The collection started almost by accident. It was 1980, and Tony Podesta was bidding adieu to co-workers from Sen. Ted Kennedy's just-failed bid for the presidential nomination. On their way out the door, staff members were handed whatever goodies remained -- among them a tube of limited-edition prints donated to the campaign by the likes of Warhol and Rauschenberg.
A quarter-century later, those prints are history, but Podesta is counted among the nation's most important contemporary art collectors. Inside the elite Chelsea galleries, he and his wife, Heather, are gossiped about, deferred to and ushered toward the choicest works. All the art stars know their names.
Heather and Tony Podesta in their Falls Church home with Louise Bourgeois' "The Arch of Hysteria."
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
In Washington, the couple is recognized, too -- for very different reasons. Podesta, 60, has ridden a long career on Capitol Hill to his current perch as a top-tier lobbyist and co-chairman of PodestaMattoon, an outfit that took in $11 million in revenue last year from high end clients such as Altria and eBay. (It counts among its clients The Washington Post Co., which in 2003 paid the firm $60,000.)
Political candidates eagerly tap Podesta's mojo, too: He spearheaded President Clinton's successful 1996 Pennsylvania campaign, and Sen. John Kerry has hired him to work the same magic for him in the Keystone State this year. Heather, 26 years his junior and several shades greener, carved a career aiding Reps. Robert Matsui and Earl Pomeroy; she joined Blank Rome's law and government relations firm this spring.
Washington power brokers familiar with the couple's art collection -- regular rounds of parties at their two Washington area homes ensure plenty of viewing opportunities -- regard the couple's enthusiasm as something of a personal quirk.
But the Podestas' stock of artists know well the benefits of securing such politically connected patronage. Uniquely capable of advocating for their artists using the lobbying skills of their day jobs, Tony and Heather can secure access, lend advice and connect artists to curators and coveted museum shows. It's backing more valuable, at times, than dollars.
In a gray flannel city, Tony and Heather show up in technicolor. Tony arrives in red leather shoes and peacock-bright ties. Stalk-slim Heather, a white streak issuing from a shock of dark hair, favors ensembles by international boutique designers.
When they buy, Tony and Heather buy big. At a given moment, their collection hovers around 900 pieces, higher if a major art fair closed recently. The emphasis is on photo-based works, though sculpture and paintings are also featured.
With more than half their trove currently in storage, Tony and Heather, like notable collectors Eli and Edythe Broad in Los Angeles and Don and Mera Rubell in Miami, are considering buying a public space to show their works. In the meantime, the couple sends as many pieces as possible to traveling museum shows and displays the rest at home. In their Woodley Park and Falls Church residences, pictures hang salon style, floor to ceiling, like very, very expensive wallpaper. Tony started buying art at the annual auctions of Washington Project for the Arts -- a local alternative art venue that was once a very hip place but is hardly on par with today's major galleries. Today, though his habit has grown voluminously, Tony describes the evolution as more a dedicated hobby than an obsession.
"Some people spend a lot of money on golf," says Tony, who speaks in energetic spurts. "Like they play golf, I play art."
His is, in part, a gambler's collection, albeit based on safe bets. The up-and-comers Tony favors travel the international contemporary art circuit, the gold line from Chelsea to the Venice Biennale. Though the works aren't guaranteed to stand the test of time, many of his artists have logged significant hours on major museum walls. Others, including a few of Tony's more obscure choices, have given good returns over the long term.
Heather's first taste of Tony's art came on their first date, in the fall of 2001, when they stopped at his house to pick up his car before heading to the opera. Passing some of the quirkier selections, Heather recalls Tony remarking, "I don't know why it is, but I have artworks where the women have no heads." The next day, she sent him a note signed, "Woman with a head." They were married last year.
To keep themselves in pictures, Tony and Heather jet to art fairs and biennials from Sao Paolo to San Sebastian -- often just for the weekend. Theirs is a life led breathlessly, moving from airport to dinner party. The art is an extravagance that occasionally gives Heather pause.
"401(k)? Art?" she asks, as if weighing the two options. "Tony's view of investment diversification is multiple artists."