Love for art fuels world-class collection

Submitted Photo Eric Suwall, left, and Robert Thomas, right, pose last year with their painting by the artist Anna Weyant. The Weyant painting and many others from their collection are on display in their “Full Disclosure” show in a Fargo gallery.

When Eric Suwall and Robert Thomas began purchasing contemporary artwork several years ago, they didn’t anticipate accumulating a collection that would catch the eye of the art world. The Minot art enthusiasts simply sought out paintings that spoke to them personally, and in the process, they have been on the cutting edge in identifying emerging artists and developing a collection rarely found in the rural heartland.

“What got us excited about everything in our collection was that each one of these works tells a story, each one of these works gives you some insight into the artists’ world,” Thomas said. “It’s amazing. And I think it’s something that really is a very powerful part of art. It’s this language that communicates with us in a way that can’t be had any other way.”

The first gallery show featuring selections from the Thomas-Suwall collection, called “Full Disclosure,” is on display through Sept. 7 at the Plains Art Museum, Fargo. The show that opened April 20 features 55 paintings and sculptures from their 150-piece contemporary art collection.

“We connected to a lot of galleries in New York and L.A. and London and Paris – kind of all over the world,” Thomas said. “Traveling to the cities and going to these art fairs and everything, it was a lot of fun. But it’s really exciting what’s happening here in Minot and Fargo.”

They dug deeper into the local art community about three years ago, joining the board at the Taube Art Museum in Minot and attending openings at the Northwest Art Center at Minot State University. They served as jurors at the Taube’s first juried art show, which included work from artists from New York and Los Angeles. They also have opened their home for charity home tour events.

Their art collection began coming together when they traveled to San Francisco about eight years ago to get married. While there, they attended a show by artist David Hockney and were captivated when they saw how colorful, beautiful and fun contemporary art could be.

“We just said, ‘Wow, this is so exciting,'” Thomas recalled.

“That’s what got us interested in contemporary art,” Suwall said.

Discovering the work of New York-based artist Corydon Cowansage, they purchased a painting online without ever seeing it in person. Although not artists themselves, Thomas said, seeing Cowansage’s painting created a realization that they could play a part in the art world by supporting and celebrating those who are artists, particularly emerging artists. Cowansage went on to become widely acclaimed in the art community.

Cowansage encouraged them to come to New York City and visit her studio, which they did while attending their first Frieze New York, a major art fair. Thomas and Suwall came home with a six- by seven-foot painting from the now-celebrated Korean artist, GaHee Park, which further fueled their passion for collecting.

Suwall then discovered Julie Curtiss, who makes hair sculpture creations as well as surreal paintings. That was followed by the discovery of Sophie Larrimore and her unusual poodle paintings. As their collection developed, Suwall and Thomas also came across gay artists whose work resonated with them.

“The collection started coalescing around this kind of feminist surrealism, mixed with queer, and I think it was exciting to see because it all happened in a very natural way. It was basically just what we were responding to. But I would say anybody that wants to start even thinking about collecting art, it’s like trying to drink through a firehose. There’s too much,” Thomas said. “The secret there is just being honest with what you love, and I think one of the things that we’ve discovered, that I think is fun, is not loving everything.”

Thomas, a physician, and Suwall, a former educator, admit they have different leanings when it comes to art, but when they decide to purchase items, they are in unison.

“It’s a very shared passion, and I think that that has come through in the collection. There’s a little bit of Eric. There’s a little bit of Rob and usually that comes through in every work,” Thomas said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Thomas had received a call from the director of the Plains Art Museum, who had heard about their collection and saw the posts he and Suwall were making on social media.

After Plains sent a delegation to examine the collection, Thomas and Suwall were invited to put on a show. However, the pandemic happened. It wasn’t until more recently that Plains reconnected to again offer gallery space.

Plains didn’t have an art curator at the time, so Thomas and Suwall reached out to Anne-Laure Lemaitre, a curator they knew in New York City who also is an accomplished artist.

“We just wanted to hang all 150 works in the museum,” Thomas said. “We definitely needed some curation.”

Lemaitre honed the number down to 55 pieces and worked with Danielle Gravon, now the chief curator and director of Collections and Exhibitions at Plains, to create a cohesive show.

“She was able to put together a show that really celebrates the stories that we love in a way that’s intelligent and funny and smart,” Thomas said.

QR codes throughout the show enable visitors to access recordings of Thomas and Suwall talking about each of the works.

“We tried to keep it light-hearted, not trying to teach you all the history of art because we sure as heck don’t know that, but we do know why we love this and we do know why we bought it,” Thomas said. “Art can be a bit inaccessible, and if these dialogues that we’ve had allow people to be able to access that, it’s really a great way to start.”

Although their friends in the New York art community have been surprised to learn a show of this caliber is taking place in North Dakota, that only makes Thomas and Suwall more pleased.

“We’ve lived here for 12 years, but not everyone knows how special North Dakota is,” Thomas said. “To share our community in Minot and in Fargo with our coastal community, it’s really special because those communities don’t always interact with each other, and when they do, it might not be the best interaction. I think this is a conversation that is a good conversation.”

“It is true that our balkanized country needs a little bit more community between everyone, and I feel like art is one way that we can do that,” Suwall added.

Because most large collectors live on the coasts, the existence of a Minot collection has seemed a bit exotic and has created some excitement in the art world. The collection featuring some of the most prestigious young artists working today has been written about by many popular art news sources.

“We can use this attention that we’re getting as art collectors that bought one of Anna Weyant’s first paintings basically to then celebrate all these other works,” Thomas said. “That’s one of the things that Anne-Laure did in the curation of the show that’s so fab. It’s not all just the heavy hitters of our collection. It’s young, emerging people.”

Because it’s not just a trophy case, it engages with more people, he said. The joy of putting on the Fargo show has been the opportunity to be physically present to see the public engagement that they don’t get to see just by posting online.

Thomas noted he and Suwall are in discussions with Northwest Art Center on a future show there. They also are open to seeing their art go on tour.

“We would be very excited to share it even farther and wider. We’ve been celebrating and sharing these artists on Instagram for the last eight years and it’s just been a really incredible journey connecting with this community of artists and galleries and museums and all these amazing people,” Thomas said. “It’s so much fun. It’s been a blast.”


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