The Collector as Curator

On Saturday evening, December 2, in West Palm Beach, Beth Rudin DeWoody, the internationally recognized American art collector, opened her Midcentury-modern art space called The Bunker, which is located at 444 Bunker Road, in West Palm Beach’s craft and design district. The building, with its two-story, 16,000-square-foot interior, provides ample space for Mrs. DeWoody, who plans to rotate pieces from her vast collection of objets d’art in the revamped space. The Bunker’s inaugural exhibition was co-curated by Maynard Monrow, Phillip Estlund, and Laura Dvorkin.

This was an interesting event for Palm Beach as well as for the collector. It is particularly notable as a woman’s personal achievement. Beth and I are old friends, reaching back to the early/mid-’70s. We know each other well in terms of what a person is all about to himself/herself. We met shortly after she finished college, through the artist Bob Schulenberg. A close friend of mine, he talked enthusiastically about this young New York woman, insisting that she and I meet. And eventually, we did. However, the friendship has had lastingness because of her. She has always been a collector of art and of artists. It’s so offhand in its execution that it took time for me to see how serious she is about the things and people that interest her.

She is also a child of the mid-to-late 20th century, growing up in Manhattan with parents who were very involved with the city’s life, and was ultimately an heiress to a family fortune. She is one of the few people I know whose reverence for art and talent is focused in the same way a great conductor knows his musicians’ work. It’s so second nature that it’s almost an invisible quality.

Early on, when we first knew each other, she was in her early 20s and already had a penchant for collecting what are now objects of the first half of 20th-century Americana, such as sheet music, which was once as integrated into everyday life of millions as the iPod is today. At the time she began acquiring these items, however, they were still in popular use, even for collectors who play the piano. It never occurred to me that I was witnessing the birth of a collector’s mind. I don’t where she keeps them now but I can be assured that she keeps them in the same place she keeps all valuable objects—nearby and well cared for.

As she matured, married, and started a family, her interests expanded, initially through participating in the Whitney Museum, as well as through her early collecting, which always included photography. We’ve never discussed it, and I’ve never asked her how she began to become a “collector,” but, as it has turned out, she’s become a major American collector. She became quite active in the mid-’80s; and because she had the means at her disposal, she began to acquire what appealed to her unique sensibility.

All great collectors have personal objectives with their acquisitions. Her collections reflect the sensation of the new, and a sense of possible permanence. The newly opened Bunker is taking her intentions to a new level. And we are witnessing it. Many times I’ve heard the comparison with Peggy Guggenheim, who, in her time, was her only kind of collector. Guggenheim’s collection reflected the woman’s personality, intellect, and foresight. The same can be said of Beth Rudin DeWoody, and December 2 marked a new form of this kind of art collecting: she’s invited us in to see what she sees.