The Why of the Buy — 5 Questions for Art Collector, Poet, and Curator Tom Healy

Emilie Trice | December 1, 2021

Alex Israel's AR work and self-portrait, on view at the Bass Museum, Miami.

"I'll attend the opening of an envelope" — collector Tom Healy goes where the art is.

It’s the first day of Miami Art Week—after a year-long hiatus— and the Bass Museum is buzzing. Along with the museum’s board members, Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist is there, getting an early view of Alex Israel’s latest work—augmented reality cityscapes paired with the artist’s signature, oversized self-portraits. Later that day, Israel and Obrist would be joined by Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel to discuss the intersections of art and technology—part of the museum’s ongoing series of public conversations on creativity. 

Tom Healy, the curator of public programs at the Bass, is also the moderator and de facto emcee for the evening’s panel discussion. An art world veteran, Tom was among the first to establish a gallery in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. He’s also a writer and the author of three books of poetry, one of which was a L.A. Times Book Prize finalist. 

In 2005, Tom was given the New York City Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture from Michael Bloomberg for his community-driven work in the wake of September 11th. Several years later, then-President Barack Obama appointed him as the Chairman of the Fulbright Scholarship Board, overseeing Fulbright scholars programs worldwide. He’s also taught at NYU, Pratt, and The New School.

Before taking the stage at the Bass, Tom agreed to meet with us and answer five questions, including what he looks for when collecting art (on a budget), his go-to haunts in Miami, and the surprising satellite fair he considers his favorite. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Collector, poet and curator Tom Healy photographed at the Bass Museum. 

AA: How has your background in the arts influenced you as a collector?

TH: Well, I think I just get to be curious and inquisitive—and it means that, you know, I’ll attend the opening of an envelope. 

It just means that I kept doors open in places, where you're always meant to look and listen and be attentive. I really do think of myself as an art viewer, first and foremost. Being a collector, though, sometimes you just get this hunger and need to kind of have stuff. It's partly that need— the need to really experience something— and to need to be in it, or surrounded by it.

For people coming to Miami—you don’t have to be a mega-wealthy person who's already on the list and buying things before they arrive, etc. I think the great thing about all these art fairs is that it’s your chance—in two days— to see hundreds of different artists and different movements, and where you can get your finger on the pulse of what's happening around the world. 

You can really just watch and look and listen and seize the show. And really, sometimes pull dealers aside when they're having a quiet moment (and you can see them bored out of their minds because nobody's coming by). That’s your chance to go sit down and shoot the breeze with them and learn a little bit of what they're up to. 

Some of these galleries can seem really intimidating or off-putting, because they don't have prices listed, or they don't have the names of the artists displayed. But, there are many, many others who would be desperate to have somebody come and ask some questions.

AA: I'm interested to know your “why of the buy” as a collector. When you purchase a piece, what’s that trigger moment that makes you decide, I have to own this.

TH: I have to preface that my budget is not the budget of mega collectors at all. The whole way I'm already looking at things is within the budget that I can afford. The cool thing is that, at some of these satellite fairs, that budget can be just a couple hundred bucks. I've always looked in the low thousands—under $50,000 (and that would be a stretch to meet, ever). But, I can generally find works within my budget by contemporary artists and people emerging now.  

There are local projects, like the Bakehouse Art Complex and Miami Light Project, that have Miami artists and artists that are in residence with other places. Those artists likely won’t be on view at the big fairs, but their work will be affordable. It’s really interesting to look at that side of the city’s art scene.

When I'm collecting, I'm interested in two basic ideas. One is that I’m looking for something that throws me, and I don't get it—work that makes me see the world in a different way. I want art to make me uncomfortable, while still being a transference of the beautiful. That's first and foremost to me. 

And secondly, I’m interested in artists who aren’t already a household name.

AA: Would you say that your collection has any specific themes?

TH: Here's the reason I would not be called a “collector” by many, many people—I try to get to know all the artists that I collect. There are very, very few that I haven't at least met. That means going all over the world, from Japan to Finland.

I've really tried to travel and meet the artists I collect, and get some sense of who they are.


Pascale Marthine Tayou, Welcome Wall, 2015. Permanent Collection of the Bass. 

AA: What have you been working on recently as curator of public programs at the Bass?

TH: My role as the curator of public programs at the Bass is a very part-time job—I'm a collector and a poet and writer. When we had the first shutdown, in March 2019, there was a lot of concern and everyone was asking, “What do we do? How do we talk about what we do? And, how are we living through this time?” 

So, I said, “Well, let me bring people together on Zoom like everybody else and do some mashups of conversations with artists and writers, journalists, etc. We've had Eric Schmidt of Google, and Charles Blow, the New York Times journalist—all different kinds of people, who are also friends. 

And I just said, “let's have conversations ... about how we're living through this, and if we can imagine looking out and seeing the other side,” and then always swing it back to some local connection or the artists we've been working with.

This week, we're having a conversation with the LA artist Alex Israel—an extraordinary artist— who will be in conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, who curator of the Serpentine Galleries in London. They’ll both be speaking alongside Evan Spiegel, the co-founder of Snapchat. 

Alex has been making these self portraits—big, beautiful self portraits that we're showing with augmented reality, which he's been developing with Snapchat technology. The AR expands your experience with his paintings in the museum—you can walk around with headsets on and use your phone to delve in and out of the work. 

It’s a conversation about that effort—what's the future of art and technology. And the follow-up to the conversation is later this week, when I'll be having a conversation with the old granddaddy of pop art Peter Saul, and the newest person to kind of take the art world by financial storm (and whole new genre of artist), Beeple. That conversation will be about the question of the future of the physical object and NFT's.

INK Art Fair in Miami

AA: You’re a Miami insider—so what art fairs, restaurants, and bars do you recommend for out-of-towners?

TH: Well, there’s a split. If you don't know the geography, Miami Beach is this little peninsula across the bay from the city of Miami. The split is between the art fairs that are here on the beach, and those that are throughout the rest of the city. 

And here on the beach, obviously, the core fair is the Art Basel Miami fair—10 steps away from the Bass museum. Next to that is Design Miami. So those are the core places on the Miami Beach side. 

Then, there are all the satellite fairs. My favorite of those is INK. It's a quiet show of only works on paper, from really famous artists and even older—not contemporary —works, to pieces where the ink is barely dry. 

There's also Scope, and then, across the water, there's Nada. I probably have about a dozen favorites.

As for where to eat, where to drink, where to party—the terrible thing about Miami is it's an embarrassment of riches. There’s some good places to sleep, too. I think my favorite place here on the beach is Broken Shaker. (It has a companion place in New York City called Freehand.)

And what I love most about Broken Shaker— it's just five blocks north of the museum—is that that’s the Miami Beach I used to know. I first came to Miami Beach when I was a kid, just out of college, and there was a fare of $19.99 on a plane called People Express. You would pay 20 bucks to get on the plane, and then you got a penny back from the flight attendant. 

And all the places to stay here were like $25 or $30 back then—just these old, deco hotels. Somebody kind of cleaned them up, put some paint on them, and made them kind of shabby chic. In other cities, hotels are not really a cool place to drink, but here in Miami they actually are.

I think some of the best pizza is at Lucali. And the best sushi is Pubbelly. But, there’s all kinds of choices. 

To learn more about Tom, visit his website.

Art collectors like Tom use Artwork Archive to manage their collections and ensure their legacies are protected for generations to come. Try it free for 14 days.

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