Inside My Collection: Carla Shen
Carla Shen might be known best for her delightful Instagram account. Since 2016, she’s been posting photos of herself at gallery and museum shows wearing cleverly curated outfits that match the works on view. The project, which Shen insists is just for fun, brings a refreshing lightness to the art world and often lends exposure to the artists and shows she visits (Shen now gets requests from galleries and artists asking, “Can you match this?”). First and foremost, however, Shen is an earnest art patron, serving on the boards of the Brooklyn Museum and Green-Wood Cemetery, and an avid art collector, with a stunning trove of contemporary art.
Born in Brooklyn, where she still lives with her husband and daughter, Shen grew up surrounded by art. Her mother was a potter and worked at the Brooklyn Museum for 35 years; both of her parents loved art and collected Pop prints and modernist paintings; her father was later on the board of the Brooklyn Museum for many years. “As an only child, my parents brought me along to everything that they did, whether it was visiting museums or galleries, or auction houses,” Shen recalled. “From a very early age, I loved and appreciated the experience of being around art.”
Since she began collecting in 2004, Shen has centered her collection around work she genuinely loves. We recently caught up with Shen and visited her dazzling, art-filled home in Brooklyn Heights to learn more about how she started out collecting, the artists she’s passionate about now, and the advice she gives to new collectors.
Artsy: When did you start collecting in earnest? What was the first piece you bought?
María Berrío, installation view of In the Time of Drought, 2016. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Installation view of ceramic sculptures by Scott Reeder. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Carla Shen: I first started thinking about buying art when my husband and I got married in 2004. We had just bought an apartment in Brooklyn Heights and there was a lot of white wall space, but we didn’t have any real art. So with some of our wedding gift money, we bought a piece by Ruben Toledo. It was a piece that I had seen at Barneys (the department store) outside of Fred’s (the restaurant), where I was meeting someone for lunch. I was standing next to this large collage of watercolors, and I fell in love with it; it’s filled with little vignettes of New York City. Right after that lunch, I called someone I knew who worked at Barneys and asked if the piece was for sale. And indeed it was. I had my husband go see it after work one day, we talked about it, and decided to buy it. That was definitely the largest purchase we had made at the time. I wouldn’t say that we became collectors at that point, but certainly, I think we were infected by the bug. We started thinking more intentionally about what we were going to hang on our walls.
Artsy: How did the art you were exposed to growing up influence the art that you collect now?
C.S.: In my formative years, my parents were collecting Pop art prints. And while that is not what I collect now, I am really attracted to bold colors and shapes, and maybe that’s connected. I know that when I was young, I was always a little bit baffled by some of the prints that my parents would buy—like works by Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and Richard Diebenkorn. I always would tell my parents, “I could make that,” and around Christmastime, for many years, I would make small-scale recreations of the artworks that they had bought. My parents absolutely tried to explain to me the importance of form, color, gesture, and abstraction, and how the artists that they were collecting were leaders in their respective fields. I guess I learned from discussions or debates with my parents that the term “art” is very broad, and it’s not just about the end result of what you see, but also the intent and process and context of the work.
Artsy: Do you consider your parents mentors in terms of collecting?
C.S.: My mom passed away when I was in my twenties, so this was before I really started collecting. But I do have a soft spot for ceramics today, and I think that love of ceramics stemmed from my exposure to my mom’s pottery. She opened a pottery studio and shop in Brooklyn Heights in 1974 with three other women who were potters, and I used to go hang out there. I have a number of ceramic pieces in my collection.
Installation view, from left to right, of sculptures by Christopher Myers, Stephanie H. Shih, Leilah Baibyre, Jen Catron, and Paul Outlaw. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Some of my most recent ceramic works include three small sculptures by Leilah Babirye, who is wonderful. I have two amazing pieces by Stephanie H. Shih, who creates ceramic food—I have a bag of rice and a soy sauce bottle that I commissioned. And recently, I’ve fallen in love with the whimsy of Katie Kimmel’s ceramics; I have a sculpture of a dog that doubles as a stool. I’m also obsessed with Didi Rojas—who makes ceramic shoes that are so amazing—Ann Agee, Isabelle Fein, Mara Superior, and Paul Scott.
Artsy: Have there been other mentors or fellow collectors who have helped or inspired you along the way?
C.S.: I don’t work with art advisors per se, although I do have a number of friends who are advisors and they have helped me more recently on purchases. I’ve always thought of Stephanie Ingrassia as a mentor and role model. She’s been on the Brooklyn Museum board for far longer than I have and has a stellar collection, such a great eye, and is so supportive of both emerging and established artists. Then I have my go-to friends whom I text with almost daily about artists or shows and whom I go to galleries with. We know each other’s tastes and collections so well that I can immediately see a piece and know “that is for Karen” or “that is for Betsy.” That’s been really helpful, to have that group of friends where we all kind of speak the same language and introduce each other to artists.
Artsy: How did you go about building your collection after that first Ruben Toledo piece?
C.S.: For the next few years after that, my husband and I had limited resources. We weren’t focused on buying artwork by specific artists, but we were buying things we really, really liked and thought were good. Every year, we would buy one or more pieces from the Affordable Art Fair and the Outsider Art Fair. We bought photographs that we fell in love with on our honeymoon in Hawaii. We would buy things that we really wanted to live with, without much research or intention.
Installation view, from left to right, of a large collage work by Ruben Toledo and paintings by Maira Kalman. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Seven and a half years ago, we moved into our current home, with more wall space. I think that was a motivating factor to start to think of the collection as a collection and being more intentional about what we bought. Around that time, we really started following artists and their careers and developed a list of artists we would love to have in our collection. We started going to galleries, doing studio visits, and getting more involved in the New York City art world.
Artsy: How do you describe your collection now? Are there common threads that run through it or unite some of the work?
C.S.: I would say my collection is a bit eclectic, since my number-one rule is to buy pieces that I love, and the range of things that I love is broad. There are exceptions, but in general, I collect works by living artists, and mostly artists who are based in Brooklyn or the New York area. Looking at my past couple of years of purchases, I realized that I’ve definitely skewed towards more figurative paintings and works on paper, especially by women and artists of color. In addition to ceramics, I love textiles and fiber art, so I have a number of wonderful works by artists who work in textiles, like Sarah Zapata, Liz Collins, Elaine Reichek, Erin Riley, Sophia Narrett, Cornelia Parker, and Olek. I just got a piece by Hannah Epstein, and one by Kayla Mattes, whose work is so funny. I also have textile works by Wells Chandler, Chris Myers, and Zina Hall (from Creative Growth in Oakland). I also love pieces that have a sense of humor, or that make me smile every time I look at them.
Installation view, from top to bottom and left to right, of David Shrobe, Tenderness, 2019; sculptures by Christopher Myers, Stephanie H. Shih, Rachael Tarravechia, Leilah Babirye, Jen Catron and Paul Outlaw, Group Partner, Jessica So Ren Tang, Lucy Sparrow, and Katie Kimmel; and a sculpture by Olek. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Installation view, from top to bottom and left to right, of a painting by Derek Fordjour and sculptures by Andy Edelstein, Jennie Ottinger, and Carol Shen. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
I realized I also have a number of works that have collage elements, including works by Mickalene Thomas, David Shrobe, and María Berrío. Even smaller pieces I have by Monica Kim Garza, Devin Troy Strother, Jane Hammond, Destiny Belgrave, Stephen Towns—they all involve collage. I like the way that different materials can be combined to create something unique; I think there’s an added depth. I’m not intentionally looking for it, but I realized that a lot of the work I have does involve collage.
Artsy: It seems like with the collage works and the fiber works as well, texture is really important, and it’s also the kind of work that you need to see in person to really appreciate.
C.S.: Texture is definitely something that appeals to me a lot. I’m sitting right now looking at a Summer Wheat piece, where the paint is pushed through a metal grid. I love looking up close at the way the paint comes through the mesh, and that’s something you actually cannot see from a photo or a PDF; you do have to see it in person.
Artsy: Can you tell us about a couple of other works that are particularly meaningful and how you went about collecting them?
C.S.: I have multiple works by Susan Chen and Leilah Babirye. And the reason I mention them is that in both cases, I was one of the first collectors who bought work from them. It’s been wonderful to watch their growth and to see how their work has evolved and changed.
Susan Chen, COVID-19 Survival Kit, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Meredith Rosen Gallery.
Susan Chen, Waiting, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Carla Shen.
I first saw Susan Chen’s work in 2019, two years ago at the Spring/Break Art Show. Her work was being shown by Collective 131. I fell in love with all of her pieces but I ended up buying a portrait of an Asian woman, who I kind of felt like looked like me [laughs]. But also, I just realized how unusual it is to see portraits of Asian women. I’ve noticed that in the past couple of years, there have been more and more Asian artists getting attention and there is more portraiture of Asians and Asian Americans. When I saw Susan’s work, I really felt connected to it. She was in her first year of grad school at Columbia at the time. Recently, during the quarantine, I bought a self-portrait that she made that definitely has a sense of humor: There’s toilet paper and Lysol, and Fauci is on CNN in the background. It’s been a really wonderful journey, getting to know her and visiting her studio a couple times. She had a solo show at Meredith Rosen in the fall. Her career is really taking off.
When I first met Leilah Babirye, she was working in the backyard of Sam Gordon’s house (of Gordon Robichaux). She’s from Uganda, and when when she came out as gay there, it was not received very well by her family and community, so she started applying to residencies abroad. She was accepted by the Fire Island Residency and after it was over, she came to New York; in 2018, the U.S. gave her asylum. I was introduced to her by Sam Gordon in 2016 and I bought two small ceramic sculptures. She still lives in Brooklyn and recently had her second solo show at Gordon Robichaux in the fall; I bought another small piece from that show. Since 2016, she’s done so well and her work has grown so much, even in scale. Now she’s making these really huge ceramic pieces and assemblages.
My most recent larger piece is by Vaughn Spann. It’s one of his rainbow paintings. I’ve been a huge fan of his for such a long time and I’m so excited to have one of his pieces. It’s a pending promised gift to the Brooklyn Museum; it still has to be accepted by the Collections Committee, but fingers crossed. Hopefully it will enter into the museum’s collection, so that’s really exciting. This is the first promised gift that I’ve done. I’m hoping it’s the first of many.
Artsy: Do you think that your focus on New York artists is connected to the ability to meet those artists?
C.S.: Yes, I think in many ways it is. I co-chair the Contemporary Art Council at the Brooklyn Museum. During non-COVID-19 times, we try to do studio visits every month. There’s nothing better than being able to meet the artist, seeing the space where they create work, and learning from them; I love hearing them talk about their inspirations, intentions, fears and mistakes. It’s all so illuminating, and it really helps me understand the artist and the context in which they’re making art.
Artsy: It seems like, when possible, the studio visit is a part of your process in terms of deciding whether or not to collect work by an artist. What else is kind of part of that process or your research?
Portrait of Carla Shen at her Brooklyn Heights home with, from left to right, sculptures by Alison Elizabeth Taylor; Vaughn Spann, Big purple (Black Rainbow), 2020; and a sculpture by Sarah Zapata. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
C.S.: I certainly look at artists’ CVs, websites, and Instagram accounts. I read interviews and articles and look at their previous bodies of work. I definitely talk to my friends about artists and a lot of times, if the work is coming from a gallery, I talk to the gallerist and have them walk me through the artist’s background, their body of work, their influences and inspirations. I do try to do a good amount of research before buying work by an artist, particularly if I’m spending over a certain amount of money. But sometimes, I come across an artist on Instagram or at a benefit auction, and I just buy the piece because I love it.
Artsy: Do you typically collect through galleries?
C.S.: I would say mostly galleries. But especially in the past year, I’ve bought a lot of works directly from artists through Instagram that I’ve never seen before. They’re either emerging or young artists who don’t work with galleries and some have never had shows. I come across their work and DM them, they send me their available works, and I buy one or two, which is always really fun.
Artsy: Have you also collected online through galleries and auctions or platforms like Artsy?
C.S.: Yes, I’ve definitely bought things from galleries where I’ve only seen the images online and that number is higher this past year due to COVID-19. I do buy pieces from online auctions, usually benefit auctions, many of which go through Artsy. I probably look at the Artsy website almost every day. For instance, right now I’m really interested in a lot of the artists that are currently in a group show at Jenkins Johnson Gallery and I’m not sure when I’ll be able to get to the gallery, so I was on Artsy looking at all of the works in that show.
Artsy: So you feel comfortable buying work without having seen it in person?
C.S.: I would prefer to see the work in person first, because so often it’s a completely different experience, but yes, I’ve bought a lot of pieces sight unseen. Usually though, I’ve seen other examples of that artist’s work in person. So with the Vaughn Spann, for example, I hadn’t seen it in person, but I’ve seen a lot of his other rainbow paintings and other works in person, so I had an expectation of what it would look like and feel like.
Artsy: It seems like you find out about new artists by going to fairs and galleries, talking to friends, or going on Instagram. Are there other ways?
C.S.: I find out about many artists through going to group shows. I went to the group show at Company Gallery in February because Bony Ramirez had a piece in it and I really like his work. And then when I was there, I found all these other artists whose work I really loved. Also, there are certain gallery programs with artists whom I really like, so I always pay extra attention to their shows, especially the younger, smaller galleries. In the past couple of months I’ve just bought two pieces from LatchKey Gallery by artists whom I was not familiar with before, John Rivas and Dana Robinson. I’ve gotten to know the founders of LatchKey and trust their taste, so I’m always interested to see the artists they’re showing. Same with others like 1969 Gallery and Deli Gallery. Max Marshall at Deli has such a great eye and I know that with any show he does, the artists will be really fantastic.
Artsy: Who are the artists that you’re excited about now, who are in your collection or maybe aren’t yet?
C.S.: In terms of artists whose work I’ve bought in the past few months, Danielle Mckinney, who is about to have a solo show at Fortnight Institute, which is another gallery program I really love. And Fortnight also works with Sally Han, whose work I don’t own yet but would love to have one of her portraits. I’m really excited about a large triptych I bought by Jarrett Key from 1969 Gallery and I would love to get a piece by their twin, Jon Key. I recently have gotten works by Brianna Rose Brooks, who I think is an up-and-coming star; they’re represented by Deli Gallery. And another Deli artist whom I think is spectacular is Eden Seifu. I just got a tiny, tiny piece by Cassi Namoda and I would love to get a larger one as well. And something else I’m really excited about, slightly different, is a piece I commissioned over the summer by the artist Scott Walker. It’s an embroidery of a vintage photo of my mother when she was a teenager. I love it so much and he did such an amazing job; it really looks like a photograph but it’s all done in embroidery.
I’m also excited about Heidi Lau. She’s not in my collection yet, but I would love to get something by Heidi; she also works in ceramics. I’m on the board at Green-Wood Cemetery and we helped fund a nine-month art residency program that started in January, and Heidi Lau is the first artist in residence. She was part of a group show at BRIC a year ago that was co-curated by Harry Weil, who is director of public programs and special projects at Green-Wood. I was so blown away by her installation at that BRIC show, and I’m so excited to see what she’s going to do at Green-Wood over the next few months.
Artsy: Was there a specific moment when you started feeling like a collector?
C.S.: If I had to narrow it down to a work of art that I bought that made me feel like a legit collector, it would be the Mickalene Thomas portrait that I bought in 2014. I bought it during a collector trip to L.A. led by the Brooklyn Museum. We visited a bunch of collections and museum shows and galleries, including Susanne Vielmetter, where I saw this Mickalene Thomas in the back room. I completely fell in love with it. My husband was with me, as well as a number of other Brooklyn Museum trustees-slash-collectors and Eugenie Tsai, our contemporary art curator. I knew Mickalene because she has been on the Brooklyn Museum board for many years, so I ended up buying it with the encouragement and kind of reassurance of the people I was with. And it was definitely the most substantial work of art that my husband and I had bought to date.
Artsy: What does it mean to you to be a collector beyond buying work?
Installation view, from left to right, of a painting by Cassi Namoda; Mickalene Thomas, Portrait of Aaliyah, Night on the Town, 2008; and a work by Sophia Narrett. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Installation view, from top to bottom and left to right, of Monica Kim Garza, Cling, Cling, Cling, Cling, Cling, Cling, Cling, 2017; works by Elaine Reichek, Camilla Engström, Michael Pellew, Carol Shen, Katie Stout, and Group Partner; and works by Erin Riley and Glenn Goldberg. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
C.S.: I think as a collector, I am a steward of the work; I feel like an ambassador for the artists. I want to help spread the word about artists I’m really excited about and I want to help, if I can, connect artists to other collectors or galleries or make introductions to curators. It’s more than just owning the work. And now with this introduction of the idea of promised gifts, I have been thinking differently about where the art that I own will end up. If any of it is deemed museum-worthy, then I would love for those pieces to end up in a museum, ideally the Brooklyn Museum.
Artsy: Do you feel compelled to help others collect?
C.S.: Yes. I love serving as a sounding board or giving advice to my friends who’ve asked me about collecting or about specific artists or galleries. I think in another life, I would love to be an art advisor and help people build their collections and introduce people to artists and their work.
Artsy: What kind of advice would you give a new collector?
C.S.: When my friends have asked me, I usually tell them to start by just going to galleries and looking at art. In the COVID-19 world, we’re relying more on Instagram and sites like Artsy to learn about artists and look at images of art, so either way, see what appeals to you. Then, once you start making a list of artworks or artists that interest you, try to understand what common themes there are. I tell people to follow artists on Instagram, or follow them on Artsy, just to see how their work is changing and what their recent work is like. There are also so many groups, like museums’ young collector groups and independent groups for young collectors, which are great for meeting peers and learning from the people who are running those museums. I also recommend attending art fairs and starting the way I did, with the Affordable Art Fair and the Outsider Art Fair, or even just going straight to the big fairs. I always tell people not to be intimidated and to ask questions, even if the gallerist looks like they don’t want to answer questions. I also always tell people, don’t buy something unless you love it. Don’t buy it because you think it’s going to increase in value and be a great investment. Buy it because you really want to live with it and it makes you feel something.
Header image: Portrait of Carla Shen at her Brooklyn Heights home. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.