When did you first start to think of yourselves as collectors?
Anderson Cooper: Only recently, really. When I met Benjamin nine years ago, I wasn’t collecting anything other than – oddly enough – African hand-painted signs. Then I started becoming more interested in contemporary art, and following Benjamin’s interest in Old Masters.
Benjamin Maisani: I studied art history, specializing in 17th-century Italian art. From there, I went on to work at the Morgan Library for about five years, which is when I started to develop an interest in collecting Old Master prints and rare books – the only thing I could really afford at the time. Later on, I started collecting old maps, then moved on to Old Master paintings. So by the time I met Anderson, I already had a collection of somewhat antiquarian stuff.
AC: I really got serious on this about two years ago. I met a great art advisor named Marisa Kayyem, who is affiliated with Christie’s, and started going around with her, educating my eye and figuring out what I liked. I’m not in any rush: I think both of us feel the same way, which is that we really only want pieces that we fall in love with. It’s about building up a collection that represents who we are.
Where do your artistic tastes overlap, and how do they diverge?
BM: Anderson definitely has more of a modern, contemporary sensibility, but after a few years of living with my Old Masters, he grew to love them. I’d say that I tend to go for art that is a bit more cerebral and polished, and Anderson likes things that are more spontaneous and free-flowing. But there’s a lot of common ground within those parameters.
AC: A lot of the Old Masters that Benjamin has and a lot of the works we’ve bought together feel very modern to me. And I think that’s one of the exciting things a lot of people don’t realize about Old Masters. You look at this art and it speaks to you today. It’s extraordinarily bold and contemporary, and has obviously stood the test of time. We first saw the Mengs portrait that we bought at TEFAF last year in the ‘Unfinished’ exhibition at the Met Breuer. We loved it there and couldn’t believe that it was at TEFAF. We were very lucky to be able to get it, along with two lovely works by Andrew Vaccaro from Otto Naumann.
How have your collecting interests been shaped by New York’s museums?
BM: I spent my student years looking at the European Old Master collections at the Met and the Brooklyn Museum. But my interest in works on paper is greatly indebted to having spent time at the Morgan Library, where I really grew to appreciate graphic works and rare books. Without the Morgan, I would probably have focused on paintings.
AC: When I was growing up, I was more interested in collecting toy soldiers from the early 20th century – particularly figures of the British colonial wars. I was a strange little child. But my mother [Gloria Vanderbilt] was a painter, and is a painter, so I grew up in a house with a lot of art. Her aunt [Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney] had created the Whitney Museum, so there was a long tradition in my house of going to museums and looking at art.
Is it still possible, in the 21st century, to assemble a great collection of Old Masters?
BM: I feel that there are still some really good works out there, and that it’s an undervalued market. At the end of the day, at least for us, the goal is not to come up with a world-class collection. This is something we do for our own pleasure, and as long as we surround ourselves with works that are meaningful to us, then the goal is achieved.
Your collection includes numerous portraits, from renaissance paintings to recent works by the likes of Adrian Ghenie and Markus Schinwald. What is about the genre that appeals to you?
BM: I think it’s the artist’s ability to convey a sense of the personality and psychology of the sitter, regardless of when the painting was made. We have portraits that are 500 years old and they’re as vibrant now as they were when they were painted. That immediacy is very compelling. Also, the fun thing with a genre like portraiture is that you can put an Italian renaissance portrait next to a contemporary work, like the Adrian Ghenie that we have, and the dialogue that creates is very interesting.
Does that mean focusing on contemporary artists with a strong sense of art-historical tradition?
AC: I really like how different works we have communicate with each other, and I do look for contemporary art that speaks to the earlier work – and also work that I feel is going to stand the test of time. I take things very slowly and try to learn as much about an artist as I can. I like to meet them if they’re living, to get to know them and learn about how they work. I’ve visited Adrian Ghenie a couple of times in Berlin, and have been to Mark Bradford’s studio in LA a number of times. They are both remarkable.
Do you have a sense of how the collection might develop in coming years?
AC: I definitely continue to be interested in contemporary artists and would like to expand on that. In addition to Mark and Adrian, I really love Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Toyin Ojih Odutola. I view this as a long-term, life-long thing, and am having great fun learning along the way. To me, the whole art market is interesting. The whole art world – the way it works, the way it sometimes doesn’t work in the best interest of these remarkable artists. It’s also really nice to have something to obsess about other than my work.
BM: I’ve been collecting for about 15 years now, and am pretty happy with the general direction of the collection. I’m sure Anderson will keep trying to convert me to contemporary art and I’ll keep trying to take him to the dark side of Old Masters. I think the collection will continue being this eclectic mix.
Anderson Cooper and Benjamin Maisani live and work in New York City.