In 1998, Phil and Shelley Aarons—collectors who go for the young and the nervy—bought a Foamcore sculpture of a Le Corbusier building by a young Tom Sachs. It had Hello Kitty figures on top. Today, when you walk into their 41st-floor apartment overlooking the park, you have a pair of decaying chocolate soldiers by Terence Koh at your elbow. In your face is the couple’s “advisory”—a photograph by one Dean Sameshima of a sign outside a bar. It reads: THIS IS AN ALTERNATIVE LIFESTYLE BUSINESS. IF YOU MIGHT BE OFFENDED, DO NOT ENTER.
Trophy works by Koons are not for them. They hunt for what interests them at studios and small galleries, and in the many books by and about artists that also obsess Phil. “We’re enthusiasts!” says Shelley, 50, a retired psychiatrist who is a New Museum trustee. “We buy what we like so the artists can make more.” Works by now-fashionable artists the couple helped cultivate—Simon Fujiwara, Hernan Bas, Uri Aran, Leigh Ledare—fill their four homes. Phil’s company, Millennium Partners, developed the tower they live in here, and he serves on the boards of MoMA PS1, Friends of the High Line, and Creative Time. “We buy a lot,” he says. And they never sell anything. They’ve opened their wallets and hearts to at least 500 artists. But their patronage goes beyond acquisitions to funding exhibitions and catalogues, giving artists air miles, feeding them. “We get involved,” Shelley says.
Take their relationship with Sachs. His handmade “Chanel” gun is by their bed; his black Chanel surfboard is in their living room. “He had the sensibility of a preadolescent boy. And I tend to respond to that,” says Shelley. Now he’s nearly as close to them as they are to their 29-year-old son. They’ve traveled and attended exhibitions together. “Shelley has given me tons of free psychotherapy, but as a friend,” says Sachs, who first bonded with Phil over his collection of art books and ’zines.
“There’s something about having the artist around and producing that adds to the excitement,” Phil says. “You don’t have that with Picasso.” And Picasso couldn’t have made the bedroom furniture for their condo in Miami. Sachs did, out of construction barriers and duct tape. (The bed’s not so comfortable.)
“Sometimes we have to make hard choices that can generate hard feelings,” Shelley says. “But participating in things we find meaningful, and the pleasure of having talented if sometimes difficult people in our lives, is ultimately satisfying. The art objects are great, too,” she adds. “But that’s just part of it.”