Carole Server and Oliver Frankel on Living With Art and Fostering a Community of Young Artists
An apartment with empty walls might seem an unlikely setting to chat with two New York art collectors, especially when they’re Carole Server and Oliver Frankel, known for their contemporary art collection and home beautifully overrun with art. But on a cold February morning, amid their annual rehang, Server greets me at the door of her 12th-floor TriBeCa loft—not an artwork in sight. “All the works from last year’s rehang went out the door on Tuesday night,” she says, surrounded by painters carefully patching drywall to prepare for an influx of new acquisitions. Next week, when the Armory Show’s VIP crowd comes knocking as part of the fair’s annual home tour, the space will have been drastically transformed—occupied by electric-colored works by Franz Ackermann, Despina Stokou, and Eddie Martinez, to name a few—but today, our conversation is dictated solely by jpegs as Server scrolls through her oversized phone.
“We open our home frequently for charitable organizations and collector groups,” Server says of the two-story apartment she shares with her husband Oliver Frankel, while raising the UV shields on several of the two dozen south-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the space with light. Their home sits high in the TriBeCa Artisan Lofts, a historic building outfitted with a ground-floor project space (newly curated by KANSAS gallery’s Steven Stewart). “We feel strongly that art is meant to be shared and seen,” she says of their annual habit of changing over the works on display. “As a collector, you either have to be confined by the boundaries of your walls, or commit to store and rotate.”
Server and Frankel caught the collecting bug in 2010 when Frankel’s childhood friend Andrew Stahl had a solo exhibition in Chelsea. “We went to the opening early, and I said, ‘That’s a really nice painting. Let’s buy it so Andy has something sold before anyone else gets here.’” From there, the couple began to look at work by emerging and mid-career artists, continuing to build personal and lasting relationships with the artists whose work they support.
The couple’s commitment to fostering art has blossomed. Server and Frankel now sit on the boards of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the Internationals Network For Public Schools, and travel the world for the artists whose work they collect—visiting studios, attending gallery and museum openings, and scouting new artists at fairs. Their home reflects this passion; they make an effort to live with as much of the work as they can. And they frequently host parties where it would come as no surprise to spot works by Tal R and Dana Schutz—while the two painters chat nearby over a glass of wine.
“The vast majority of the artists we collect, we know and have had studio visits with, and a very high percentage of those artists have actually been to our home,” Server reveals. But what’s most notable is the camaraderie of artists within her collection. “We’ve found that a lot of artists we collect are related somehow; we’ve had artists walk in, point to a work, and say ‘oh my god, that’s my best friend.’” She scrolls through her phone until she stops at two paintings by Despina Stokou that will soon share a travertine stone wall with a painting by Jannis Varelas. “They’re both Greek, and Jannis happens to be a friend of hers. They went to school together in Athens,” she says.
“Oliver says she’s like the daughter he never had,” Carole remarks, excitedly spinning off about Stokou, who has spent time with the couple in New York, L.A., and a long weekend at their beach house. When I later spoke with Stokou, she hinted that the feeling could be mutual. “They’re always supportive,” she had said. “It’s hard to describe the chemistry; if you get along, you get along.” The artist spoke fondly of gallery hopping with the couple in Los Angeles. “They’re like moving encyclopedias of art,” she said. “They look at their phones and have an image for you in three seconds.”
One of the artists they are close with, Dana Schutz, met the couple through her artist friends Tom McGrath and Jackie Gendel. (Coincidentally, Server and Frankel had purchased work by both artists—not knowing they were an item—and later attended their wedding.) “She puts art together but she really puts people together,” Schutz told me. “She has so much passion about her collection, but also about fostering a community around it.”
For Server and Frankel, it all comes back to a shared sensibility. “So far, it hasn’t happened where we love the work and don’t like the artist,” she says. And these ties are not just personal—they’re intellectual, and lasting. Forgoing one-off purchases and shying away from artists whose markets they fear are controlled by speculators, the couple have committed to collecting artists’ work strictly in depth. According to Marianne Boesky, who will present a May solo exhibition for Dean Levin—a young artist Server is extremely excited about—the couple will encounter an artist’s work in a back viewing room and connect with it enough to necessitate a meeting with the artist and a visit to the studio on the spot. “Once the connection is made, and that belief in their first feeling is confirmed, they become champions of the artist,” Boesky says.
That meant releasing a hold on a painting by a young L.A. artist they’ve supported since discovering her at the Armory Show a few years ago—when a California museum had eyes for it as well. “Let museum have it, it’s better for her,” Server recalls saying. It means trying to buy their artists’ older works when they show up at auction. And it means “never saying no to a loan”—like the Sascha Braunig now hanging in the New Museum Triennial, or a work on route to the National Academy.
In a sunny spot on the loft’s walnut floor, Server’s floppy-eared Wheaten Terrier, Jesse, is down for a nap. “He goes to galleries, studios, and art fairs with us,” she says. He’s been painted by Armin Boehm as well as Keith Mayerson, and while he’s never harmed the artwork, he did fly down the stairs into a Suzanne McClelland painting last week—though both dog and artwork were unscathed. Motioning to the corner where the dog sleeps, Server tells me of her plan to install a sculpture by another Jesse—the New York-based artist and co-founder of 247365 gallery Jesse Greenberg—in the same sunlit place. During a later chat with the artist, he told me that Server and Frankel had brought the dog over on their first visit to his studio, and sang the collectors’ praises. “They’ve been there for every show,” he said. “When they’re into an artist, they go in it for the long run.”
A week later, when I return to the loft post-rehang, gone are the art handlers, the electricians, and the stark white walls, and the Carole Server who greets me is delightfully euphoric, if a bit exhausted. “Is it okay?” she asks. Though I suspect—with walls lined with beloved works, many by friends—she needs little reassurance. While last year’s hanging had been centered around Whitney Biennial artists, she says, this year’s mood was set by the centerpiece, a giant Franz Ackermann with a “street art-feeling.” The canvas shares the living room with the Greenberg sculpture and one by Katharina Grosse, a diptych by Stokou, and a mauve-and-fluorescent-pink mattress by Kaari Upson, among numerous other paintings.
Climbing the stairwell, we pass Schutz’s nearly nine-foot-tall “God” painting, which is sandwiched between two works by Leo Gabin. The hallway above is full of 2014 discoveries—Server and Frankel’s first foray into collecting photography, video, and net art (the last of which she’s still trying to comprehend). Following a video by Brian Bress (“the nicest, teddy bear-like man ever,” Server says of the artist), a long hallway is spattered with work by four photographers—Jon Rafman, Benny Merris, John Houck, and Lucas Blalock—and a work by Huma Bhabha. Down the corridor, past Frankel’s college-aged sons’ empty bedrooms (they’re filled with works by Ethan Greenbaum, Evan Nesbit, and Nick Aguayo), I spot a work, like a beacon glowing from the master bedroom, by the young L.A. artist, Michael John Kelly.
“Come next year, it will be entirely different,” Server muses, mentioning the brunch she just had with Dean Levin at a nearby restaurant and his works that she may include in an upcoming show she’s curating at Marta Cervera Gallery in Madrid. Though she doesn’t describe them in detail, I wonder if, come Armory 2016, they’ll be hung on a wall here, too.