Over the summer, Create! Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with Mari Shaw, an intellectual property lawyer, author, and art collector. While the original purpose of our call was to discuss Words, Books, and the Spaces They Inhabit, Book One of her series on The Noble Art of Collecting and her forthcoming book, The Noble Art of Art Writing, we ended up having a lively conversation about how she became interested in art, her experiences in Berlin where she lives four months a year, trends in the art world, and more.
Mari Shaw’s interest in art didn’t happen by accident but it certainly wasn’t by design. It began bubbling at a young age. In her upcoming book, The Noble Art of Art Writing, she explained:
“When I was a child, the place that most impressed me was my Uncle Martin’s three-story house with a clinker brick façade topped by a pitched roof that sloped down to one side. It sat on a narrow lot of a block of shorter symmetrical houses in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago. My father called Uncle Martin’s house an eyesore. Admittedly its irregular dense blocks of cement burned into various colors and patterns was at odds with the surrounding mostly beige homes and curtained windows, but I found my uncle’s house brilliantly modern and enchanting, both outside and inside. The living room furniture included an Eames Molded Plywood straight-backed Lounge Chair, a flat sleek fireplace with a stack of logs at the ready, a phonograph system and a collection of classical records. The walls were lined with pictures, most of them made by my uncle, and shelves and shelves of books. When I visited, which was often, my uncle talked to me about art and music, frequently illustrating his point by reading from one of his books. “Art reshapes how we respond to the world”, he would tell me. And so it was that I came to understand the restorative and uplifting powers of art.”
On her eleventh birthday, Shaw’s nascent interest in the arts hit another gear when her parents granted her permission to ride the ‘El’, the elevated subway line that runs from the suburbs, including Skokie, by herself into the heart of Chicago to visit the Art Institute. With unfettered access to this renowned collection, she became a museum regular. Closer to her suburban home, she spent untold hours in bookstores and libraries feeding her omnivorous reading addiction, a compulsion which served her well when she wrote for her college newspaper, alongside its editor Roger Ebert, who went on to become among the most important American film critics of his generation. Surprisingly, Shaw never took an art or art history course in college or graduate school. In fact, although she loved going to museums and circled around the arts in a meaningful way, she wasn’t much engaged in collecting art until later on. Like most young collectors, she started with inexpensive prints and posters.
Shaw says that moving to the east coast in 1972 marked a turning point for her. Already a self-described ‘art addict’, she was thrilled to be living across the Parkway from the Philadelphia Museum of Art which she visited every Sunday, capped by a weekend in NYC every couple of months. Before long, frequenting Philadelphia galleries sparked an enthusiasm for collecting original works by Philadelphia artists. The art of these Philadelphia artists still hangs in the five-story home she now shares with her husband Peter Shaw, including works by Thomas Chimes, Tristan Tristin Lowe, Quentin Morris, Bill Walton, Eileen Neff, David Goerk, Felipe Jesus Consalvos, Kocot and Hatton, and Jon Poblador Poblkdor. She became an active participant in the arts community in Philadelphia and still is.
In The Noble Art of Collecting, Shaw explains how her collecting jolted into an entirely new dimension in 1985, the year after the Shaw’s married.
“The first serious fight I ever had with my husband Peter was over whether we should collect [expensive] art. I had been buying art for decades…But Peter was proposing a whole different thing: buying a 5-foot oil painting on canvas by Dorothea Rockburne, titled Balance (1985). Though Balance enchanted me with its brilliant colors and scrumptious strokes, the notion of possessing it was abhorrent to the vestiges of my 1960s flower-child mentality. This painting is a masterpiece that belongs in a museum [not in our house]. ”
On the Shaw’s next Sunday visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Peter pointed to labels indicating most of Mari’s favorite works were donated. Mari softened, but, ever the lawyer, she required conditions for collecting, which the couple have followed with only a few exceptions, before agreeing:
(1) They only buy the work of living artists in the primary market, rather than at auction or through secondary market dealers, to ensure the artists profit from the sale of work the Shaw’s buy. Similarly, they seek out artists who are out of favor in the market, or emerging artists and artists in their local communities who have demonstrated a serious practice when they first buy their work.
(2) They do not buy to sell, though on rare occasion they do sell work they have owned for more than a decade to raise money for a non-profit. Shaw believes conservation and patronage are integral aspects of collecting. “I think the privilege of living with art in your lifetime comes with the responsibility of conserving it and supporting artists and cultural institutions.”
(3) Finally, Mari was and is passionate about sharing their collection with the public. She did not want works to sit unseen in storage permanently. Peter agreed, and the couple makes sure their works are exhibited, loaned, or displayed in their home most of the time. They accept at least one museum group per month for a private tour of their collection during the times they are in Philadelphia, and Mari enjoys making the artworks available to students, including repeat visits from classes she has taught over the years at the University of Pennsylvania and other schools. Her granddaughter Lucy’s preschool class once came for an art tour.
So, it was that in 1985, the Shaw’s bought Dorothea Rockburne’s oil painting from the Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York, which at the time seemed a very expensive acquisition. The painting still hangs in their living room, but is promised to the Whitney Museum. Other works from their collection have also been promised or donated to other museums, including ten film and video works they donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2017. They do not turn down requests to loan work in their collection to museum exhibitions if the artists who made them request that they do.
In 2004, the diversity and pace of the couple’s collecting took a leap when Mari bought an apartment in Berlin, where she spends four warm weather months every year. While their collection which began primarily with American artists had already broadened to include European and Latin American art, and unwittingly, a concentration of women artists, the Shaw’s knowledge and access to art dealers and art knowledge soared when they established a Berlin base. Every spring, Peter joins Mari the last weekend in April for Berlin Gallery Weekend and spends two weeks looking at art in German’s exciting capital. Peter returns in early summer to travel with Mari to other European cities for a couple of weeks of Biennales, Museum exhibitions, or art fairs.
During her time alone in Berlin, Shaw reads, draws, walks, and haunts bookstores and galleries by day and often goes to the theater or a concert in the evening. In 2007, Mari served as the first American representative on an advisory committee for the quinquennial Documenta XII art exhibition held in Kassel, Germany. In 2009, she began to write her first book, Painter and Pataphysician Thomas Chimes alone in her apartment and across the street at the internet café housed in a museum dedicated to the Ramones, the band that introduced punk. She went to the café as soon as it opened, long before the Ramones crowd roused, where the owner supplied her with free tap water, a rarity in Berlin, and, now and then a free cup of coffee. In 2015, Mari met Caroline Schneider, owner of Sternberg Press in her morning Yoga class. Schneider encouraged her to write a book to be published by Sternberg Press, which eventually became The Noble Art of Collecting.
Among Mari’s current on-going projects in Philadelphia is working with Artblog to enhance its annual Art Writing Challenge. Shaw has been connected with Artblog, Philadelphia’s top online art publication, for decades. She has gone from having been featured in interviews to contributing guest posts, serving on the advisory committee and now sits on the Board. She loves the story behind the organization’s founding and its commitment to diverse, quality writing.
To this end, she saw an opportunity to expand expend and secure Artblog’s annual Art Writing Challenge by making a three-year commitment to up the amount and number of money prizes awarded to the winners. In 2019, she established a new award category in music writing as a match to contributions from others to the Art Writing Challenge. While it was exciting to solidify this online platform for celebrating emerging writers, She wanted to do more. Recognizing that there is something special about having one’s work published on printed paper, she decided the next step was to create a paper book to memorialize the history of Artblog, its Art Writing Challenge, and each of the winning essays selected since the inception of the competition. Voila! She introduced the idea for The Noble Art of Art Writing, which will be hitting bookstores next year as Book Two in her “Noble Art of Collecting” series.
We end our conversation thinking about the iconic opening to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of Incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
Shaw pointed out how beautifully these well-crafted words give us perspective in our own troubling times, 160 years after Dickens wrote them.
“Bravo to Artblog for continuing to encourage and professionally acknowledge a new generation of art writers in Philadelphia”, bravo to the artists who took the Art-writing challenge, and bravo, to the winners,” she said.
Mari Shaw will be moderating a discussion on November 15, 2019, from 2 to 3:30pm at the Kislak Center of the University of Pennsylvania at 3420 Walnut Street discussion called “Invisible and Illuminating illuminating”, based on a chapter in her upcoming book The Noble Art of Art Writing. Two-time Art Challenge winner Janyce Denise Glasper Glazer, Manager of the Percent for Art Program Manager for the City of Philadelphia and Artblog Board member Jacque Liu, and multidisciplinary artist and educator, Shelley Spector, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Deisgn and the University of the Arts will be panelists.
Mari Shaw’s books Painter and Pataphysician Thomas Chimes and The Noble Art of Collecting can be purchased on our web shop.