A lifelong collector with a master’s in art history from the University of California, Berkeley, Chara Schreyer, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who built a real estate empire in California, has published two books on her collection. Art House (2016) showcases how the collection, which includes works by Marcel Duchamp, Robert Gober, Louise Nevelson, and many others, is installed across her five homes. The recently released Making Strange (DelMonico Books) takes the works “out of those houses and brings them together in a new curatorial dialogue … [to] reside together for a moment as a merry band of sisters and brothers that will one day be dispersed,” as she writes in the foreword.
ARTnews spoke with Schreyer, a veteran of the Top 200 Collectors list, about the newest book chronicling her collection.
ARTnews: How did this newest book come about?
Chara Schreyer: Art House is more a coffee-table book that shows each of the homes, which are very different. Because Art House has been so successful—it’s in its fifth or sixth printing—and people wanted to know more about the collection, I thought I’d like to do a more serious book. [Making Strange coeditor] Douglas [Fogle] and I have known each other since 2008, when I first saw this Mark Bradford, A Thousand Daddies, at the Carnegie International, for which Douglas was the curator. This piece had been offered to [another collector] and he’d turned it down, and I grabbed it. And then Douglas became chief curator at the Hammer, where I’m on the board, and we got to know each other better. He has such a good sense of my collecting, [which] is really about artists who have changed the course of art history and those artists who are moving art forward.
ARTnews: How do you define that?
Schreyer: With my former husband, I started collecting American art: Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis, and Joseph Stella, all installed in one room in my Tiburon house. From there, we moved on, and I think one of the first things we bought together was the Joseph Beuys sled. Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise, Series A came along in the mid-’90s. You don’t buy things in order. I always relied on my knowledge; and I have great art consultants. Because I became well known in the art world, things would be offered to me that would never come to the open market. I also started collecting art when there weren’t these crazy prices, and there was a small group of us. In the ’90s, you would know who bought what.
ARTnews: How do you approach collecting?
Schreyer: I don’t collect a particular artist in depth. I don’t think that way. I move things around as I collect. People often ask, “How do you decide what to buy?” And I tell them, “Art collecting is serendipitous. You never know what’s going to cross your path.” I have a list of artists whom I would like in the collection, some of whom have left the station financially for me, like David Hammons. My two daughters sometimes say, “Oh, mom, you’re so impulsive.” But based on 50 years of knowledge and buying, I’m not.
ARTnews: If you don’t buy it now, you might not ever get the chance again. Any purchases you regret not making?
Schreyer: I was offered Sigmar Polke “disappearing” works. I passed on them. Because I grew up with parents who dealt with so much loss, I couldn’t face it. I couldn’t face something with a built-in disappearance. I knew how important they were, but that would have been very disturbing to me.
ARTnews: Why do you open up your homes to offer tours of your collection?
Schreyer: I always like to be available to people who want tours of my collection—and not just trustees. I’ve done tours for people not in the art world. I love doing those because people will say to me afterward, “I’m not afraid of contemporary art anymore. You’ve made me understand how to look at it.” For me, it’s a really intellectual exercise, and a great love of mine—I just love to share.
I loan things when asked—begrudgingly, because I hate for them to leave. They’re like your children: when they leave, you miss them. I’ve lent out the Vincent Fecteau that sits at the foot of my bed twice: to SFMOMA when we opened the new building, because it’s a promised gift, and to the Carnegie International [in 2013]. I had a life-size photograph made of it because I missed it so much. My art really comes to life for me.
ARTnews: What is in the offing for you as a collector?
Schreyer: I started a foundation called Max 102: my father’s name was Max, and he lived to be 102, even though he survived the Auschwitz death march. He was an amazing man, so in honor of him I support, through the foundation, emerging and mid-career artists who we feel have much to say. We’re buying them as promised gifts to various museums. The first … seven works I bought [are] by Kayode Ojo, who was in the 2021–22 “Greater New York” show. MOCA was very excited about them, so they’re promised to MOCA. One of the reasons I started Max 102 is because my collection feels quite complete. That’s a very strange thing to say, and I never thought it would happen. But I am so satisfied with how all the homes are installed, and I hate buying things [just] to store them.
A version of this article appears in the 2022 edition of ARTnews’s Top 200 Collectors issue, under the title “Stranger Things.”