Emerging Collectors: A Profile of John Morrissey
By Joao Ribas
PALM BEACH, Fla.—With all the talk about the booming contemporary market, you’d think young collectors could simply throw darts around an art fair and end up with a stellar selection of art of the moment. But, obviously, it takes a lot more than random flings and ready cash.
John Morrissey, whose collection is currently on view at the Armory Art Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., shows what happens when you add intuition and persistence to the mix.
The Palm Beach–based collector, a 37-year-old lawyer specializing in probate administration and estate planning, started buying art soon after passing the Florida bar exam in the mid-1990s.
By 1999, his collection already featured work by Jack Pierson, Karen Kilimnik, Sue Williams, Cecily Brown, Robert Lazzarini, Karen Davies and Inka Essensigh; was being exhibited at the former Palm Beach Museum of Contemporary Art; and was recently named by ARTnews as one of the top U.S. collections of contemporary art.
The John Morrissey Collection is currently the inaugural show in an annual program spotlighting contemporary Palm Beach collectors, organized by independent curator Sarah Gavlak. It features Morrissey’s “second round” of collecting: the art he has bought in the last five years by such now-leading contemporary artists as Kehinde Wiley, Carol Bove, Rob Fischer, Katy Grannan, Lisa Ruyter, Shahzia Sikander, Mark Handforth and Loretta Lux.
But it also includes significant work by lesser-known, cutting-edge artists such as Jay Davis, Delia Brown, Dan Kopp (Morrissey owns the painting that was in P.S 1’s Greater New York exhibition last summer), Robyn O’Neil, Todd Hebert, Mickalene Thomas, Lamar Peterson, Dasha Shishkin, Hilary Harkness and Elif Uras.
That the list now reads like a Who’s Who is the point; Morrissey has consistently been attracted to important emerging work, often before anybody else. He bought Hilary Harkness’s paintings before she went to blue-chip gallery Mary Boone; and work by Carol Bove—Morrissey bought seven of her pieces at $1,000 each—before she became an ArtForum cover star (her work now reportedly starts at around $10,000).
“I’ve always collected young and emerging art because I wasn’t born into a rich family, so anything I’ve ever purchased has been from my income. I don’t buy Jack Piersons now,” the Palm Beach native explains. “There is so much money being thrown at these young artists. At Art Basel Miami this year, I saw so many of the artists that I collected in the past. Once they make it to that level, it’s too late for me. I don’t have enough money to buy $60,000 paintings. I buy them at the $5,000 level.”
Morrissey has always taken on the challenge of isolating specific artists and seminal works in what he deems an “inefficient and arbitrary market, when compared to other markers, like stocks or bonds.”
That means buying young artists out of art school or not long after—something he was doing before galleries themselves began to raid MFA programs. Morrissey also counts on word-of-mouth, and often, artists themselves.
“Once you get to know artists, they introduce you to other artists. For example, Hilary Harkness introduced me to Ted Mineo, whose work I love.”
While he gravitates toward more traditional genres, like figurative painting and drawing, Morrissey is most interested in the work of women artists. They are, he explains, “expressing this voice that has not been expressed for so long, and it’s just such really great work.”
Similarly, he is attracted to the work of “all these new African-American artists” and says he is delighted to see that both of these interests are being echoed in museum shows and purchases.
For the current exhibition, his collection has been divided by themes, with titles such as “Bourgeois Paradise,” “Pathetic Aesthetic” “Urban Chic” and “Stoner Surrealism.” Morrissey even wrote the catalogue essay for the show.
“When I was young, Palm Beach was a sleepy town. There wasn’t the cultural excitement that you find in a major center like New York City. You didn’t even really have any collectors here. It’s now growing by leaps and bounds, and there are a lot of people here who love this new emerging art work—you just need to give them an opportunity to see it.”