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Moving the Zeitgeist

An interview with collector and philanthropist Lew Manilow

    I met Lew Manilow last month at the top of the grand staircase in the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). In order to create Chicago Life’s cover shot, Lew descended two floors and then climbed the steps. The leaf-shaped staircase created an image of Manilow inside a spiraling tree of art. Instrumental to the birth and growth of the museum, as well as to contemporary art in Chicago, the major art collector and philanthropist, who turned 82 last August, has always been a man of new vision. We talked about making a life from art and about his and wife Susan’s collectors’ odyssey. Some of their stories were written in a book that the couple published in 2007.  
    In the beginning, Manilow collected mostly figurative art and was assisted by Chicago dealers Allan Frumkin, Bud Holland and Joe LoGuidice. He acquired paintings by 20th century artists that included Balthus, Jean Dubuffet and Philip Pearlstein. And it was Holland who taught him to look at all art as contemporary, for at one point in time, everything was.
     In the late 1950s, Frumkin introduced Manilow to artist H.C. Westermann. The artist, who during WWII and the Korean War served in combat, studied at The School of the Art Institute in Chicago, and his unique, humorous works evoked the futility of militarism and anxieties of modern society. Creating distinctive three-dimensional objects, Westermann employed assemblage as well as traditional techniques and materials, such as plywood, metal, linoleum and rare woods. Manilow acquired several works by Westermann, including He-Whore (1957) and Memorial to the Idea of Man If He was an Idea (1958). 
    Manilow recalls that Westermann was a remarkable acrobat who could dance on his hands. “He seemed an unlikely artist. I once asked him whether Memorial to the Idea of Man If He was an Idea, with its powerful tattooed arms, was a self-portrait. He patiently but forcefully explained, ‘It is a memorial to the idea of man if he was an idea.’” In 1993, Manilow contributed that sculpture and He-Whore to the MCA. 
    In 1966, Joseph Randall Shapiro, a legendary Chicago art collector and a friend, mentor and model to Manilow, felt that the city needed a venue for contemporary art. With a group of passionate contemporary art collectors, Shapiro located a small space at 237 E. Ontario Street that had originally been built as a bakery and belonged to Playboy Enterprises. Manilow describes how publisher Hugh Hefner made the space available, and hence, in October of 1967, the Museum of Contemporary Art opened to the public. It was a new beginning for art in Chicago, and Manilow says, “I was pleased to be included on the founding board and astonished to be named the first chair of the exhibitions committee. The board elected Joe Shapiro as its first president, while Jan van der Marck from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis became the first director, and the premiere exhibition was entitled, Pictures To Be Read/Poetry To Be Seen.”
    As land developers, Lew Manilow and his father, Nathan Manilow, developed areas south of Chicago and planned racially integrated communities that addressed the needs of housing, education, recreation and faith. In 1966, Nathan, who was one of the developers of Park Forest, began to purchase land around Wood Hill, and Lew formed New Community Enterprises (NCE). In 1967, NCE supported the incorporation of Park Forest South, and the following year Governors State University (GSU) opened, on the grounds of the Manilow farm. Consequently, the Illinois Central Railroad made its first commuter extension in 40 years to Park Forest South. Designated wooded preserves and recreation areas were made possible through major land donations by the Manilows. In honor of his father, Lew founded the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at GSU. Today, it features nearly 30 outdoor sculptural and installation works by renowned artists, including Bruce Nauman, Mark Di Suvero, Mary Miss, Tony Tasset and Martin Puryear.
    Artist Robert Smithson came to Chicago in 1973 to produce prints at the Landfall Press. Smithson, who had been creating large-scale earthworks in remote sites, was known for his Spiral Jetty. For six days in April of 1970, the artist and his crew constructed a giant, 1,500-foot, coiled sculpture made of 6,650 tons of black basalt and earth at the northeastern shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. While in Chicago, Manilow took Smithson to his sculpture park and showed him a nearby peat bog. Manilow asked Smithson to create an earthwork by emptying the bog and reusing the peat.
     “Smithson liked the idea and made several sketches that are in my collection,” recalls Manilow. The proposal was never realized, however. Tragically, after his visit to Chicago, Smithson was killed in a plane crash. Three years later, Manilow acquired a 1968 work by Smithson called A Nonsite, Franklin, New Jersey, and in 1970, contributed the piece to the MCA.
    Lew and Susan Manilow were married in 1973, and they together purchased a large Franz Gertsch painting (At Luciano’s House, 1973), embarking on a lifetime of collecting art. They initially lived in Susan’s apartment at 305 W. Fullerton, but in 1976, they moved into a large co-op apartment that had a prominent marble entrance hall and a stunning library. The excitement of collecting art together added Clemente, Oldenburg, Paschke, Rothko, Ryman and others to their new home.
    “Thus Susan and I were on the cusp of becoming serious collectors and beginning to get exuberant about it,” Lew recalls. Moreover, in 1976, he became president of the MCA. He notes, “The new responsibility dramatically changed our art lives. We began to go to New York City frequently and visited dozens of galleries. We also went to biennials, art fairs, European museums and galleries, particularly in Cologne and other German cities. The result was that we became far more active collectors and needed additional space and higher ceilings. “
    As the Manilow collection grew, so did the MCA. In 1977, the museum marked its 10th anniversary by launching a major fundraising drive and purchasing the three-story townhouse next to its original space. Judith Kirshner, the chief curator at that time, and Alene Valkanas, head of programming and public relations, proposed to Manilow that the young conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark carve up the new wing before it was remodeled. Manilow was immediately supportive and upon the approval of the exhibition committee, the artist sawed through the walls and floors to create the first “exstallation” in the space.
    Manilow served as the museum’s president until 1981, the same year that he and his wife converted an empty building on Milwaukee Avenue with three large and high floors into an extraordinary loft for their private collection. They offered the first floor, rent-free, to an alternative organization called the Randolph Street Gallery. Lew recalls the time when James Wood, then director and president of the Art Institute of Chicago, invited fellow directors of major U.S. art museums for cocktails in the loft so that they could see new art and innovative ways of displaying it.
    The best years of their art lives, according to the Manilows, were the early 1980s. It was “a movable feast of openings, exhibitions, people and art in Amsterdam, Basel, Berlin, Cologne, London, Paris and of course, New York,” says Lew. Overlooking the stunning Gothic cathedral and a short walk from the river Rhine, the bar at the Dom Hotel in Cologne was the place to be, and the Manilows were welcomed guests. By the end of 1983, they had acquired four Kiefers, three Richters and other international works that included Baselitz, Chia, Clemente, Paladino and Polke.
    “The high point,” Lew reflects, “was the ‘Zeitgeist’ exhibition in Berlin in 1982.”  The sense of history was overwhelming, with new work placed in the Martin-Gropius-Bau, adjacent to the Berlin Wall. The center of the exhibition was artist Joseph Beauys, and the Manilows were privileged to meet him and buy a group of his works. The early 1980s were also a boom in Soho, and through their many trips to New York, Susan and Lew had purchased works by David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl, who were the rising young American artists. They were also among the first collectors to visit Jean-Michel Basquiat’s studio.
    After a busy decade, it was time to make a change, and in 1991, Lew and Susan built the house of their dreams at 1900 N. Howe. The large collection from their co-op and loft had to be downsized, and  the couple chose to give many works to museums, as well as to sell some in order to continue buying art.  The innovative house had stunning contemporary works by artists including Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, Kiki Smith and Kara Walker. In the garden, they placed a commissioned Richard Serra sculpture. During the same decade, the MCA had moved into its new building, with more than five times the gallery space of the old facility, allowing it to simultaneously display its collection and mount temporary exhibitions.
    In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded Lew the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the U.S. government. And in 2001, Manilow was given the Arts Legend Award for his extraordinary contributions to the cultural life of Illinois. The state honored him for his philanthropic support, dedication and leadership. He was commended for his visionary role in the revitalization of the north Loop theater district, particularly the new Goodman Theater. Lew was also praised for more than 30 years of active generosity for institutions that included the MCA, Art Institute of Chicago, Renaissance Society, Field Museum, Goodman Theatre and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In addition, he was applauded for his “…deep involvement in the arts (which) extends to the national front; he has served on boards, councils and committees for various national institutions, including the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Harvard Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.”
    In 2005, the Manilows decided to move to a smaller, more urban home. Close to the lakefront, their apartment has a scenic terrace facing a children’s park. The living room has a Kiefer, Baselitz and Picasso, opposite Bill Viola, and antiquities from Rome, India, Egypt and China. “We now prefer the satisfaction of having completed a long journey, the pleasures of appreciation and reflection, and the dispassionate observation of the present,” the Manilows note in their book. 
    As we walked around the MCA galleries, looking at momentous works of art that were contributed by the Manilows and feeling the sense of history in process, Lew expressed his pride and pleasure in the museum’s accomplishments and future direction. When I asked him about the future direction of his own collection, he smiled and said that everything he now collects belongs to the institutions.

Published: December 09, 2009
Issue: Winter 2009 - Annual Philanthropy Guide