Nancy and Bob Mollers: Down-to-Earth Collectors
By KEVIN NANCE
There’s a widely held perception that to build a significant art collection, you have to be rich. But Nancy and Bob Mollers, down-to-earth Chicago natives who describe themselves as of relatively modest means compared to the high-flying collectors who snap up blue-chip pieces at Sotheby’s, have spent most of their life together demonstrating that you don’t have to be wealthy to collect art. What’s required instead is commitment, discernment and, most of all, lots of time.
For nearly half a century, Bob, now a retired teacher and ceramic artist, and Nancy, a retired risk-management executive, have spent much of their time and resources looking at, studying and acquiring art—almost all of it by emerging artists.
Today, the couple’s 2,300-square-foot West Loop condo is a destination of choice for art students, museum curators and other collectors who want to see what’s achievable on what Bob Mollers calls “a shoestring budget.”
The answer: plenty. The Mollers apartment fairly bulges with art, much of it bearing testament to their good taste and deep knowledge of the contemporary art world. The highlight of the 300-piece collection, displayed in and near a hallway shielded from direct sunlight, is a fine group of works on paper by Jim Nutt, John Currin, Nicole Eisenman, Sol LeWit and several others. Displayed elsewhere are works by Mel Bochner, Adam Pendleton, Kehinde Wiley, Damien Hirst, Wolfgang Tillmans, Erik Parker, Tony Tasset, Thomas Hirschhorn, Nan Goldin, Dan Peterman, Jeanne Dunning, Spencer Finch, William J. O’Brien, Ruth Duckworth, Joyce Pensato, Stanley Whitney and Roger Brown, among many others. The late Chicago Imagist Ed Paschke has a special place in the Mollers’ collection in that an early work, Jointed Heel, was one of their first acquisitions in 1971; Nance, a Paschke portrait of Nancy Mollers, followed in 1975.
Chicago Gallery News recently toured the Mollers collection and sat down for a chat. Here’s an edited transcript.
CGN: How did you meet?
Bob: We met 50 years ago on the Kedzie bus, going to North Park University.
Nancy: I sat down next to him on the bus. I knew he was also going to North Park, so I decided to go for it, and started a conversation, which was very atypical for me. (Laughs.)
CGN: And the rest was history. When did you start collecting together?
Bob: We’ve been asked that a million times, and basically I always say we didn’t “start” collecting. That is something that evolves slowly. It isn’t like we decided one day, “Let’s starting collecting art.” It was a natural, slow process for us. We didn’t have much money—we still don’t—so we always bought things on a tight budget.
Nancy: And neither of us had an art background or families interested in art. So it was a pursuit we developed together since we began dating.
Bob: We just liked going to galleries in the Chicago area, looking at art a lot, and now and then we’d stretch and buy something. We focused on young artists, mostly because it was more affordable. After about a year of this, we decided, “Let’s collect only living artists.” We’ve stuck to that ever since.
Nancy: That’s our only rule.
Bob: Nancy and I would be doing this even if nobody else was doing it. By which I mean, we’re not into collecting because of social interaction with other collectors or whatnot. We do it because we just love it. It stimulates the intellect. It’s visually interesting. And it keeps you young. There’s always something new and intriguing going on in the contemporary art world.
CGN: A lot of people start collecting figurative art and then transition to more abstract work. Has that been the case with you?
Nancy: I think it was a mix all along.
Bob: When we started in the early 70s, we collected a lot of the Imagists, who were mostly figurative. The Bay Area Funk movement, which we also collected, was largely figurative. But we also collected abstract art early on. Of course we don’t still own some of that early work; we’ve donated about 100 pieces to museums already. After about 15 years of our marriage, Nancy made a professional move to Houston, so we were in that community also, and we placed a lot of our Chicago artists into Texas museum collections. More recently we’ve donated several works on paper to the Art Institute of Chicago. But good art is good art, whether it’s figurative, abstract, conceptual, whatever. It’s true that we don’t get into video.
Nancy: We don’t have a place for it.
Bob: And of course we don’t collect things that are too big. We like to be comfortable with what we live with.
CGN: Has where you’ve lived influenced your collecting?
Bob: For her work in Houston, Nancy traveled to Europe fairly often, and I would go with her and we’d look at art. But it’s also true that Art Chicago was a great thing for us, in that it would bring in art from galleries around the world that we knew nothing about. It was like a crash course in contemporary art. I have never missed a single one of the art fairs, and Nancy saw most of them.
CGN: How do you go about acquiring pieces? I know you rarely do auctions.
Bob: Most of the time we find works we really like through galleries. You walk in and see things you like or you ask about other works by that artist.
Nancy: We don’t necessarily discover artists at art galleries.
Bob: Sometimes we do. And nowadays we use the computer a lot. Galleries send us their openings, or they’ll send a list of things they’re bringing to the art fairs. It’s totally different from the way we started, when you had none of that. Now I can see a show online anywhere in the world. If I have a question, I can get a response quickly. Years ago, if you were inquiring about something in Italy, you never even knew if the letter got there. Two months later, you might get a reply, but the image might be a terrible photograph.
CGN: Are there certain galleries you work with more often than others?
Bob: In the beginning, we worked with local galleries basically, although many of those galleries no longer exist. Some, like Zolla/Lieberman and Rhona Hoffman, are still around. Certainly we never stayed with just one gallery anywhere. As time has gone on, we’ve gotten to enjoy the program at Rhona’s, Corbett vs. Dempsey and Shane Campbell. There’s a new gallery in town, Patron, that I think has great potential. But we’re not captive to any particular gallery.
CGN: Do you use an art advisor?
Nancy: No. We like doing our own thing.
Bob: And now basically the entire collection is in trust to various museums. The curators come and select the works they want every few years. Sometimes there are three or four museums that want the same piece, so you have to make that selection. But our intent is that after we both pass away, our trust funds will continue to do what we love doing, which is acquiring works by living artists. We’ve got that set up.
Nancy: Any remaining assets that we have will be in an endowment fund that the Art Institute’s Prints and Drawings Department can use to purchase additional works for years to come.
CGN: You often open your collection to art classes. What’s that like?
Bob: They’re generally very attentive, extremely interested. It’s very exciting for them, I think, to see a collection like this outside of a museum. Oftentimes they ask—
Nancy: “What’s your favorite work?”
Bob: And we tell them there isn’t a favorite. If there was a fire, there isn’t one piece that we’d run out with.
Nancy: It’s like asking who’s your favorite child.
Bob: Sometimes it’s the latest piece you’ve acquired, or the piece that you’re trying to acquire. If I were to walk into a collection and wanted to get an idea of how it developed, I would ask to be shown the earliest piece and the latest piece. That would show me the evolution.
CGN: In any case, it must be a treat for the students, coming here.
Bob: I hope so. We allow them to photograph the collection, which many collectors don’t allow. One student contacted me recently and said she wants to write her thesis on our collection. I said, “We’ll help you out as much as possible.” I love having the opportunity to meet young people who enjoy what we enjoy. The fact that they’re able to be in what I call an upper-middle-class home that has spent 40-plus years acquiring art by generally younger artists—they understand the significance and the beauty of that.
CGN: It’s interesting, Bob, given your background as a ceramic artist, that the collection doesn’t include many pieces in that medium.
Bob: We used to have a lot more pieces, but their fragility became an issue. And there was somebody we knew who was building a massive ceramic collection, and so our pieces ended up in his collection.
CGN: There’s a sort of diaspora of your collection.
Bob: That’s right. We do place art in a few friends’ homes. There’s one friend in the suburbs who has about 40 of our pieces. We also give art, just outright, to friends. It keeps on going.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer. His work appears in the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @KevinNance1