Longtime art collectors John and Sharon Hoffman can finish each other’s sentences. They’ve been married 51 years, so perhaps that is not surprising. But what is amazing is their shared taste. “If we walk into an art gallery, 99 percent of the time we will zero in on the same piece,” says Sharon.
Their collecting days began when they were in their late 20s when Ted Coe, then the director at the Nelson-Atkins, saw the need for educating Kansas Citians beyond the Old Masters and the Impressionists. In the late 1960s, Coe had put together a Pop Art exhibit traveling to Kansas City with works by luminaries such as Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg. Most of the pieces had a price tag of around $1,000; even then they were a steal. But very few sold. People just didn’t understand Pop Art. “That was an embarrassment for Ted,” recalls John.
That experience led Coe to gather together beginning collectors who wanted to learn about contemporary art. The Hoffmans joined this group and traveled to St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York. With their exposure to Pop Art, their knowledge grew and their tastes changed.
“The 1960s transformed the American art scene, which used to look back to Europe. Pop Art was starting to reflect what was happening in the U.S. Ted made us see how the art was so relevant,” says John.
The curator did even more for the fledgling collectors. “Ted Coe showed us how to collect— getting to know the gallery owners, knowing what to look for in an emerging artist,” says John, “what might be the next step for the artist creatively.”
The Hoffmans also learned the importance of attending an artist’s opening night at a gallery. “It’s the opportunity to meet the artist and make a connection,” adds Sharon. “We now have personal relationships with many of the artists whose work we collect.” Of the 30 artists in the recent “30 Americans” exhibit at the Nelson, the couple owns works by 20 of them. “A dream come true,” Sharon says.
“We didn’t set out to collect Black artists,” she says. But the couple found their work so cutting edge, the visual and content so equally compelling, “It all came together for us. The turning point was when we met Kehinde Wiley at his opening. We saw his painting of a Black man on a Napoleonic steed, and we couldn’t breathe.”
As they acquired more, they had to edit. They traded up with gallery owners or donated some art to museums. A sculpture by Black sculptor Fred Eversley, bought at the former Morgan Gallery, is now at the Nelson, as is the nine-foot “Saint Adrian” painting by Kehinde Wiley that used to hang in the Hoffman’s former River Market loft.
Now the couple is surrounded by art in their Brookside townhouse designed by architect Trevor Hoiland. The first floor is the entry, the second floor houses the bedrooms, and the third floor contains the living room, dining room, and kitchen, with lots of natural light. “It’s like living in a treehouse,” says Sharon.
The east wall is 40 feet high and 50 feet long. “It can handle a lot of art,” says John. “We had every piece measured and figured out where it would go.” Their ceramics collection is displayed together, not one here and there; the spacing of paintings is also intentional rather than haphazard. Interior designer Lisa Schmitz helped design a streamlined interior—especially the kitchen, where everything has its place.
A neutral palette and a mix of furniture styles from Art Nouveau to Art Deco and midcentury modern give each area an identity. Sharon says, “We took the advice of Erin Dziedzic of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, who said, ‘Works of art need to talk to each other’ by color or theme or design. And so we try to do that with each grouping.”
Living with art is as natural to the Hoffmans as breathing. “It’s part of our everyday lives,” says Sharon. “It’s so enjoyable to be surrounded by memory and meaning.”
The It List
Lisa Schmitz Interior Design