D.C. art collectors Daniel and Mirella Levinas: ‘Open to what art can be’

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the seller of a Dan Steinhilber artwork purchased by Daniel and Mirella Levinas. They bought the piece, described as an assemblage of plastic dinnerware, from G Fine Art, not from Conner Contemporary. This version has been corrected.

August 19, 2011

The facade of Daniel and Mirella Levinas’s mansion off Wisconsin Avenue looks like many white-brick houses in Georgetown. Greek revival details convey patrician heritage and conservative taste without a hint that behind the pilastered doorway is a pristine, ultra-modern museum.

Inside unfolds a domestic variation on the gallery style known as “the white cube.” Walls and floors are rectilinear planes stripped of decorative flourishes, and rooms are a sea of white, relieved here and there by a patch of muted color on the sparse furnishings. Where you would expect to find furniture, curious functionless objects beckon.

The first thing you see is a stack of Warhol-style Brillo boxes made of puckered paper, covered with hand-drawn logos and lettering in black and white (by Spanish artist Javier Arce). In the foyer stands a white monochrome figure with a clutch of colored fluorescent lights slung over his shoulder (Catalan artist Bernardi Roig). A translucent fabric scrim that at first looks like a solid wall becomes a screen for a surprising video projection.

It feels so much like a public gallery that you have to remind yourself that you are visiting a private home.

Some people collect stamps, cars, guns, stuffed animals, wine or Civil War memorabilia. The Levinases collect contemporary art. The Argentine couple have hundreds of sculptures, paintings, drawings, photographs, videos and artist books, mainly by younger artists from Latin America.

The list includes prominent figures such as León Ferrari, Vik Muniz, Cildo Meireles, Matthew Barney, Olafur Eliasson, Liliana Porter and many others who may not be household names, but who have soaring reputations among experts. But the couple are known particularly for discovering talented artists.

“Every time you visit his home, it’s a learning experience,” says Richard Koshalek, director of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, where since last year Daniel Levinas has served on the board. “There are going to be works by emerging artists not known by other collectors, and many times not known by curators of major museums. His exploratory sensibility is extremely important for the Hirshhorn, which has to have a global vision, a great awareness of what’s happening in other parts of the world.”

“They’re not looking for the proverbial painting over the couch,” says Leigh Conner, owner of Conner Contemporary Art in Northeast. “They’re very adventurous collectors, open to what art can be, whether it’s a video or a sculpture made of forks and paper plates,” she says, referring to a hedgehog-like assemblage of plastic dinnerware by local artist Dan Steinhilber that the couple purchased from G. Fine Art.

That piece — among the few by local artists currently on display — occupies a nook in Daniel’s book-lined study. A nearby balcony overlooks the living room, a cavernous, light-filled chamber with double-height ceilings and a polished stone floor that extends some 30 yards in length. Sunlight floods in through a floor-to-ceiling glass wall onto a seating area around a square table laden with art books and small sculptures.

Mounted above a recessed fireplace is a crumpled-paper mural with a black-and-white rendition of a famous fresco by Mexican master Diego Rivera (also by Arce). Around the room, sculptures rest on pedestals or directly on the floor, culminating at the far end in a raised mezzanine where dried trees bloom with fluorescent bulbs (Spanish artist Carlos Schwartz).

Cubbyhole shelves contain a miscellany of framed photographs, drawings and precious objects. And the entire glass wall retracts to open onto an enclosed patio where a giant Dixie Cup-shaped fountain continually pours water into a swimming pool.

We’re a long way from the conventional image of inside-the-Beltway living.

There are all sorts of explanations for why people collect: prestige and social climbing, financial investment, or even, as some psychological theories hold, as a form of sexual display or a way to compensate for trauma or loss. Daniel and Mirella claim more wholesome motivations. “We collect to be surrounded by things that we like,” Mirella says. “Other people have plants in their house. We don’t.”

These days, wealthy collectors often hire curators or consultants to tell them what to buy. The Levinases do their own hunting. “It’s part of the excitement,” Mirella explains, ticking off a list of recent expeditions from New York to Basel, Madrid to Mexico City. Their next trip is to the Venice Biennale, with stops in Trieste, Italy; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Berlin to visit artists’ studios. “Some people enjoy going to the beach, and some people enjoy going to a museum or to see an artist or installation. For us, to see art is pleasure,” she says.

Fleeing the dicatorship

Daniel, 62, was born in Buenos Aires to a large, close-knit Orthodox Jewish family of first-generation Lithuanian immigrants who owned a vinyl business. His mother, a fashion designer from Danzig, introduced him and his two brothers to the arts and enrolled them in painting classes. His brother Gabriel later established Arte Multiple, an important but short-lived contemporary-art gallery in the 1970s.

Mirella, 60, was born in Washington but moved to Buenos Aires at age 5 when her father, a Chilean diplomat, was named chief of mission for the Pan American Health Organization. She and Daniel met in 1962, when she was 12 and he was 14. The following year her family returned to Washington, where she attended Walter Johnson High School. She and Daniel kept in touch, she returned to Buenos Aires, and they married in 1970. She studied psychology but never practiced, and he completed a law degree but continued to work for the family business until 1980, when, because of the Argentine dictatorship, they relocated with their three young children to Rockville.

“I remember in university the police coming onto campus on horses and beating people,” he says. “They didn’t ask questions. They were absolutely sure if you studied philosophy, psychiatry or literature, you were a communist. I did not feel threatened personally, but I had books by philosophers of anarchy. I remember burning the books because I was afraid if somebody came to my house and looked at the books, they would say I was with the guerrillas.”

His brother Gabriel did not fare as well. After closing his gallery, he founded a magazine that reported that childless members of the military were kidnapping and adopting children of the regime’s political victims, the “desaparecidos” — the disappeared. The magazine offices were bombed and his family threatened, but he stayed in Buenos Aires, where he remains a journalist and private art dealer.

Daniel knew people his age and younger who were persecuted or murdered. “I didn’t want to live like that,” he says, “and I didn’t want my kids to grow up in a situation like that.” He was 32 when he decided to get out. “I was very lucky,” he says. “My wife was born in the U.S., so we didn’t have any problems with paperwork.”

In Washington he became the publisher of a newsletter founded by John Naisbitt, author of the corporate bestseller “Megatrends,” about socioeconomic and political dynamics. In 1994 Daniel co-founded Georgetown Publishing House, specializing in direct-mail publications for executives. The company was sold in 2000, and four years later he created MiCash, an Internet company that issues prepaid, reloadable debit cards.

Curating the collection

Daniel had collected posters and pictures in his early 20s, but his taste gradually evolved. “Now I buy things that are more cerebral,” he says, “more conceptual and things with less color. You are never going to see me buying a painting with a lot of colors in it. I like things that are more peaceful, I guess.

“I like a work that first makes you smile, then after that makes you think.”

A photograph in the Levinases’ dining room looks like a drawing of a 19th-century painting by the French master Géricault. It’s actually a photo by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz of his own sketch of the painting — made using chocolate syrup. Muniz has gone on to fame and fortune, but he’s one reason a profile in a Brazilian magazine dubbed the Levinas collection “Latin Good Humor.”

Mirella says she and her husband have similar taste, “but Dani’s more edgy than I am, and more passionate. I like objects even more than I do painting,” she says. “I like to interact with smaller things. You can touch them, place them, make a decoration on a table for a dinner. When you have big things, it’s a different story.”

The Levinases bought their house seven years ago, demolished the interior and in collaboration with Daniel’s brother Salo Levinas, a Bethesda architect, created an ideal showcase. (Mirella says her main contribution was the serene, park-like sculpture garden.)

“This is my dream house,” says Daniel, noting that the property, which affords views of the Potomac from the bedroom on the expanded third floor, once belonged to Evalyn Walsh McLean, the last private owner of the Hope Diamond.

“There’s a balance between the quality of the architecture in his home and the quality of the work,” Koshalek says of the multi-level, open-plan design.

When the Hirshhorn mounted a retrospective of Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca last year, the Levinases hosted the opening party. They chaired a benefit for the not-for-profit Transformer gallery at the Mexican Cultural Institute. Daniel has curated projects at the Organization of American States and the Arlington Arts Center. And he is active in Miami, where the couple maintain an apartment, serving on the welcoming committee for Art Basel Miami Beach, the largest contemporary art fair in the United States.

Cutting-edge art

A question every collector faces is what will become of their holdings when they are gone. Daniel says he’s too young to dwell on such matters. Instead he has been devoting thought to establishing a new venue to add space for cutting-edge art in the capital.

“The museums and institutions are fantastic, but there is not a lot of contemporary art in Washington’s museum world, and there is not enough of a market to support galleries. It’s a pity,” he says. “There is no question that there is something missing.

“I would like to see a big space where you can do temporary shows of art that is normally not shown in the big museums, a place to be able to show really the latest stuff. We need to get young people involved when they are in high school,” he says. “There are some that will never go to a museum. But if you show something that is closer to what they do every day — video, electronic installations, music — they will go. I would like to see a line of people around the block trying to get in.”

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