Sandy Besser, BA’58, has enjoyed a successful career in investment management, while earning national recognition as an art collector. Both pursuits took root almost simultaneously at Vanderbilt.
“I don’t recall taking art courses or going to galleries,” says Besser. “But I did have an art epiphany when I took a class in investment management taught by David Steine.”
Steine, then professor of business administration, and his wife invited Besser to their house for dinner one evening, and the original art works displayed throughout the home made a lasting impression on the young student. “I remember it as being floor-to-ceiling art–and I became enamored of the idea of owning art myself if possible.”
Not only did Besser find that owning art was possible, but it became a passion that informed his life from then on. A voracious collector since childhood (butterflies, postcards and swizzle sticks, to name a few), Besser’s first art acquisition was a pair of drawings of ballet dancers he bought at an antique store in San Francisco after college. At about $5 for the pair, the drawings were overpriced, he now observes wryly. They were also drawn on such poor-quality paper that they eventually disintegrated.
But from these works, Besser developed a love for drawing that continues today and began to develop the philosophy that has made him one of the most respected art collectors in the country. “I will only buy a better piece than what I already have,” he says. “I always trade up, not down.”
Over the years Besser’s quest led him and his late wife, Diane, to amass a collection of 10,000 pieces of art. That number has dropped in recent years as Besser donates various pieces and whole collections to such prestigious museums as the de Young Museum in San Francisco and the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, Besser’s home since 1997. His appetite for art is as varied as it is hearty, and Besser has collected extensively in several areas, including Asian, African and Latin American tribal art, contemporary-art teapots, contemporary Hispanic art, contemporary drawings and figurative ceramics. The latter two categories are the only ones in which Besser still actively collects.
Besser describes the art in his collection as “dark, challenging, and about what goes on in the world today.” He has been honored as one of the top collectors in the country by Art & Antiques magazine and is credited with helping scores of new artists gain recognition in the competitive world of contemporary art.
More impressive than Besser’s knowledge and patronage of art, however, is his obvious love for each piece he owns and each artist whose career he has supported. His home in Santa Fe is filled, like his Vanderbilt mentor’s house, with art. “I guess I have about 1,500 pieces in my home right now,” Besser says. “I’ve never stored art, and there are no pieces in the closet.” There is, however, a hall of teapots with specially built shelves displaying the surreal and stylized ceramic vessels Besser loves, as well as other built-for-art areas of the home. There’s nothing sterile or museum-like about the way all the art fits together–or the way in which it fits into Besser’s life.
“There’s a story behind every single piece in this house, and I don’t have favorites,” he says. “They are all my babies.”
© 2014 Vanderbilt University
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