Where the Art Is

After Bob and Nancy Mollers bought their first serious piece of art, an Enrico Baj collage, it went with them to downtown Chicago's Drake Hotel, and sat in a finely upholstered Chippendale chair while they ate dinner.

It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Something about the avant-garde collage was fantastically appealing, Bob says, something that told them they should do whatever it took to buy the work -- a face made of tiny bits of mirror, buttons and beads.

The stretch to buy the Baj was a big one. In 1972, the newly married couple couldn't even come close to affording $3,500. But the dealer could perhaps tell that the Mollerses were bitten by the collecting bug, and let them have the work on a loosely structured payment plan. For three years, the Mollerses paid $75 a month, sometimes more, sometimes less -- but they always paid the dealer something.

The Baj was the beginning of their obsession with art. It was an expensive obsession, especially on a teacher's and secretary's pay. But Bob and Nancy were willing to sacrifice, to live on a budget that didn't include vacations, new clothes or evenings out. They took loans out to buy paintings, and became accustomed to zero balances on their bank statements. In a world where the trust-funded collector might step into a gallery and buy out a show, Bob and Nancy saved, starved and bought their art piece by piece.

Some would say their devotion paid off, as evidenced by the museums that have asked to show paintings from the Mollerses' collection. The list reads like a who's who in contemporary art: the Walker, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in France. Does it impress Nancy and Bob that such tony institutions want to borrow objects from their Montrose house? Not really. Are they pleased their pieces have appreciated in value? Again, not really -- Bob and Nancy didn't buy to sell. They collected their art to live with, which they do with bravado.

Chicago's savvier dealers, reading the Mollerses' income level from their humble four-door sedan and their lack of Italian leather accessories, used to ask, "Why do you want to buy this piece?" Startled to see them come in, gallery owners were further stunned when the couple knew their stuff and pulled out their checkbook.

Over the years, the Mollerses have paid everywhere from $45 to $20,000 for the pieces in their collection. They have taken out a loan to buy a work (a practice they wished they'd discovered earlier); they've given up travel that doesn't relate to art; and in extreme cases, Bob chooses not to eat lunch. He also lives without air conditioning in his car -- a significant sacrifice in Houston.

California artist George Stolls' work inspired Bob to forgo a week's worth of lunches in order to buy three of the artist's small wax molds -- dead ringers for bright Tupperware kiddie tumblers. A dealer had contacted Bob about Stolls' wax sculptures, and gave him the heads-up on his upcoming show in San Francisco. Bob loved the work from the moment he saw a single slide of it, and geared up for the artist's next show in L.A. At $300 per tumbler, Bob wanted only one or two, but Stoll had grouped the wax molds in threes. "I had to make a choice," Bob says, "I could sacrifice and buy three, or I would have to live without them."

He ended up buying an entire set, negotiating over phone and fax lines. Gently touching the edge of the sculptures' stand, he says it was the right decision. The cups, a clever blend of humor and craft, are perfect in the rosy pink dining room, which also features an Ed Paschke painting of a hairy boot and a wild Jim McNutt painting of cartoonish female parts set in a red-light district.

The Mollerses are "fiercely independent," says Alison de lima Greene, the Museum of Fine Arts' 20th-century curator. "I admire that about them."

Art dealer Betty Moody praises the Mollerses' taste and dedication, and believes that they're better informed than many dealers. "I love walking into their collection," she says, "because it is so personal and vibrant."

Though the Mollerses are fond of the Chicago Imagists' brash humor, the couple collects the work of other living artists. Despite their reputation for collecting internationally, only a quarter of their collection is from outside the U.S.

The liveliness that best describes their independent taste is most evident in Nancy's portrait, commissioned from Paschke while they still lived in Chicago. Years before the artist had a show at the Whitney in New York, the Mollerses attended his gallery openings regularly. By painting Nancy in a disco-sequined bra, a hula skirt and an aura that vibrates bright blue, Paschke created a startling contrast to her demure nature and quiet sense of humor.  

"It's me after midnight," she says dryly.
"You're never awake after midnight," counters her husband. "Neither," she laughs, "are you."

A photograph, circa 1971, shows a younger Nancy wearing a brown leather miniskirt and standing in Saint Peter's Square. Despite her fashionable outfit and her kicky go-go boots, she looks cold and unhappy, a condition that her husband now laughs about. "This one," he says, referring to his wife, "started crying because the nuns wouldn't let her in." One of many white-bordered snapshots, the picture is accompanied by a mini-essay about the trip. Nancy made the journals out of scrapbooks, arranging pictures and journal entries about art in galleries, museums and art expos during their first years as collectors. Mixed with photographs of fine-art etchings are other photos of everyday life in the '70s, featuring brown and orange woven wall hangings and plenty of polyester leisurewear. The Mollerses looked lean and happy, posed against both cosmopolitan backdrops and homey ones, looking for art.

The couple met on a bus on their way to classes at North Park College. Bob wanted to be a teacher, and Nancy was studying mathematics; neither had considered studying art. But they both loved museums Chicago is known for, and Bob drew Nancy into the city's art scenes, taking her out for gallery dates. They married quickly, and before renting their first apartment, they bought their first painting. Bob describes the meager work with a good-natured growl: a "decorative" abstract of sunflowers.

Their marriage grew around their collecting habit, which came to demand extensive travel and consumed almost all of their tiny disposable income. Nancy worked in a manufacturing firm as a secretary. Bob taught elementary school.

In the early days of their collection, Bob directed most of their art purchases and collected a library of art books and journals to use as reference material. They remember, wistfully, Chicago's casual avant-garde scene. People opened up their houses to show new paintings, serving cider and doughnuts instead of wine and cheese. Purchases were made in dealers' living rooms, and Robert Mapplethorpe photographs were shown in the backs of bookstores, casually arranged in open bins.

While Chicago's art world was a haven for the young and in tune, the rest of the city was on edge. Racial tension was palpable, and bullet holes pocked every window of the public school building where Bob taught. The Mollerses wanted art that reflected their life, art that offered respite or at least genuine comment on the conditions that surrounded them and art, most of all, that made them think. "We like to buy pieces that we can't figure out," Nancy says.

In 1984, Nancy was transferred to Houston to work in risk assessment management, a field she studied in Chicago while she worked as a secretary. Bob stayed behind to teach for three more years, reluctant to move to a place where art and doughnuts seldom mix.

In Houston, the Mollerses found a house that appealed to their Midwestern sensibilities, a 1919 two-story with hardwood floors and lots of windows. A place that would fit their collection, but a place that felt like a home and not like a museum.

The move marked not just a change in locale, but a change in their collecting roles. Nancy's new job allowed her opportunities to travel, and she became the more active party in scouting out new work, finding vibrant new artists in Germany, Austria and Italy.

In Houston, Bob took on the curatorial role, corresponding with galleries, archiving show catalogs, faxing and mailing back and forth slides and pictures of new work with dealers and other collectors. He spends most of his day in art paperwork. It is Bob who maintains a file for each work, with notes indicating proper methods for removal, cleaning and light tolerance. Photographs and works on paper need to be kept out of direct light, Bob notes. And everything needs to be protected from humidity, heat and cold.

Occasionally, he spends the day installing a work. Recently, he struggled with a textile sculpture -- a sweater that, hung in the gallery, evoked Marcel Duchamp's famous urinal. In his living room, however, Bob spent four hours draping and folding, trying in vain to recreate the effect. Eventually, he called the dealer in New York and asked for faxed, step-by-step directions.

On a late Saturday afternoon, Bob walks through the collection casually, wearing a faded chambray button-down and a pair of khakis. He stops in the living room, painted a sunny yellow, to explain how an Isa Genzken sculpture with a pair of extension antennae can sit near a mixed-media piece featuring a photograph of a concentration camp survivor. The sculpture, both comic and gloomy, led the German customs agent to believe Bob was "loony" when he declared its value.  

In the rest of the living room, two huge canvases hang in front of the porch windows, and a floor-to-ceiling red fabric sculpture by Franz Walther borders one side of the fireplace. Bob likes to stand inside that sculpture's clean, rectangular space while he talks about the rest of the pieces. He steps into the space backward, looking up into the corner before leaning back into the sculpture and crossing his feet.

On the floor in front of the fabric sculpture is a long, narrow V-shaped trough lined with a polyurethane foam. "That," says Bob, his eyes widening in a characteristic gesture, "is a piece about bodies. The artist's father was a gravedigger." Almost shyly, the foam sparkles in the afternoon light.

Above the trough, on the mantelpiece, sits one of the first pieces the Mollerses bought in Austria. Its linen yellow surface looks like oxidized human bone; its shape is similar to a propeller with a circular opening in the center. "I have great videotape of that thing," Bob says. "People love to put it on their head."

The kitchen is bright green with red trim. "You just have to be bold and paint," Bob says. "If you try to match the art, it'll drive you crazy." As the colors indicate, the house isn't like most hushed, white-walled art spaces; it's a place where life is lived. "People come in here after being in other collections and visibly relax," Bob says, pleased by the effect. "It's like an oasis."

He stops talking and listens, hearing Nancy coming up the walk. He gets up to slice an apple for her, which they share in the rosy pink dining room with a glass of white wine. Their relationship with Houston is lukewarm, they say. There are great restaurants, Bob notes, but the art scene considers "any painting from outside Harris County edgy." Besides, the local collecting community tends to buy only the work of Texas artists.

Nancy pulls several folio-sized art books from a shelf and pages through, talking about the museums that have asked to borrow work, and museums whose collections include the same artists her own does. Above the room's crown molding hangs a Donald Lipsky sculpture: a tube of 60 eggs suspended in water. When the Laguna Gloria Museum asked to borrow the piece for a two-year-long show, the Mollerses said no -- it was too long to live without it. They've learned, too, that the prestige of having a piece shown in a museum is not always worth the price; the Walker returned a painting with a damaged frame, and failed to return the special hardware necessary to hang it.

Hardware is the least of many concerns. There are, of course, security measures, though the Mollerses prefer not to say which ones are in operation. It is not uncommon for an insurance company to insist on 24-hour video surveillance of each room in a collector's house.

Even more crucial than security is having a place to hang, mount or set new pieces. The Mollerses' house is running out of all conceivable art space. Paintings cover the windows; paintings are hung high and low on the walls; and sculpture occupies floor, mantel and window seat space. But Bob and Nancy, who consider themselves art junkies, can't stop collecting.

Admittedly, they are slowing down. They've decided against things that would fit wonderfully in their collection, like the work of Damien Hirsch, the British bad boy most noted for preserving animals in formaldehyde and placing them under glass. Bob didn't care much for the pieces with maggots and flies, but he did like an ashtray full of balls, blown around by a fan. Finally, he decided the piece was too expensive -- not worth skimming the grocery bill.

But the couple still thinks about the work. "We don't regret anything we've ever bought," Nancy says, stacking the art books neatly. "Like most collectors, we regret what we've missed."

In the past two years, the couple has begun deciding where their collection will go once they're gone. "Of course every collector loves to dream about seeing their work hung in a pristine place designed especially for it," Bob says, "but it's not going to happen unless we build it." It is a small, sad joke: the Mollerses can't produce anything like the endowment such a setting would require.

So they're interviewing curators and closely watching contemporary art exhibits to determine which museums would offer the best homes for their little family. The competition is muted, since a gift of art is like the fabled white elephant: the recipient must pay to maintain it. Curators won't take everything, and often they won't guarantee to keep a piece unless the art is accompanied by an endowment that provides money for its restoration and, occasionally, money to buy other paintings as well.  

It's hard, though, to imagine the Mollerses' works dispersed, removed from their bright-walled settings. One of their newer sculptures, a Dan Peterman, appears to be a kitchen shelf with utensils suspended from the bottom. Made from compressed recycled plastic garbage bags, it will hang above the refrigerator -- an effect a museum is unlikely to duplicate. In an upstairs bedroom, a Gunther Umberg velvet-black panel hangs opposite a Mauricio Pellegrin installation of evenly spaced black cloth shoes, whitewashed wooden buoys and folded cloth. The same room sports a TV with a rabbit ears antenna and a pair of blue velour recliners.

In the bedroom, around the corner from a playful Miro etching, hangs a series of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki's bondage prints. The glamorous black-and-white photographs feature young, lithe women naked, shaved and wrapped in various leather accouterments. "He's become so popular," Bob says, "that women call him up and ask to go on dates with him."

Underneath the photographs sit a pair of canvas tennis shoes, creased with wear, rubber toes barely touching the baseboard. It's not clear if they're an installation, a fabric sculpture or Bob's old shoes, casually and perfectly placed in a house of art.

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