Longform

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.

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Megan Halverson