Sometimes I think I’m in a dream sequence,” says Harvey S. Shipley Miller about the yearlong collecting spree that’s made him into the art world’s latest player.
That world has been buzzing about Miller, head of the Judith Rothschild Foundation, ever since he hatched a Gatsbyesque plot in the spring of 2003: He would travel the globe for one year acquiring contemporary drawings with several million dollars of the foundation’s money. Then he would usher the collection into MoMA, where he serves on the drawings committee, with a museumwide show. By this summer, Miller and his broad-shouldered German associate, André Schlechtriem, had assembled what some say is the largest collection of such works ever: 2,200 drawings by nearly 400 artists, from much-coveted pieces by Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly to risqué art by underground favorites.
An unabashed, “dyed-in-the-wool, 300-years-American” Wasp, Miller once dabbled in law, Wall Street, and the patenting of experimental medical products. Then, in 1993, shortly after his “best friend” Judith Rothschild died of a stroke, Miller was informed that she had secretly named him her foundation’s sole trustee.
Many gallerists and artists were eager to be included in the collection, says Miller, naming major Chelsea players like David Zwirner, Matthew Marks, and Barbara Gladstone, whom he calls his “sister.” “He has this unbeatable combination of old philanthropy and new energy,” Gladstone says. Marks adds, “What’s really rare is to have anyone commit the kind of money that buys paintings to works on paper. There are people who pooh-pooh drawings, and I basically think they’re morons.”
Some, however, groan that Miller had unfair access. “I’d go to shows, and before the opening the best pieces would be sold—to ‘Harvey,’ ” says one frustrated collector. “The galleries would say, ‘This is going to MoMA.’ ”
The short list speaks for itself: Lichtenstein, Freud, Motherwell, Richter, Warhol, Beuys. Most observers think the museum will accept the collection. After all, Miller had scored as his adviser MoMA’s drawings curator, Gary Garrels. “Gary would show us things he’d put on hold,” says Miller. “We acquired them, making it clear we would offer them as a gift.”
But if the Modern wants Garrels’s picks, it’ll have to play by Miller’s rules. “No cherry-picking!” he declares. “If there’s one artist the institution doesn’t want, they have to decline the whole collection.” MoMA and Garrels declined to comment, and for now the collection sits in the Fortress warehouse in Long Island City, being slowly inventoried by Schlechtriem. The gift will be officially offered by next spring. And in a further sign of Miller’s newfound status, he was just invited to join another drawings board—this time at the Whitney, as chair.