Based in Los Angeles, Michael Ovitz—founder of Creative Artists Agency and former president of Walt Disney—has been collecting art for more than 40 years. He and his fiancée, fashion designer Tamara Mellon, keep much of the collection in their home, a Michael Maltzan–designed villa in Beverly Hills. In August, ARTnews spoke with the collector and his curator, Viet-Nu Nguyen, via FaceTime.
ARTnews: What do you miss about the in-person art world?
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Ovitz: I’m very old-school. I love fairs. I love going into galleries. I love talking to dealers. I’m really interested in their opinions. I get some of the most interesting facts from dealers about just what’s going on. Museum curators, too. I’m on the board of MoMA and we do these Zoom meetings now. I miss talking to curators in person about shows they’ve seen.
I was talking to [dealer] Barbara Gladstone last week about an artist. I love talking with her but I’d prefer being with her in person. She’s funny and witty and charming and just wicked smart. She’s got amazing taste. And it’s just different talking to her on the phone rather than talking to her face-to-face in the middle of her gallery, where she’s showing me something. I’ve missed this face to face. That being said, I thought the online viewing I’ve seen this year so far has been really well done.
What was an especially good exhibition you experienced online?
Ovitz: Karma gallery in New York did a really fantastic show. The subject was flowers. It was very diverse. It was well done.
Have you discovered and bought online artists whose work you’ve never seen in person?
Ovitz: Yes. I’ve been driving Nu crazy because I’m a lot about the surface of a painting, and that’s very hard to read in a square-on JPEG. So we’ve been getting video. And also I often need to get photographs that I call “angular pictures,” because if you buy someone like Derek Fordjour—we’ve bought two paintings by him, the first from 14+ Foundation and the second from Petzel gallery—if you look at his work straight-on, it looks very different from how it looks from an angle, because of the way he plays with the surface. But recently, [I bought work by] a young artist named Gisela McDaniel from Pilar Corrias in London, totally from online JPEGs. I watched a short video of a walk-through of her studio. I bought work by Jerrell Gibbs from Mariane Ibrahim gallery. That was a little easier because it was more about color and subject matter.
Nguyen: That was the first time we bought from Mariane and it was from seeing images online. A group of new works from Gibbs’s studio that haven’t even been exhibited.
Ovitz: I also bought [something by] a sculptor without seeing the work: Genesis Belanger from François Ghebaly.
Nguyen: I had seen the work in person, Michael had not.
Ovitz: I had to look at a dozen images. Altogether, we’ve bought about 20 pieces from various artists, from JPEGs.
If someone had told you in January that you would be buying 20 pieces by seeing only JPEGs, what would you have said?
Ovitz: I would have said, I don’t think that’s possible. But it’s not just possible. It’s probable. I’m doing it.
What role does art play for you now?
Ovitz: One of the few things that gives me great joy is getting a dealer’s email. I never paid attention to dealers’ emails like I am now. Nu would always go through them and then we would go see the shows on the list. Now I use them for enjoyment, frankly. During the pandemic, art has been soothing to me. I will tell you something I mentioned to someone the other day: At a time when we are all tied to our homes, I consider myself very lucky that I am able to collect art.
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Collector in Quarantine.”