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.
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.”
No wonder Heather worries. Though her childhood was cultured, she was hardly schooled in the high-fashion — and big-money — realm of contemporary art. If Tony’s art infatuation developed gradually, Heather’s blossomed overnight.
“Did I go from zero to 1,000?” she says, referring to her art involvement since meeting Tony. “No. I went from 5 to 1,000.”
Heather now talks about conspiring with “Julie” (as in Roberts, a major painter in museum collections worldwide) on a portrait of Tony she commissioned for his birthday. She mentions seeing “Olafur” (as in Eliasson, a Danish-born photographer whom the Podestas hold in depth) at an opening.
Still, Heather recalls the day, just weeks into her relationship with Tony, when she traveled to Chelsea with him to look at art. A gallerist presented a photograph by a well-known German artist, chirping about the work’s reasonable price. The piece cost $45,000.
“There are times when I’m the daughter of an academic, in sneakers,” Heather says of her sticker shock. “I’m just that geek completely out of place. I felt it then.”
Tony and Heather don’t shy away from discomfort — especially when they can inflict it, ever so gently, on others.
The pictures ringing Tony’s ninth-floor office at PodestaMattoon deliver an unusual welcome. A suite of arresting computer-manipulated photographs by Dutch artist Margi Geerlinks serves as a cautionary tale of genetic engineering. One shows a boy seemingly born from a sewing machine. Another finds a young girl knitting her own hair. A third has a naked woman immersed in blood-red liquid.
It’s not hard to imagine the jolt that executives from biotech concerns such as Genentech or Serono get when they walk into the room — and they’re clients.
“Some people think it’s a little weird,” Tony says of his choices. “But that’s their problem.”
Steeped in liberal politics, Tony favors art with in-your-face nudity and social critique.
“We’re not trying to confront sexism and racism in our art collection,” he insists. “Though occasionally they intersect. Some people’s politics are other people’s aesthetics.”
And some people’s aesthetics are other people’s embarrassments. Tony’s younger brother John (yes, that John, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and current president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress) admires his choices in art but recognizes that not everyone gets it. Says John, “I don’t think Tony focus-groups his art.”
Though pictures rotate on and off the walls of the couple’s homes, a piece in the Woodley Park living room stays. Called “Soliloquy VII,” the nearly eight-foot-tall color photo by British artist Sam Taylor-Wood is an update of a late-15th-century painting of the dead Jesus. Taylor-Wood faithfully replicates the original’s composition, here photographing, in vivid color and minute detail, a young man laid out on his back. Just one thing: Taylor-Wood omits the shroud, displaying his subject in all his nakedness.
Though often politely ignored, “Soliloquy VII” is rarely forgotten. Tony and Heather love it. They crane their necks to hear the whispers generated when the pols stop in. Tony often uses the work to launch into a story about Hillary Clinton’s visit, when she ducked and tiptoed around the work lest any photo opportunity capture her alongside the naked figure.
“You’ve got to be pretty secure to have an eight-foot-tall naked man in your living room in Washington, D.C.,” Heather says of her husband’s choice.
What Heather suggests as a badge of her mate’s confidence is a highly intentional statement. After all, Tony’s job is to make an impression. Besides, when the piece isn’t generating blushes, it’s generating conversation.
“At political events, there’s an inevitable awkwardness,” former Clinton administration official Sally Katzen said at a Women’s Campaign Fund dinner at the Podestas’ home this summer. “The art is an ice-breaker. It puts people at ease.”
Not always. Folks attending a house tour in the Lake Barcroft neighborhood in Falls Church earlier this year got an eyeful when they walked into a bedroom at the Podesta residence hung with multiple color pictures by Katy Grannan, a photographer known for documentary-style pictures of naked teenagers in their parents’ suburban homes.
“They were horrified,” Heather recalls, a grin spreading across her face.
If Tony and Heather enjoy in-your-face art, they also reward their artists. The Podestas are eager to assist those they’ve earmarked as promising, and donate time and resources to the cause.
During last year’s Venice Biennale, they threw parties night after night, renting out their favorite restaurant and packing it with artists and a gallerist or two. Here in Washington, they’ve hosted art parties with Patricia Puccini, Cathy de Monchaux, Anna Gaskell, Frank Thiel, Annee Olofsson, Nikki Lee and others. Curators from the Hirshhorn Museum and Corcoran Gallery of Art, top Washington collectors and the city’s best dealers regularly show up. Podesta parties are where connections are made.
“I see lobbying as getting information in the hands of people who are making decisions so they can make more informed decisions,” Tony says. “We do that a lot with museums.”
The couple also donates. About 300 pieces that have passed through Tony’s hands are now in museum collections. Locally, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Museum of Women in the Arts have benefited most.
“Tony loves the artists themselves as much as the artworks,” John Podesta says. Earlier this month, the couple held a party and opening at their Falls Church home in honor of 34-year-old District artist Avish Khebrehzadeh.
Tony and Heather liked her work when they saw it at last year’s Venice Biennale, where the artist received one the event’s prestigious awards, so her Washington dealer set up a visit. That day with Tony in the studio, Khebrehzadeh mentioned wanting to work on a large scale but not having adequate studio space. So Tony offered her the keys to his Falls Church home, with its ample basement. Last winter, Khebrehzadeh spent weekdays at the house working.
Now it’s time to show those works and her dealer’s walls aren’t big enough, either. So Khebrehzadeh’s exhibition opened earlier this month at the Podestas’ house, in the very space where the art was made. Visitors may make appointments to see the show.
Other artists have similar stories. For Belgrade-based up-and-comer Vesna Pavlovic, Heather helped secure a show at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum (Heather once worked for the congressman who represents the area). For art stars Jane and Louise Wilson, the couple pulled some Washington strings to ensure the duo had access to Las Vegas casinos for a video shoot.
“It’s inspiring to meet a collector so involved in his own career and, parallel to that, in the arts as well,” says video artist and painter Sarah Morris, speaking from Berlin, where she opened a show last week. “He’s very committed.”
Morris approached Tony in 2000 with her idea for the film “Capital.” The piece ended up as an 18-minute look into Washington’s corridors of power, much of it thanks to strategy sessions with Tony at which Morris would identify the places she wanted to shoot and Tony would tell her how likely she’d be to get in.
“Tony speaks in percentiles,” Morris explains. “I’d say ‘Cabinet Room,’ and he’d be, like, ’30 percent.’ I’d say ‘Pentagon,’ and he’d say ’60 percent.’ ”
Co-conspiratorial leanings aside, Tony likes to see his artists’ results and will travel to openings to support them. “Sometimes our life feels like an art travelogue,” Tony says of the constant back-and-forth.
“He travels more than any artist I know. And artists travel a lot,” Morris says. “Tony would show up and surprise you.”
But these days, Tony’s focus is the battleground state of Pennsylvania and getting his candidate elected.
South Korea’s Gwangju Biennial, which opened earlier this month, is the kind of show that normally would prompt Tony to get on a plane. “If it weren’t for Kerry, I’d be going,” Tony says with a hint of regret. It’s one of the few times that art has had to slide.