows?”