Billy Hassell’s Egypt on the Brazos, David Bates’ The Blue Heron and Billy Hassell’s Divination (l to r) on display at Heritage Auctions. Photo: Jerome Weeks
This month, two significant Dallas art collections are on sale. The Belo Art Collection was put together by the parent company of the Dallas Morning News. The second was assembled by two beloved Dallas arts patrons. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, together, the two sales involve several hundred works by contemporary Texas artists.
It’s surprising how many artists the Belo Art Collection and the Collection of Sonny Burt and Bob Butler have in common. They share Texas artists like James Surls, Dan Rizzie and David Bates plus internationally recognized names like Alexander Calder and Robert Rauschenberg.
The overlaps are surprising because the Belo Collection was chosen to decorate offices and conference rooms. Burt and Butler simply filled their Preston Hollow home with art they liked. The Belo selections are often vivid and colorful but many of them are essentially landscapes and realistic portraits. Few are as off-the-wall or amusing as Burt and Butler’s.
“They couldn’t be more different,” says Talley Dunn. She owns the Talley Dunn Gallery, which is selling part of the Burt and Butler collection. As a corporate collection, “Belo had an audience, an audience they had to be mindful of as they collected art. Sonny and Bob – they were the audience. It was about their own personal connection with the art.”
The Dallas Morning News has owned a variety of artworks over the years, but the Belo collection really began in 1985 when the company built the mid-rise, office skyscraper across Young Street from the Morning News. Belo took over the top floors for its corporate headquarters, and company president Robert Decherd hired longtime Dallas art dealer Murrary Smither to choose artworks for the offices. He appointed Judith Segura to help Smither as curator.
The Belo collection wasn’t really designed as a ‘collection,’ Segura says. “It was designed to put something on the walls. But instead of hiring an interior designer to choose the art, Robert had the insight to work with a reputable art consultant and buy really good things.”
The collection expanded as Belo did. In the ‘80s and ’90s, Belo bought newspapers and TV stations around the country, becoming one of the largest American media companies. They eventually took over the entire Belo Building. Whenever a new employee was given a new office there, the collection bought a new work.
Belo got big enough that when the downturn hit the newspaper business, the corporation spun off its newspaper holdings into a separate company, AH Belo. But last year, Belo sold its TV stations and the Belo Building to the Virginia-based media conglomerate, Gannett. The nearly 300 artworks Belo owned were deliberately not included in the sale.
Instead, they were given to the Belo Foundation, which has offices in the Bank of America Tower. The gift was a way to fund the private philanthropy’s future grants in journalism and urban parks – now that Belo, bereft of its TV stations, wouldn’t be doing it to the same extent.
“We are a very small operation,” says Amy Meadows, executive director of the foundation. “We obviously do not have any place to display this art collection. So we did select 15 pieces that we have kept here for the foundation. And then we have hired Heritage Auctions to do a full-scale auction for us.” Bids are already being taken online but the auction itself will be held Oct. 18th.
Curator Segura says the Belo Collection’s primary focus was contemporary Texas artists. She also pushed for more female artists, and many of the choices feature vibrant colors as a way to offset the button-down, stone and steel sleekness of the Belo Building. Many of the Texas painters are still relatively new and young: This’ll be their first auction. In fact, Segura is concerned the opening bids for many of them are so low that, in future auctions, they will be seen as less valuable than they really are.
It’s almost certainly the first auction for another notable contingent here. Works by some of the The Dallas Morning News‘ best photographers — David Woo, William Snyder, Ken Geiger, David Leeson, Erich Schlegel, Judy Walgren — are up for sale. The Belo Collection includes nearly 100 color and black & white photos, some of them Pulitzer Prize-winners.
Other than the Texas focus of the artists, Segura says, the only purchase guidelines were three that Robert Decherd gave her. “Nothing bizarre,” she says, “and that’s his word, however I was to interpret that. No exposed body parts. And the third thing was no skeletons, and I don’t know how to explain that, but those were the guidelines.”
Ironically, those would be the very kinds of artworks that collectors Sonny Burt and Bob Butler happily sought out — along with deliberately provocative and amusing works. Burt was an architect, Butler a retail designer. They caught the collecting bug in the late ‘50s — they bought an Alexander Calder for $75 — and they never stopped. They even designed their third home with the collection in mind. The house was stuffed with it, says Talley Dunn, it crackled with life.
“They would go to every museum opening, every gallery,” she recalls. “And very often, they would buy the best piece in the show. But then they would also go to alternative spaces and buy the quirkiest piece that people would really question, ‘What is that? Those are just deflated balloons stuck to a wall! That’s all that is.’ And they would just say, ‘We love it.'”
Burt and Butler supported new artists, outrageous artists. They often spent comparatively little. They bought a Julian Schnabel canvas when Schnabel was still a waiter at the Grape restaurant on Greenville Avenue.
Butler died in 2007, Burt died a year ago. Their estate contacted Dunn — who’d worked with them for 20 years and had even cataloged their collection. Dunn sold some of the artworks during this year’s Dallas Art Fair, and she’s designated some to be auctioned in New York. Through Oct. 18, her gallery will be showing more than 100 works for sale from the nearly 500 the two men owned. All proceeds will go to help set up an endowment for Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet High School. Dunn estimates the total sale of the artworks will surpass a million dollars. No precise estimate can be given for the Belo auction because while Dunn can set her prices, Heritage Auctions only sets an opening bid level.
Dunn says the choice of the Arts Magnet endowment perfectly reflects Burt and Butler’s support of young artists.
“They didn’t care if the artist became an international sensation,” she says. “They wanted to support creativity.”