How I Collect

Art Dealer and Collector John Runyon on Pioneering the Dallas Art Boom

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Art Dealer and Collector John Runyon on Pioneering the Dallas Art Boom
John Runyon at home with a painting by Nicholas Deshayes and sculpture by Karla Black (Photo by Steve Wrubel)
When John Runyon was growing up in Dallas in the 1970s, the city was known for a lot of things—and art was not one of them. Nonetheless, Runyon's father, a dentist who had developed a serious collecting habit, filled their home with major Pop and Minimalist works and, today, Runyon has made it his life's work to expose others to the joys of living with art. That now includes his own children, as well as a rapidly expanding base of Dallas collectors whom he caters to through his secondary-market gallery Runyon Fine Arts, traveling the world to broker blue-chip deals on their behalf.
 
Runyon spoke to Artspace about helping to pioneer the fledgling Dallas art scene, and what he looks for when collecting work for his own home. 

You were the first person to stage a show for Richard Phillips outside of New York, at an early incarnation of your gallery. How did you discover his work and what made you want to bring it to a wider audience?
 
I learned of Richard Phillips's work through a mutual friend, an artist in New York. I witnessed Richard's inaugural painting show at Edward Thorpe Gallery in 1996. I was taken by the show and by one painting in particular—the work selected for the invitation, titled MASK. I was told the work was sold, but I vowed to own that painting one day. I was persistent and patient, and now I do. But, at the time, I had a public exhibition gallery in Dallas, and I visited Richard's studio and he agreed to an exhibition there, only his second painting show. We placed every work with strong collections. One of the largest, best works was acquired by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. It was recently exhibited in a show celebrating the museum's tenth anniversary in their Tadao Ando-designed building. Richard and I have worked on many projects since then, and we remain close friends.
 
What are some of the challenges and rewards of being a collector and dealer in a young art scene like Dallas? 
 
I love being a father of a six-year-old daughter, Ivy, and a nine-year-old, Liam. But, in my business as an advisor, I must travel. It's required that I experience the art in person, meet with collectors, galleries, and artists. And New York is not one-stop shopping anymore—there are so many fairs and cities to consider. When I am on the road, I have a fantastic time. Conversely, the reward is the experience of travel, research, and relationship building. As a result, we acquire meaningful work in collaboration with passionate collectors and galleries. However, the greatest challenge is leaving the family behind. 
 
Another responsibility and challenge is making the galleries aware of the merits and commitments of each particular collector. Galleries that present artists with high demand and a limited amount of available work are looking to place the art in the care of committed collectors. A large part of my effort is locating work and explaining to the galleries why my collector is worthy of acquiring it. That sounds so masochistic, but it is a harsh reality.
 
Do you feel a responsibility to support local artists and institutions?
 
The responsibility stems from a natural attraction to and alignment with certain institutions and artists. Quality artists and institutions deserve our support. The patrons of the Dallas Museum of Art, some of whom are clients, have created a solid team and exhibition program. Its director, Max Anderson, is a star. He's smart, diplomatic, and inclusive. We are lucky to have him. Also, we have Jeremy Strick next door as director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, and he's transformed the place into a vibrant source of entertainment for both young and old. The Nasher collection is the expected attraction, but Jeremy has also added a forward-thinking exhibition program. These days, the Nasher has the feel of a lively Kunsthalle, not a trophy case.
 
In what ways have you seen the Dallas art scene change since you became involved?
 
When I started in the art business 25 years ago, there was virtually no contemporary art scene. There was the encyclopedic Dallas Museum of Art, the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, and a handful of galleries in Dallas. The scene has changed dramatically. There is fantastic new architecture throughout the community, specifically in the Dallas Arts District. There are four buildings designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects within blocks of one another. Twenty years ago, those blocks were crime ridden and dangerous at night. Now we are celebrating a vibrant and more pedestrian-friendly arts district filled with museums, performance venues, high-rise living, parks, and quality restaurants—not to mention the fantastic hotel blocks from the arts district, the Joule Hotel, exhibiting a quality art collection in the heart of downtown. I have collaborated with the hotel's owner, Tim Headington, for many years to acquire a compelling art collection for the guests of the hotel to enjoy. They are just completing a $78 million renovation.
 
These dramatic improvements in the arts and the arts district have been the result of a team effort, driven by patrons passionate about the future of Dallas. Many of these patrons have gained notoriety in the contemporary art world as savvy collectors, and they have influenced another generation of collectors and art patrons. I have witnessed a radical growth in the collector base in Dallas over the last 25 years. The enthusiasm for the arts and for collecting  is compounding in Dallas. We have just experienced the first burst of growth concerning the arts in Dallas-Fort Worth, and there's lots more to come.
 
How did you start collecting art? 
 
My father started collecting in the 1960s. He was a pediatric dentist. For 30 years his practice was one block from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and we spent a lot of time there. It was an education for both of us. He was passionate, and shared an insatiable appetite for the hunt. At a very early age he would take me by Shandy Fenton's home in Fort Worth. She was a private dealer with a solid pipeline of material coming in from New York galleries, including Leo Castelli. She actually worked with some very well-known collectors in the '70s, like Marty Margulies and Ray Nasher. However, as a collector, my father did not have the firepower of Margulies or Nasher. 

Dad would time his visit to Fenton's house to the arrival of a new art shipment, and he'd take me along. There could be top-notch Andy Warhol paintings, a Claes Oldenburg sculpture, work by Ed Ruscha, or a solid Frank Stella. In the early '70s, I would witness my father negotiate and acquire, for example, a 1964 Warhol Flower painting. I grew up in the strangest house on the block throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s. The collection included Warhol, Judd, Ruscha,  Stella, Oldenburg, and Tuttle—not to mention Clarice Cliff ceramics, vintage Fiestaware dinnerware, American quilts, Pre-Columbian art, modernist furniture, Bakelite jewelry, and Mexican folk art. My father was my greatest inspiration and influence, and he included me in the collecting discussion from an early age.
 
Then there was my mother, who for 25 years owned and operated a 5,000-square-foot antique store in Santa Fe called Mary Corley Antiques. She has fantastic taste and enjoyed acquiring items during her travels in Europe. In a nutshell, it felt very natural to collect and enter the art world in my adult life. 
 
Do you remember the first work you bought?
 
The first work I ever bought in 1988, and it was a 1966 Warhol self-portrait screenprint. 
 
Do you have a philosophy that guides how you choose artwork to collect?
 
I have experienced phases based on my interests and available material. For myself, the choices are more intuitive, not part of some long-range plan. I am more impulsive for myself, not so with client's funds. Throughout the '90s I acquired many of the Minimalists, including Judd, Martin, Flavin, and 1970s-era Mangold. Also, I had a particular interest in Ed Ruscha and many of the California artists of his generation. I remain interested in those artists' work, but their material is now hard to come by and it's very expensive. I'm happy for the collectors with whom I collaborated that now own these artists' work. That is a satisfying part of my endeavor.
 
Who are some of your favorite artists working today?
 
I really enjoy Jim Hodges, both as a person and an artist. He is a prime example of an artist who has put his head down and worked extremely hard to produce honest work. Mark Bradford is in the same category. Sergej Jensen has a nice touch, and his work seems genuine in its own right. He's not working today, but I have also been buying works on paper by Fred Sandback. They are loaded with concept without requiring a commitment to own an installation. Although, it's quite inspirational to walk through a top-notch Sandback installation, like at Dia, as a parent to young kids, one must think these practical things through. I think my kids are absorbing this experience of living in an art-filled environment as well. You cannot underestimate the power and impact of your surroundings at an early age. The kids make some interesting observations about the works we live with and rotate through.
 
My most recent personal acquisitions have been works by younger artists: Analia Saban, Nicolas Deshayes, and Karla Black. 
 
How did you get involved in the secondary-market business?
 
I have been acquiring works for more than 25 years now. I don't know many advisors, dealers or gallery owners that can resist living with art. I buy what turns me on and is available to me. 

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