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Omaha Magazine

Patrons, Painters, and Preservation

Aug 22, 2023 02:54PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Omaha area art collectors Duane (left) and Monte (right) Thompson.

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

Omaha area art collectors Duane (left) and Monte (right) Thompson.

Patrons, Painters, and Preservation [5 Images] Click Any Image To Expand
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In an interdependent web of creativity and capital, art collectors and patrons like Duane and Monte Thompson of Omaha, and Robert and Karen Duncan of Lincoln, support individual artist practices and sustain gallery-museum activities. 

“Every metro art scene is an ecosystem, consisting of makers, presenters, and an audience. Within that audience, collectors play a vital role in creating a healthy environment in which the arts can flourish,” Omaha curator Janet Farber explained. “Collectors purchase art directly from artists or galleries. Many provide vital financial support and board leadership for museums and art centers, as well as help them build their permanent holdings through donations of artwork. Some generate additional opportunities for artists, offering residencies, commissions, locations, [and] connections.”

“Collectors, galleries and artists are what make the whole thing work,” added Gallery 1516 owner, Patrick Drickey. “Here we recognize that collectors are probably the most important part of that triad.”  

As with the Thompsons and Duncans, Farber said, “Collecting does not start out as a goal, but happens more organically.” 

For serious collectors like these, it becomes a lifestyle and avocation. The couples do their own acquiring and curating, often becoming intimately involved in artists’ lives in the process. 

“The highlight of our collecting experience is getting to know the artist and the art community,” Robert Duncan said. “They are among our closest friends. We get great satisfaction out of knowing and conversing with artists, collectors and people in the arts field. It’s a wonderful experience and really one of the driving forces of our desire to collect.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if out of our collection there’s at least 500 artists that we know. We’re the sort that gets to know the artist and sees their work over a period of years before we even commit to a purchase, so it’s not unusual to have a long relationship before we bring it to fruition.”

There are occasions they do buy from an artist they don’t know, Karen said, “But we’ve been known to get in touch after and ask if we can meet. That, we do a lot, and it works out well in enduring friendships.”

The same holds true for the Thompsons. One of the first artists they got to know was the late Omaha realist Kent Bellows. 

For a 2010 Bellows retrospective at Joslyn Art Museum, curators drew on work held by the Thompsons and others, further elevating the Bellows name. Such representation in key galleries and private collections raises an artist’s profile, and potentially increases their works’ value.
Drickey said artists know the importance of getting their work into “a good collection—that’s how their legacy moves forward.”

For collectors, it’s not always about monetary value.

“There’s really joy in knowing the person who creates something that is very appealing, attractive to you,” Duane Thompson noted. “Each relationship we have with an artist starts with buying a piece of their art.”

“They become friends, they become important in our life,” Monte Thompson said.

“Once the piece of art is in your home, it’s sort of a constant high” Duane said. “You can look at it every morning and still get a rush like when you bought it. It’s also great to think about the artist and maybe the conversation you had with him or her. Having been collecting for 50 some years, it’s also being grateful for having known artists who are no longer with us—but they are certainly present when we look at their work on our walls or in our display cases.”

The Thompsons have been Old Market devotees since Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko’s original Craftsman Gallery, where they acquired many of their functional ceramic pieces. Through her evolution as an arts administrator with the Bemis, and later the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the Thompsons remained supportive, serving on the first Bemis board and collecting works by some of its resident artists.

The Thompsons and Duncans display much of their eclectic collections at their respective homes. Look in any direction or room at the Thompson’s Blackstone co-op residence and paintings, drawings, pottery, and sculptures are never more than a glance away. They host open houses and parties where their collection takes center stage.

“Collectors often function, intentionally or not, as influencers, inspiring others to develop their personal aesthetic sensibilities and discover their own paths to becoming collectors,” Farber said.

“Collecting art can be at any financial level,” Robert Duncan said. “There are beautiful objects for a hundred dollars. You have to go on a quest, you have to find them, you have to find something that speaks to you—and then meet the artist.” 

When it comes to acquisitions, Robert explained, “Collecting art is always a joint effort. We agree on the pieces we’re going to buy 99.9% of the time. We won’t buy anything of consequence unless we both agree. Our tastes have developed together. Five decades is a long time.”

By now, the couple share the same discriminating eye for what they feel has merit. But they don’t always get it right. 

“We’ve made a lot of mistakes, too, but we get better and better at it,” Robert confessed. “I think both of us have got a really good eye now to collect good art.”

As a premiere Midwest collecting couple the Duncans take things to the next level at their classically influenced home in Lincoln designed by London-based architect Dimitri Porphyrios. The eight-years-in-the-making residence also functions as a gallery with museum-grade lighting, temperature controls, and dedicated art spaces.

The Duncans also display art at their home in Mexico, at the homes of their adult children, and the headquarters of Duncan Aviation, the company Robert founded and headed. Additional works can be found their gallery, The Assemblage, in downtown Lincoln and their Carnegie Clarinda Art Museum in their shared hometown of Clarinda, Iowa.

“We believe we have an obligation to share our art,” Robert said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to collect it and we want as many people to see it as possible. We really work hard in getting our art out where people can see it and appreciate it.”

The two couples often loan pieces for temporary or touring shows and donate others for charitable auctions. 

In addition to purchasing art, the Duncans sometimes sponsor individual artist residencies and have even been known to subsidize artists’ living expenses.

Art stewardship extends to serving on boards. Robert Duncan was recruited by the City of Lincoln to create the Lincoln Public Art initiative. 

“Of course, I reached out to this interconnected community to bring people on the board,” Robert said. “I think we’ve brought something like $5 to $6 million worth of art to Lincoln.”

Drickey says the Nebraska Artists Biennial he puts on at Gallery 1516 featuring area artists brings out collectors like the Duncans and Thompsons.

“That has been very successful and it’s really given collectors an opportunity a reason to support a Nebraska artist,” said Drickey, who takes to heart advice from the late Omaha painter, Milton Wolksy. “Buy art because you like it and try to buy it from someone you meet because you’ll create a friend for life.”

The Thompson collection in particular is Nebraska-centric, which makes getting to know artists easier. 

“We do get involved with artists,” Duane said, including Jun Kaneko mentees Iggy Sunmik and Jess Benjamin. 

Collectors get leads on new artists, Duane observed, by being aligned with galleries like 1516 or the Bemis. 

“Then you’re made aware of new artists that come in,” he said. “We belong to Bemis, so whenever a new artist is in residence we’re made aware of that. When they have exhibition openings or open studios we know about it.”

“These wonderful collectors support the artists directly from their studios, at local galleries, and at the annual Bemis Benefit Art Auction, whose participating artists benefit from collectors of all ranges,” said Bemis Chief Curator and Director of Programs, Rachel Adams. “We are thankful for all the collector support, which allows Bemis to continue its support of artists.”

“It’s a small community,” Duane added. “Many of our friends are also interested in art, and when they go to a gallery that maybe we have not been to there’s always good conversation about the work they saw and they encourage us to go see the work ourselves.”

Collectors, whether individually or collectively, make this symbiosis between buyers and makers more than an exchange—they make it an environment for art, and local talent, to flourish. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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