Inside My Collection: Sophia Cohen
The 28-year-old collector Sophia Cohen has been collecting for as long as she can remember. “I don’t feel like there was one thing that made me a collector,” Cohen said in a recent interview. “I think I’ve always felt like an appreciator and collector of objects, and no piece, big or small, is more or less important in my collection.”
Cohen is one of seven children of prominent U.S. collector Steve Cohen. “I grew up going to museums, art fairs, and galleries, walking around, listening, absorbing as much as I could from gallerists and consultants,” she recalled, “just trying to understand why a certain work means something and why it has value.” Prominent early inspirations included Rothko paintings and Degas’s ballerina sculpture.
In contrast to her siblings, Cohen chose a career in the art world. After studying archaeology at Brown University, including working on an excavation site in Turkey, she earned a master’s degree in contemporary art and the art market at Christie’s, and is now a sales associate and artist liaison at Gagosian. After finishing her master’s, Cohen started her own collection in earnest, focusing primarily on the work of her peers—artists of her generation. Her Manhattan apartment now houses her collection, including work by rising young talents like Anna Park, Anna Weyant, Samuel Stabler, and Jake Clark, as well as esteemed contemporary artists like Jonas Wood and Rashid Johnson.
We recently caught up with Cohen at her apartment to learn more about the works in her collection, the mentors who’ve inspired her, her thoughts on what it means to be a collector today, and her advice for new collectors.
Artsy: How did you start building your own collection, having grown up surrounded by your family’s collection?
Sophia Cohen: I’ve had a lot of exposure to amazing art my whole life, and I found myself being drawn towards the idea of collecting objects that mean something to me. I grew up with a dad who is impressive in a lot of ways, but the most impressive thing to me was his eye, how he built his eye, and I learned that from him.
Installation view, from left to right, of Jonas Wood, Matisse Pot I, Matisse Pot II, and Matisse Pot III, 2017–18; and pillow chandelier by Takashi Murakami. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
I remember I went to a sort of mini art fair in our town when I was maybe 13 years old, and I bought this faux Lichtenstein for $500. I remember coming home excited and telling some of my family members and they said, “I can’t believe you spent $500 on that, that was literally your allowance for months.” I still have that piece actually hanging in my childhood bedroom and it was just a reminder of my first experience getting some “skin in the game,” which I think is essential to collecting.
I waited until I was done with my master’s degree to seriously begin my own collection. I wanted to get a better knowledge of the history of art before making the deep dive. It’s always fun to buy things and be able to pinpoint their historical influences.
Artsy: Would you say that your eye is distinct from your father’s? Are you influenced by what he has collected?
S.C.: No, every eye is distinct. And if your eye is not distinct, then you’re falling into a trap. I think a good collector can’t really have the same eye as someone else. I definitely like things that have nothing to do with anything he would touch and vice versa. And so I wouldn’t even put us in the same category. But it is always fun to find something we both like and mutually are excited about.
Artsy: Who are some of the other collectors or art patrons who’ve inspired you? Mentors or friends who have helped you?
S.C.: I’ve been very lucky to have incredible mentors. I would say that my biggest mentor in art is Sandy Heller. He is family to me; he believes in me and has always pushed me in the right direction—he first and foremost has a love of art and approaches collecting in a beautiful way.
I also love Haley Mellin, who is incredibly generous and altruistic. She finds ways to be an artist and use art for the greater good—she runs a foundation called Art to Acres and has worked with a lot of artists on benefit sales where the proceeds go to land conservation efforts globally.
Matt Johnson, Tower of Babel, 2007. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Installation view of ceramic vessel by Jake Clark. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Klaus Biesenbach has also taught me so much about philanthropy and the arts. He doesn’t actually collect art himself, so his perspective is very different from most people that I speak to; he shows that you don’t need to own something to have a deep appreciation for it. To separate your ownership from an object I think is essential to loving art; it can just exist in the world and that can be enough.
Michael Govan is also a huge, huge influence to me. He helped me write my master’s thesis on Michael Heizer with his extensive knowledge on the topic, and in that process we got to know each other. I think he is one of the most incredible human beings, not only for what he has done for Los Angeles and LACMA, but also because he is dedicated to the arts in a way that will influence others that come after him. I am lucky to call him a friend.
Artsy: What is it like collecting while working in the art world? How does that impact the way that you collect?
S.C.: It’s a double-edged sword. It’s amazing to be working with these artists at the top of their careers and see them flourish at Gagosian. The other side of it is that I’m so knee-deep in our program that sometimes I have to exert more effort to find out what’s going on elsewhere. I’m very fortunate to have the time to read a lot of articles, peruse Instagram, and talk to my artist friends and see who they’re excited about—that’s how I find art that’s in my range. A lot of the art in my apartment is not by Gagosian artists but I think it’s important to know that at the end of the day, working with a Gagosian-level gallery is definitely a milestone, and a lot of these artists are really young and that’s maybe a goal of theirs. So there’s this interplay where I’m growing and collecting with the artists of my generation whilst also having them in conversation with established artists.
Artsy: Can you talk us through some of the works in your apartment? Works that have been important to your growth as a collector?
S.C.: I would say the Jonas Wood prints—three prints of pots inspired by Matisse—which I bought in 2018 were important to beginning my collection. They play on my love of ceramics. I have a lot of ceramic works in the apartment, including a few by Jake Clark, who is a young Australian artist I’ve become very close with. I also have vessels by Fiona Waterstreet and Anissa Kermiche, and a ceramic mushroom menorah by Ben Wolf Noam. I also have a really cool Matt Johnson sculpture that’s a tower of cards that I particularly like—always a conversation starter.
My Anna Park piece is really important to me. It’s great to have a work by a young female artist who is making strides right now. I’d seen her charcoal works on Instagram and in various gallery spaces in New York and I’d always had an interest in her, but I really didn’t understand her pricing and kind of where she was at in her career, so I contacted her dealer. He told me he didn’t have anything, but that she was doing a group show and I could try to get one there. I got it, and I really love it. I’m working with my dad on younger artists, so we share the work. It’s a really beautiful, complicated work that I feel is so different from what’s happening in the rest with all this figurative art right now. It’s kind of this blast of crazy chaos, and I think after what’s happened over the past year, it’s felt like that in our brains a bit. I bought this last year, in 2020, and I am just so grateful to own it.
Anna Park, Meet Me in the Middle, 2020. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Anna Weyant, Sophie, 2021. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
I got to meet her and spend time with her, which has only made the piece more special to me. That’s what I love about my collection—that a lot of the artists are people I’m friends with or have gotten to spend quality time with. It makes me feel like I’m living in a collective space, not just a Sophia-centric space.
A really special piece to me is a drawing by Anna Weyant that she made of me. I love it—not because it’s me, but I love it because I love our friendship. I have been sitting for her for a series of paintings she’s working on and having that relationship is just so special, seeing the other side of the work, spending intimate time with the artist—that’s been completely invaluable.
Another piece that I’ve been loving recently is a work by MSCHF that is a part of their “Museum of Forgeries” series. For some background, MSCHF acquired Fairies, an Andy Warhol drawing, and made 999 forgeries of the piece. These are being sold as 1,000 artworks and the original is mixed in such that even MSCHF has no idea where it is. What’s great about it is that they will not track where the original ends up, nor will anyone who acquires a work know if it is the original or a copy. MSCHF frequently plays with the idea of creative destruction without harming or taking away from the original artwork’s existence and beauty. I like seeing contemporary culture mix with art—it shows that there are so many ways to celebrate and reinvent what the future holds. The idea is, as MSCHF establishes themselves, the works they created may even surpass the Warhol in value!
I have a Rashid Johnson print that was a big investment for me that I bought last year benefiting Art to Acres. It’s an amazing piece from his red “Anxious Men” series that he made for 2020 exclusively. I got a new apartment during COVID and it was a new beginning for me; 2020 was an extremely emotional year not only collectively as a global citizen, but also personally, and I love having something that was made specifically for and in 2020. Owning that piece was important to me and so that was an investment I was willing and wanted to make.
Artsy: Are there certain threads that run throughout your collection, or is there a way that you describe it to people?
MSCHF, Possibly Real Copy of “Fairies” by Andy Warhol, 2021. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
S.C.: I really go with my gut instinct with art. If I feel something and love it, I buy it. Everything in my apartment is so different. I tend to get things that probably clash with one another, but I enjoy that chaos. I love ceramic works, so I definitely collect ceramics extensively but I think that’s more my love of the medium, because I was an archaeology major. Other than that, it’s chaos in here and I love it.
Artsy: When you get a new piece do you try to hang it up right away and move other things around?
S.C.: Yeah, I bought a new piece recently that will replace a beautiful photograph of horses that will now go into storage. I find that any time I buy a new piece, it’s because I have an emotional connection to that work at that moment; I’m growing up and I’m growing with my artworks and sometimes there are some that I outgrow. So every new piece I get is front and center, highlighting where I am in that particular space and time.
Artsy: What kinds of considerations or research do you do when thinking about buying a work?
S.C.: It really depends on pricing. If something’s expensive, like a print by an established artist, it might be a big investment for me personally, so in that case I’ll find out how many editions there are, how many editions the artist kept, etc. Or if it’s a painting, I look to see if the artist has shows coming up, museum representation, auction records, etc. I like to ask a multitude of questions because there are so many amazing artists now and there’s so much content that it’s necessary to weed through things—you can’t buy everything.
If I can visit an artist in their studio, that’s the best. It’s important to see an artist’s body of work and their space—I learn a lot when I visit their studio. I listen to them and I hear how they speak about their art; any tidbit I can get from them will feed into whether I collect their work or hold off. I’m very keen on getting a lot of information, but in an organic way.
Installation view of artwork by Chanel Khoury, 2020. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Ben Wolf Noam, Mushroom Menora, 2020. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Unless it’s a pretty prolific artist and they have an auction record, I usually have to go with my gut at the level that I’m collecting. If I’m unlucky with some of them, I’m okay with that, because I love the work. I don’t buy anything I don’t love.
Artsy: How do you typically collect?
S.C.: I try to go through galleries or buy directly from the artist. There obviously have been some times where I’ve gone online and looked at auctions and found things that are interesting, probably more like a really interesting poster or a collectible—not everything in my apartment is aggressively high-end.
I really try to stick to buying directly from artists or galleries because artists getting compensation is important to me. I think that there are too many scenarios where an artist sells their work early and a year later, someone else is profiting off of them. I know this is a free marketplace that we’ve created and art is an object that can be bought and sold, but because I feel so deeply connected to a lot of my artist friends, I tend to stick to buying directly.
I understand why you would buy from an auction because you’re dealing with artists that might not be alive or have limited inventory, and when something comes up that’s extremely special, I say go for it. From where I’m collecting, though, I dabble in the auction space, but I’m mainly buying primary.
Artsy: Have you bought works without seeing them in person?
S.C.: I have. I think that it really depends on the artist. I think it’s totally okay to buy from JPEG—I think that’s the future. If it’s your life savings, I probably wouldn’t do it. Is it my preferred method of buying? No way. But I have done it, and I will continue doing it because there are times where I want something and there’s limited time and I don’t want to miss it.
Installation view, from left to right, of Juliane Eirich, Gas Station, Itoshima, Japan, 2011; and Anna Weyant, Sophie, 2021. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
I’ve never regretted it, but maybe I will one day. I know it’s possible that I’m going to buy something and get it and think, “This is not what I saw.” And there’ll be other times where I buy something and think, “This is so much better than I thought.” But again, I think number one is to try to get in front of it, and if you can’t, try to make a concerted effort to do enough research. If I’m not seeing it, I’m doing a lot of research and talking to people.
Artsy: How are you discovering new artists?
S.C.: Mostly through Instagram and artist friends telling me about other artists. But Instagram really is a giant crutch in so many ways. I wish I would spend less time on it, but I’ve learned of and gotten to connect with so many artists through it and I don’t know if I would have been able to do that otherwise.
Artsy: Who are some artists you’re excited about now? Artists whose works are on your wish list?
S.C.: I try to keep an open mind; things change all the time, especially with young artists. I would say, I’d love to get my own work by Nathaniel Mary Quinn. I’m a huge lover of Bacon, so it’s cool to see their styles and compare them. I’m really excited about Anna Weyant and her future—I think she’s deeply talented. I’m excited to see Rashid go into the history books—I think he’s an icon.
There are a lot of artists that are super exciting and interesting like Loie Hollowell; I really would like a little piece by her, that’d be really cool. But I don’t sit around having a wish list—I get out there and I see shows. I’m also not super hungry and collecting constantly; I’m pretty patient and I really don’t feel the need to own everything, so I’m happy just to exist in my little world of what I own, and to be quite frank, I don’t have much room in my apartment.
Artsy: Was there a particular moment or piece that made you feel like a collector, or did that come organically over time?
Rashid Johnson, Untitled Anxious Red, 2020. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
Jonas Wood, Matisse Pot 1, 2017. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.
S.C.: I feel like I’ve always been a collector of objects. Like I mentioned, I was an archaeology major. I have so many knickknacks and things that I’ve collected over the years; books are also part of it for me. I don’t feel like there was one thing that made me a collector. I think I’ve always felt like an appreciator and collector of objects, and no piece big or small is more or less important in my collection.
Artsy: What does it mean to you to be a collector?
S.C.: I think that we’re seeing collecting get commercialized in a really big way and that happens when there’s big money in any industry, so I’m not super shocked by it. We’re seeing two types of collectors. I think there’s this collector who is trying to make money, diversify their assets, and decorate their homes, which is not a bad thing. But then kind of the other side is people who are buying things that they love and building relationships with artists and galleries. I don’t think either one is better than the other, but delineating those two is important, and you have to kind of figure out which side you are on. The collector who is making long-lasting relationships and being thoughtful about the human experience—I’m collecting within that framework. I think there are passion collectors and investment collectors and there could be a mix of both, there definitely is some overlap and it’s totally a spectrum.
Artsy: How would you advise a new collector to begin?
S.C.: Build relationships with galleries, especially young galleries. In the art ecosystem, young galleries are a huge feeder to the medium-level gallery and then to the mega-gallery. Make relationships, go into galleries, go to shows, introduce yourself to the artists and the directors, buy from that gallery’s program. I won’t say this will give back to you in terms of making millions and millions of dollars worth of art, but it’ll help you develop long-term relationships, have amazing experiences, and ultimately own beautiful objects that are representative of it all. Follow people that have interesting collections on Instagram, because they always are posting things they really like. Connect with people—whether it’s in person or on Instagram. I always try to engage with people because it’s only for the betterment of the world that we all are engaging in art.
Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Sophia Cohen with works by Juliane Eirich and Anna Weyant, 2021. Photo by Laurel Golio for Artsy.