Inside My Collection: Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall
Collectors Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall accomplished quite a feat by becoming art-world fixtures while living in the remote city of Minot, North Dakota. Rob—an ear nose and throat surgeon—and Eric—a political theory professor—are well known for their Instagram account The Icy Gays, where they share pieces from their enviable collection of works by emerging female-identifying and queer artists. And though they live an eight-hour drive from the nearest major art museum, their collection is rife with works by some of the most sought-after young artists working today, like Julie Curtiss, Salman Toor, Dominique Fung, and Alexander Harrison. And they estimate that they only really began collecting in earnest in March 2019, during a trip to New York.
By chance, their stay coincided with Armory Week. At Spring/Break Art Show, the Thomas-Suwalls discovered the work of Shona McAndrew and bought a small sculpture. And at The Armory Show, they visited P.P.O.W’s booth, where they unexpectedly happened upon a piece by Robin F. Williams. “They opened up the door to a little back room and there was this amazing drawing and I gasped,” Rob Thomas-Suwall recalled. They bought it on the spot. “That trip really kind of cemented our excitement about artists,” he added. From there, they ramped up their collecting, buying new works on a monthly basis to this day.
Now, with their collection of over 75 works—all on display in their North Dakota home—the couple is converting their basement into a gallery and considering how they can expand their support for young and emerging artists. We recently caught up with the Thomas-Suwalls to learn about how they approach collecting and the formative experiences that inspired them to become collectors.
Artsy: Can you talk us through your beginnings as collectors?
Installation view, left to right, of Kyle Dunn, Dirt God, 2020; and Douglas Rieger, Missing Parts, 2020. Photo by Mandi Carroll for Artsy.
Rob Thomas-Suwall: We’d always appreciated art as a couple. When we got married, we went to San Francisco—because we couldn’t get married here in North Dakota—and we ended up seeing the David Hockney retrospective at the de Young. We were just blown away by this colorful queer figurative art. I honestly didn’t even know that that really existed. Everybody talks about being moved by a trip to the museum, and I don’t think I’d really ever felt that before his exhibition. Then we went on a trip to Denver in 2017 and saw Jenny Morgan’s show at MCA Denver. We realized that she was a living artist and her works were in our price range, so this was maybe something we could do.
Eric Thomas-Suwall: It kind of gave us insight that museums weren’t just permanent collections or traveling shows. I don’t think we’d really been to a museum show like that before.
R.T.S.: And so actually, right around that time, we joined Artsy, because we wanted to find out more about these up-and-coming contemporary artists. It was a really great way to do that because we didn’t have an entry point into this world. We’re not from art-collecting families, so Artsy and other sites were very instrumental in offering a way to explore and learn.
Artsy: So do you consider those Shona McAndrew and Robin F. Williams pieces the beginning of your collection?
E.T.S.: Well, not exactly. A work by Corydon Cowansage was the first painting we bought and it was because of the Hockney retrospective; we decided to buy an original work of art to commemorate that trip. Then, six months later, we bought paintings by Sophie Larrimore, GaHee Park, and another of Corydon’s paintings, all at the same time.
R.T.S.: We had also found Julie Curtiss on the internet, and we don’t know how (we’ve tried to look back and figure it out), but Eric told me about her, and then we heard about her show at Various Small Fires in 2018. We were eating barbecue on my birthday and Eric said, “Okay, I have to tell you about your birthday present. I can’t buy it without talking to you, but Julie Curtiss has made these hair hats and they’re the most amazing thing, and I want to buy one for your birthday.” So he pulled up an image on his phone and I said, “Call them now, oh my God.” So he called Various Small Fires and went through with this purchase while we were at dinner.
And then Eric had also found GaHee Park, and we got in touch with Motel Gallery in Brooklyn, where she had a solo show. There was this six-by-seven-foot painting that hadn’t sold, and we saw it, just over PDF, and thought it was amazing. It is this fabulous, kind of cubist, surreal, sexual piece.
Installation view of Jeremy Olson, the accelerationists, 2019. Photo by Mandi Carroll for Artsy.
Installation view, from top to bottom, of Julie Curtiss, Spider, 2018; and Jessica Stoller, Breastplate, 2019. Photo by Mandi Carroll for Artsy.
We really feel like the start of our collection was kind of a combination of those four artists: Corydon, GaHee, Julie, and Sophie. Once we got those home and hung them on the wall, we realized there’s something here: these feminist, surreal, colorful, sexual, fun, humorous elements they all share.
E.T.S.: We started realizing, this is what we’re buying, this is what we’re drawn to, and there’s actually kind of a theme developing in this collection. But it didn’t start out like that at all. So buying those four or five pieces was what kicked off our collection, but we really started collecting more obsessively around two years later.
Artsy: You mentioned you didn’t come from collecting backgrounds, but what was your engagement with art like growing up and as adults before this?
E.T.S.: I grew up in Richmond. My mom is kind of creative and my dad owned a construction company, and they always designed and built the houses that we lived in. I grew up in this really cool 1970s contemporary house, which my mom filled with real art from local galleries in Richmond; it’s no one that anyone has heard about now, but it was cool.
R.T.S.: Yeah, his mom’s the cool mom.
E.T.S.: We would frequently go to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) where I saw the Warhols, Lichtensteins, and this really great art, so I was very drawn to it. And then Sydney and Francis Lewis were big benefactors to the VMFA; they had this Best Products chain where they actually contracted with artists to design their showrooms and the facade of their catalog stores. They had this huge private art collection that they would open up once a year, and you could go and walk around their mansion on Monument Avenue and see all their crazy art. My dad would actually go do that; he was really into their art collection. So I grew up around art, appreciating it, and my parents were very open to it.
Then in 2003, I went to New York with a friend, just for a long weekend, and the “Matisse Picasso” show was going on at MoMA PS1. I had actually dragged my friend to the Guggenheim earlier in the trip to see Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” series.
R.T.S.: And his friend was not into it.
E.T.S.: So my friend did not go with me to see the “Matisse Picasso” show, but I went by myself and remember navigating the subway to PS1, which for me was an adventure. I met all of these Europeans on the subway who had flown to America just to come see this show. I didn’t realize that an art show could be a destination for people, and it really opened my eyes to the whole art world and how different it is.
R.T.S.: My experience was a bit different; I grew up with very conservative parents in a very conservative Christian household. I was actually taught growing up that the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] was evil and should be defunded because it promoted what my mom loved to call “homosexual pornography.” And so I wasn’t all that exposed to art.
Installation view, from left to right, of Ana Benaroya, Body Remember, 2020; and Anthony Iacono, Rose, 2018. Photo by Mandi Carroll for Artsy.
I distinctly remember visiting my friend in Washington, D.C., in 2005, when I was in medical school. We wanted to go to New York because I was obsessed with musical theater and I wanted to go see Wicked. So we took the Chinatown bus from D.C., and we went to Central Park, because that’s what you do, and there were The Gates. So the first time I went to New York, I just ended up in Central Park with Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates, and it was the most amazing, fortuitous thing. I have so many pictures of me in awe walking through Central Park with these Gates everywhere. That was definitely one of my first formative experiences with art.
Then, as a couple, we started going to New York because we both loved the city, and we went to the Whitney Biennial in 2017, which Christopher Lew and Mia Locks curated, and we loved it. There was Tala Madani, Dana Schutz, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, and Jordan Wolfson, who had this VR thing that was very horrifying. There was a lot of figurative painting, a lot of it similar to what we collect, though more expensive now, but it was eye-opening. That was before we really started collecting significantly, but it was so amazing just to see the variety of art.
Then, I would say that the number-one thing that really inspired us both was going to see the David Wojnarowicz show at the Whitney, “History keeps me awake at night,” in 2018. Roberta Smith had written this rave in the New York Times so we decided to see it, but I didn’t know who David Wojnarowicz was or anything. We went and at the end, there’s a little picture of David looking so happy and there’s a text around it talking about all these horrible things that are going to happen to him because he’s gay. I was reading that and just crying in the Whitney. It was so emotional and so touching, and I realized that the “homosexual pornography” that my mother had protested was actually just David desperately saying, “Please stop killing us, please help us.” It was just such a transformative experience; I realized this is what art can do.
We saw that David was represented by P.P.O.W in Chelsea and we walked up there, and we said, “You don’t know us, but we just went to the David Wojnarowicz show and it was the most amazing thing. We just had to come and meet you and say hi.” We met the founders Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington and had some fabulous conversations, and that’s actually why we went to the booth at Armory the next year, because of that experience. That’s obviously what started a lot of this.
Artsy: Were there other collectors or mentors who have helped you or inspired you, as you started collecting?
R.T.S.: We’ve met a couple people through Instagram and in person. One of them is Jonathan Travis, a realtor who’s helped a lot of these galleries move to Tribeca, and he has a fabulous collection. We met at the Independent art fair; we were both admiring one of Julie Curtiss’s paintings, and he became a great source of guidance and ideas. Jonathan ended up introducing us to Ellie Rines at 56 Henry and telling us about a wonderful new artist, Anna Weyant. Ellie showed us her painting Dirty Little Secrets and we ended up buying it. We then made a trip to New York for Anna’s first solo show and went to the gallery dinner in Chinatown after her opening, where we met Will Leung, who now runs ATM Gallery. He’s also a fabulous collector and has given us lots of valuable advice.
Installation view of Anna Weyant, Dirty Little Secrets, 2019. Photo by Mandi Carroll for Artsy.
Recently, we joined the Artists Council at the Whitney and have met some other really great collectors, who are kind of next level. I guess with regards to inspirational collectors, we would say Kathryn and Craig Hall, who have a winery in Napa that is this giant museum/tasting room full of amazing art. Also, Andy and Christine Hall, who have a castle in Germany with this epic collection including Baselitz and KAWS and Deborah Brown, just a lot of different things.
Artsy: Do you always agree on the pieces that you collect? Is it always a collaboration or are there compromises?
E.T.S.: I think we agree 95% of the time. We do have very similar tastes.
R.T.S.: I tend towards more provocative work. As I’ve learned more about art history and have been exposed to more art, I realized I gravitate towards historical artists like Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois, and then contemporary artists like Lisa Yuskavage and Sarah Lucas. Eric tends toward the more cerebral and philosophical like Magritte and Clyfford Still, as well as contemporary artists like Neo Rauch and Alicja Kwade. We find that those two sides meet in a lot of the pieces that we collect.
We always say that we have to feel something about the piece. It’s not like trophy hunting; it’s about finding work that makes us gasp or cry or laugh. We’ve actually learned that sometimes hating a work can mean something, too.
E.T.S.: Such a visceral reaction usually goes unanalyzed. If you really dislike something, but are forced to actually explain why you dislike it, it can help you identify unrecognized truths about yourself.
R.T.S.: I think we’ve learned that, as a couple, when one of us says “I’m obsessed” and the other says “I hate it,” maybe we should pay attention to this artist even more so. That’s actually happened with two specific pieces, though we won’t say which ones. We bought them and now we both love them. For the most part, it’s ultimately an interesting and fun experience to have those conversations. It gives us wonderful things to talk about as a couple and opportunities to learn more about each other.
Artsy: What is it like being collectors living outside of the major art hubs? What are the challenges? Rewards?
R.T.S.: I would say one of the challenges definitely is that we don’t really have that many people that are all that interested in our collection. We have a piece by Salman Toor in our living room and we tell our friends that he has a solo show at the Whitney, and everyone’s like, “I have no idea what that means.” We’ve been able to overcome that issue by sharing our collection and interacting with people online who are excited about it. We love these artists, we think they’re doing amazing things, and if their work is just sitting in our home in North Dakota, nobody’s going to see it. We’ve gotten over that hurdle by sharing our collection online and connecting with people through Instagram and Collecteurs, the website where our collection is accessible to all.
Salman Toor, Lavender Boy, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Nature Morte.
Jessie Makinson, Cute with Me, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Lyles & King.
We’ve also been able to make connections online, and we’re lucky enough to be able to travel to Los Angeles and New York and continue those relationships in person. It’s been a wonderful way to make real-world connections and that started online because of our remote location.
E.T.S.: It makes us a little memorable because there aren’t a lot of collectors living in North Dakota.
R.T.S.: Another challenge is seeing art in person. There are certainly a few museums here in North Dakota that we occasionally visit, but mostly, we’ve kind of been able to overcome this through art fairs and traveling, and then also Artsy and other online platforms where we’re able to discover things without having to be there physically.
E.T.S.: Art fairs are really very important for us. We know a lot of people are dismissive of fairs, but having all these galleries concentrated in one place is great for collectors like us.
R.T.S.: It’s fabulous. We can meet everybody, we can see everything. I totally understand the negatives, but from our standpoint, fairs offer wonderful opportunities to see a lot of art and meet a lot of people in a very short period of time.
E.T.S.: I’m envious of people that are living in New York and can just walk over to galleries and see what’s out there. These online tools have been very beneficial for us because there’s no denying that it’s harder to collect out here than it would be if we lived in a major art hub. Our closest major museum is the Walker Art Center and that’s an eight-hour drive, or a flight.
R.T.S.: You asked about rewards, too. Eric mentioned this, but obviously our remote location kind of makes us unique. There aren’t many art collectors in North Dakota, and that’s one of the reasons why we started this Instagram account, to say we’re kind of different and kind of weird and fun. And we went to New York and some people knew who we were. To be honest, I loved it, but at the same time it was very surprising. I think in the art world, some people are memorable because they wear funny clothes or say upsetting things, and we’re memorable because we live in North Dakota. I think having a bit of a hook is helpful.
Another reward is our ability to bring a new perspective to our community. We bring Erin Riley’s tapestries, Jessica Stoller’s sculpture, Salman Toor’s painting—things people here have never seen. So much of our art has this different perspective and political stance that is so the opposite of almost everybody who lives here. It’s been really awesome to have people come into our house and broaden their perspectives through our collection.
E.T.S.: Our local museum does a Christmas tour as a fundraiser every year where you go into people’s houses to see their Christmas decorations. We did it a couple years ago, when we had that first group of pieces we mentioned, including our Sophie Larrimore painting. It’s big and has these two poodles with a profile of a nude woman in the middle. By the end of the tour, people were coming in and saying, “We were told we had to come to this house just to see the poodle painting.”
R.T.S.: It got around very quickly. I don’t think it was a good thing necessarily [laughs] but it sparks interesting conversations.
We have this Alexander Harrison painting, a grotesque watermelon that’s blocking the view of this beautiful scene behind it, and it’s about Alexander’s experience growing up as an African American male in the South. That painting has facilitated so many conversations with people about race and identity that never would have happened otherwise.
Installation view, from top to bottom and left to right, of Chris Bogia, Kicker (Bright Green), 2019; Alexander Harrison, The Beast, 2019; and Hein Koh, Weeping Banana, 2018. Photo by Mandi Carroll for Artsy.
Installation view, from top to bottom, of Sarah Slappey, Yellow Field Figure, 2018; and Sarah Peters, Floating Head, 2016. Photo by Mandi Carroll for Artsy.
The last benefit I’d point out is that living here, we don’t take art for granted. I feel like people that live in New York are always like, “Oh, next week we’ll go to the show,” and then miss it entirely. When we go to New York, we have tons of studio visits, endless gallery hopping, multiple museum shows—I always overschedule us. We really take advantage of the opportunity when we are able to be in the city.
Artsy: In a normal year, how often would you make trips to New York or L.A.?
E.T.S.: We usually go to New York four or five times a year; we’ve only been to L.A. a couple of times, and we went to Miami one year for Art Basel. So maybe seven or eight trips per year.
R.T.S.: We did Felix and Frieze Los Angeles last year and we stayed at the Roosevelt, and that was really cool. Getting to hang out with everybody and go to parties was really neat. I think the relationships that we’ve developed with people, as we continue to collect, artists and gallerists and other collectors…
E.T.S.: That makes everything more fun when we do go, seeing people that we know and don’t get to see very often.
R.T.S.: The social aspect is a big part of it; it’s one of the things I love the most. Though obviously, art is number one.
Artsy: What has your collecting been like the past couple of years? How do you collect?
E.T.S.: We buy a lot from galleries that we have good relationships with. When we know they’re going to have a show coming up with an artist that we really like, that’s often how we buy. We also tend to buy a lot of work when we’re at art fairs.
R.T.S.: Recently, as the collection has really grown, we’re asking ourselves, “How can we expand our collection in interesting ways? What new artists or even more established artists are making works that continue this conversation?” And then obviously, we’re focusing on female-identifying and queer artists.
Installation view of Alicia Adamerovich, An unreliable landscape, 2021. Photo by Mandi Carroll for Artsy.
I feel like when you start collecting, it’s like trying to drink through a firehose, and you just get hit in the face with this massive onslaught. So I think you have to focus on something—whether it’s African American art or feminist queer art or abstract art, whatever gets you excited.
After that, certainly you can branch out and find other things. But I think that’s where websites like Artsy can help focus people by saying, “This is kind of what you like, so how about this?”
Artsy: When it comes down to buying a piece, do you have to make a decision and act pretty quickly?
R.T.S.: It depends. Since our focus is emerging contemporary artists, a lot of times, yes. We find that there’s almost always a lot of interest in these artists, and if we don’t buy it, it really does almost immediately sell to someone else. We’ve learned that you can’t get disappointed if you miss out on something, you can’t beat yourself up if you passed on something, it’s going to happen, and it’s part of the fun. There’s always going to be more work and more artists. We have learned that it is challenging to make those snap decisions and you run into that a lot more at art fairs, so it hasn’t been quite as bad during the pandemic, because it’s been a little bit more relaxed. We’ve learned to say, “We’re going to hold off for now, and if we don’t get it, it’s okay.” I think being okay with that is something you have to learn as collectors.
Artsy: What kind of research do you do to discover new artists? How do you decide on new artists to add to your collection?
R.T.S.: We see a lot of things through our friends’ feeds on Instagram and other sites, and then we’ll learn more about those artists. It’s not dependent on their CV or the shows that they’ve had, but more about our reaction to the work.
We found Molly A Greene through one of our friends who went to Got It for Cheap—where you go and you pay $30 and you can take a drawing home—and bought four drawings by Molly. He shared them on Instagram and I said, “Who is this person? We’re obsessed with this.” And we ended up buying a painting from Molly, and she just had a show in New York at Kapp Kapp that Roberta Smith just posted on Instagram.
Installation view, from left to right, of Tammy Nguyen, Death Stare, 2019; Molly A Greene, All the Way Down, 2020; and Michael Stamm, Submission, 2020. Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.
From our perspective, you can kind of run into a problem if all you’re doing is saying, “Do they have a Yale MFA? Do they show at a certain gallery?” and just checking boxes in the art world. That’s not going to make a collection that makes a lot of sense. It’s like a trophy case. I want to see that artists are committed to their work and excited about it. I think that it’s more about the artists showing that they have an honest passion for exploring truths about the world, and if so, then that’s someone we want in our collection.
E.T.S.: We don’t buy things that aren’t really going to fit our collection. And if it’s a really good fit but the gallery scene hasn’t picked up on that artist yet, that’s not going to deter us.
R.T.S.: And part of the fun of being collectors is to see people’s careers take off. With Anna Weyant, for example, we went to her first gallery dinner and she just had a solo show at Blum & Poe. If you’re just focused on the hottest, newest person, you’re never going to have that experience. I think taking some risks is part of the fun.
Artsy: You mentioned that when you’re in New York, you do studio visits. Have you been able to do that often with the artists in your collection?
E.T.S.: We have visited with or met most of the artists that we have collected, but not necessarily before we collected their work. We really love meeting these artists and learning more about what informs their practice, buts I think for younger collectors, I wouldn’t expect an artist to just randomly give you a studio visit, not usually.
R.T.S.: One of the best studio visits we’ve ever had was with Salman Toor. This was before we had a work, and we loved his paintings. We saw that nude selfie in the bed piece that’s in the Whitney show and were just obsessed. I thought, “This is amazing, he’s doing something really special.” Eric said, “You should reach out, just send an email.” So I did and he was wonderful. He said, “I’ve seen your Instagram account, I’d love to meet you, please come to my studio in Brooklyn.”
And so, in 2019, we went and had the most fabulous studio visit. His studio was full of paintings and he was just about to have a show. We sat there and had this wonderful discussion about growing up as queer kids in these cultures that weren’t as accepting—me in Alabama, Eric in Virginia, Salman in Pakistan. It was just really amazing to see how the language of art expressed those feelings. Salman does that, and there’s this tenderness but also fear and anxiety and excitement and happiness. All of his paintings come from his imagination—he imagines the scenes—and he talked about how growing up queer, that’s kind of what you have to do to have those feelings. We were almost in tears during this visit. He ended up connecting us with the gallery Nature Morte in New Delhi and we bought the Lavender Boy piece from them. So that kind of came out of a studio visit.
E.T.S.: Kyle Dunn, too. We really admired his work but had not yet acquired one of his pieces. We arranged a studio visit through his gallery and ended up seeing the piece that we ultimately bought in progress at his studio.
R.T.S.: Yeah. It was really amazing to get to visit Kyle, and that studio visit was facilitated by our relationship with P.P.O.W that happened through buying pieces by Erin Riley, Robin Williams, and Jessica Stoller; it kind of all evolved from that. Developing those relationships has been a wonderful part of being collectors.
Installation view, from left to right, of Robin F Williams, Joggers (Study), 2018; and Corydon Cowansage, Green and Yellow, 2020. Photo by Mandi Carroll for Artsy.
We were also obsessed with Ana Benaroya and bought one of her paintings from Kapp Kapp in Philadelphia. We reached out to Ana over Instagram and wound up meeting her for drinks at Pastis, went to an opening at P.P.O.W, and ended at a champagne bar in Greenwich Village. It was such a phenomenal evening of art and conversation in New York City that we’ll just remember it forever. Those kinds of things happen because we’re collecting art. Five years ago, I never would have realized what a great community the art world can be.
Artsy: Can you tell us a bit more about your focus on female-identifying and queer artists?
R.T.S.: Like we said, it’s something that happened organically; it wasn’t like we sat down and said, “This is what we’re doing.” Early on, I bought some books on collecting and realized that if you want to make money, you should be buying works by straight white males, preferably dead ones. As we started looking at things that we were responding to online and buying, none of these people were straight white males. We weren’t really following this specific way of collecting that people do to try to make money. Instead, we bought what we cared about, what made us feel something, what made us excited. As we continued to do that, we realized that these artists were helping us to see the world differently. As two gay guys, we can’t really know what it is like to live as a woman, but artists like Erin Riley and Sarah Slappey just kind of opened our eyes to a whole other way of looking at things.
E.T.S.: I don’t want to equate the experience of being a gay male with being a woman growing up in a very gendered, patriarchal world, but at the same time, I think there are some experiences and feelings that we do share. We are drawn to a lot of work by female artists, and certainly it’s because there are some ideas explored through their art that resonate with us. Queer artists in our collection are addressing themes and issues that deeply connect with our own personal experiences, which makes these works even more meaningful.
R.T.S.: The other cool thing about these artists exploring similar themes has been to see the dialogues emerge in the works in our collection. We have the hair hat by Julie Curtiss hanging right above this headless bust by Jessica Stoller. Julie’s piece is exploring this protective role of hair and Jessica’s is exploring the concept of beheading and female torsos in art history. There’s just this fabulous dialogue that happened between these two pieces hanging together in our house that wasn’t planned, but it’s so perfect.
Artsy: Are there other works that are particularly meaningful?
R.T.S.: The Anna Weyant piece, Dirty Little Secrets, is about seven feet wide, four feet tall, and it’s these two young girls doing yoga poses on this landscape painting, and their faces are everything. One of the girls is kind of looking at you as if to say, “Yeah, keep looking,” and the other is like, “What are you looking at?” It’s very confrontational; it makes you very uncomfortable. I was obsessed with this idea of how it explored the male gaze and objectification and also echoed Balthus; there was everything in this one painting. We have it hanging in our library and every time I walk in, it just blows me away. It also creates these conversations; as people come in, they’re like “What is that? Why is that in your house?” and then we get to tell them and have that conversation, which is fun.
Artsy: Do you collect online? Are you comfortable buying work without having seen it in person?
E.T.S.: Yeah, we are. By seeing a lot of art, it helps us get an idea of what something is going to look like from seeing it on a PDF. We do buy a lot of work by artists where we at least have seen their work in person, so if we get a PDF and high res images, we have a point of reference.
R.T.S.: I feel like as the internet has continued to evolve and change, it’s become a lot easier to collect online because you can get high-res photos and you can zoom in really far to be able to see details. And then, Artsy, for example, has the “view on wall” function, which is a fantastic feature. You should absolutely see as much art as you can and educate yourself so that you can make informed decisions, but at the same time, I think it’s becoming easier to buy online.
Installation view, from left to right, of Michael Stamm, Submission, 2020; and Danielle Orchard, Cantaloup, 2020. Photo by Mandi Carroll for Artsy.
Artsy is also great because it facilitates relationships between gallerists and collectors. That’s something that is especially nice for people like us who are geographically removed from these centers of art and that’s something we’ve done—we’ve reached out to galleries and connected with them through Artsy.
Artsy: Who are some of the artists you’re excited about now, whose work you’ve bought recently? Or who are not yet in your collection?
R.T.S.: One of them is Douglas Rieger, a sculptor who shows with Helena Anrather, and who was featured in the Frame section of Frieze New York. We bought this really bizarre, almost Brancusi-esque wooden sculpture with this gilded proboscis sticking off of it; it’s very surreal and kind of sexual. He says he has a finish fetish, making these polished surfaces, and I think his work is really exciting. We already talked about Molly A Greene, and I think she is fabulous. She just had a show at Lexi Bishop’s gallery Here in Pittsburgh in addition to the show at Kapp Kapp. Alicia Adamerovich is also wonderful. We just bought a stunning piece by her from a group show at Hesse Flatow and she just finished a residency in Italy at Palazzo Monti. The piece is this landscape that almost looks like a clear-cut forest; it’s got this sad vibe to it and a dialogue with art history in a way that’s elegiac. We also love Jenny Morgan, who just had a wonderful show with Mother Gallery in Beacon.
With regards to artists that aren’t yet in our collection: Cindy Ji Hye Kim, who just signed with François Ghebaly; her pieces are phenomenal, they’re surreal, upsetting, and personal, everything that we love. And then Emma Stern, whose work is very polarizing, I would say, but her candy-colored female sexuality is fascinating, and her Instagram is, too. Finally, Shannon Cartier Lucy, who just opened a show with Soft Opening in London; she paints these unsettling works that are gorgeous.
Artsy: When you buy a piece, do you know where you’ll hang it?
E.T.S.: We will have an idea of where we’re going to hang it, and it never, or hardly ever, actually goes there.
R.T.S.: It never goes there.
E.T.S.: Because once it’s here, all of a sudden, we realize it would look really good with or dialogue well with another one of our pieces. Then, we’re moving everything around, it’s like a partial rehang, where six different paintings get moved in order to put everything in the right spot.
R.T.S.: And we are our own art handlers. Anna Weyant’s piece is on panel, so it weighs an enormous amount, and we didn’t want it to fall off the wall, so it took us six hours to get it hung. It looks like someone took a machine gun to the wall behind it. But that’s been a fun learning experience. We’re very familiar with the toggle bolt section of our local hardware store and are now both expert stud-finders.
Artsy: Do you rotate what’s on view?
Installation view, from left to right and top to bottom, of Corydon Cowansage, Stairs #3, 2016; Polina Barskaya, Pink Room Bovina, 2020; Amanda Baldwin, Rising Stem, 2020; Salman Toor, Lavender Boy, 2019; and Deborah Brown, Scaffold, 2021. Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.
Dominique Fung, Increased Exposure, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim.
E.T.S.: Sometimes we do a rehang because we bought something new, but we don’t have anything in storage—everything is on the wall, or sitting in our house.
R.T.S.: All 75 pieces—well, there’s more than that now—but every piece in our collection is on display somewhere in our house. So we’re starting to get slightly low on space. We were going to have a billiard room downstairs, but instead it’s going to be an art gallery. We’re very excited to be making more room for even more art.
E.T.S.: It actually requires a little addition on the house, so it’s kind of crazy.
R.T.S.: We’re crazy. I think that’s one of the things that we love so much is that we live with everything. When I walk downstairs in the morning and I see the Dominique Fung and the Sophie Larrimore, it just makes my day. I think living with art like this really helps you realize what you value, and I think it’s a great way to learn more about yourself.
E.T.S.: And the art is never really finished in the story it tells. You continue to learn more from it, see new details in it, and I think that’s one of the great things about living with a collection around you.
Artsy: Was there a moment when you really felt like collectors?
R.T.S.: We certainly didn’t at the beginning, at all.
E.T.S.: In fact, I don’t think we realized collectors were such an integral part of the art world. We thought that title only applied to octogenarians donating 1,500 works to a museum.
R.T.S.: I would say, it might’ve been when we bought this fabulous bronze head sculpture by Sarah Peters from a group show that Valentine Blondel curated at Perrotin in South Korea. Julie, GaHee, and a bunch of artists that we love were in it, and we saw that Sarah Peters was exploring some of the same feminist, surreal ideas that were beginning to emerge in our collection. We realized that that particular piece would really expand our collection in an interesting way through sculpture. We ended up buying it even though it was a bit of a stretch for our budget, and then we had to figure out how to ship it from South Korea. So I think that one piece was kind of when we realized, “Okay, I think we’re actually taking this seriously and it’s becoming something more.”
We also definitely realized it when we visited New York on one of our trips, and we went to the opening of a pretty big artist’s show at a major gallery. The artist came up to us and said, “Oh my God, you’re The Icy Gays, and I love your Julie Curtiss over your bar.” Through those things happening, we realized we are collectors, and it’s not just a pretentious title, but it’s an opportunity to help support people that we think are amazing.
Installation view of GaHee Park, Kissing in the Tree, 2017. Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.
Installation view of Sophie Larrimore, Pastel Towel, 2017. Courtesy of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall.
E.T.S.: Another time was when we traded our reefkeeping hobby for art. We used to have a large saltwater reef aquarium, and one day we decided, enough with the reefkeeping. We found homes for all of our livestock, and that space in our house is now where Alexander Harrison’s painting is hanging.
R.T.S.: And we get way more joy from Alexander’s painting than we ever did from our fish tank. That was a very good decision, and we are much happier as art collectors than reefkeepers.
Artsy: What does it mean to you to be collectors? Beyond just buying the work?
R.T.S.: We’ve realized that being collectors is not just a pretentious title; you’re a steward of the art and a supporter of the artists. As collectors of emerging artists, almost solely, we kind of have the opportunity to help people explore their ideas, amplify their voices, and hopefully, in the future, bring them into this dialogue that’s been going on for hundreds of years and say, “This person is saying something important and they’re adding a new voice to the conversation.”
We also hope to create a collection that sticks around. Fifty years from now, how cool would that be? We read about people that have assembled thoughtful intelligent collections through making informed decisions guided by their passions and interests. Our goal would be to follow in their footsteps.
E.T.S.: For us, it now means supporting institutions as well. We serve on the board of our local museum, support local and national cultural organizations and, like we said, recently joined the Artists Council at the Whitney. Becoming more involved in this way has definitely helped us grow as collectors and broadened our perspective on this fascinating world.
Also, I think politically, as tax dollars for the arts have dried up, a lot of conservatives would say it’s not the state’s role to help artists—well then, it’s our role. These artists are putting themselves out there; it takes a lot of nerve to create something and show it to people. I think it has to be gratifying when someone buys that from you and validates your efforts. We could have never imagined how rewarding becoming collectors could be, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to be able to share our experiences with others who might be excited to embark on their own collecting journey. You never know where a simple museum visit might lead.
Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Rob and Eric Thomas-Suwall with Emily Ludwig Schaffer, “Friends and Family,” 2019. Photo by Mandi Carroll for Artsy.