For our first Collector Spotlight, a series of interviews exploring the philosophies of remarkable arts supporters, we connected with Brian Sears. Brian started collecting in the early 90’s at the encouragement of Glenn Fuhrman, the world-renowned contemporary art collector and cofounder of the FLAG Art Foundation, and his first acquisition was an Ed Ruscha artwork from Zane Bennett Contemporary Art. Since then, he's collected works by Dunham Aurelius, Pascal, Peter Lodato and many more.
Brian is the CEO & Founder of Service Academy Capital Management, and has held prominent roles at Barclays Wealth America, Neuberger Berman and Goldman Sachs. Before launching his financial career, Brian served with distinction in the United States Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer in Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, and other overseas endeavors.
HOW DID YOU START COLLECTING ART, AND WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST ACQUISITION?
I was introduced to collecting by a gentleman named Glenn Fuhrman. He was actually my final, and toughest, interview at Goldman Sachs. Glenn was also the first guy to call and congratulate me once I received the offer. We became close friends. I remember in my final interview asking him what his major was, and he said, “I studied art history and finance.” Being from a military background, I had never been exposed in any significant way to art and this really impacted me.
I started appreciating art in a very different way after many conversations with Glenn. He included me in many of his art endeavors and pulled me along with him. It was a novel revelation to me that I could own art myself versus looking at it on a gallery wall or online. That led to my first purchase of an Ed Ruscha through Zane Bennett Contemporary Art. That was almost three decades ago.
Artwork by Dunham Aurelius, acquired from Zane Bennett.
HOW HAS YOUR APPROACH TO COLLECTING EVOLVED OVER THAT TIME?
My tastes have evolved, but the baseline of why I purchase art has remained constant. Early on, Glenn shared with me something that really shaped how I acquire art: it doesn’t matter who the artist is, buy what you love. Since then, I have always bought what I want to live around... live within. I do not so much search for art as much as it is that art finds me.
At the end of the day, there are a lot of people who chase artists with hot names. It becomes as much as or even more a passion focused on obtaining versus connection to the art, the artist and their work. In many ways, in that context, art becomes more like a trophy. You might be able to say, “I have one of those,” but do you have an emotional or visceral link with that piece of art?
Glenn and his former partner, John Phelan, are two of the most prolific contemporary art collectors in the world. It wasn’t their aspiration to become that, it just happens to be a destination they arrived at due to their passion for the arts. I credit them both for much of my exposure to art over decades. I think that exposure coupled with my relationship with Sandy Zane put me on a path to passion around art.
WHAT DRAWS YOU TO A WORK OF ART?
It’s an intersection between beauty and emotion that evokes intellectual thought. When I find myself fixated on a work for a period of time, I try to evaluate why am I drawn in by this piece? Where did time disappear to as I became lost in this work? I love the fact that you can put the same work in front of different people and it often impacts them in completely different ways. Again, I revert back to what Glenn shared with me early on, collect what you love, what you want to live around and within, not necessarily what everybody else is focused on.
Artwork by Robert Sean Coons.
WHAT’S ONE OF YOUR FAVORITE PIECES IN YOUR COLLECTION?
I was at a party at a plastic surgeon's house in Beverly Hills sometime in the late 90’s—great party. I saw this painting on the wall, and it really caught my eye. I was a pilot briefly in the Navy, and the painting showed a P-51 Mustang flying through the clouds. Upon very close examination, I could see that there were these nudes painted in the clouds that were not visible at a glance.
The artist was Robert Sean Coons, but he had nothing for sale. It took me about ten years to finally locate a piece from the series. I didn’t buy it because he was a famous artist, I bought it because it spoke to me. It resonated with me in ways that probably wouldn’t resonate with a lot of other people. That’s why I collect art. That piece hangs in our media room in my home now. I love it.
DO YOU COLLECT ART AS AN INVESTMENT?
No, I am too attached to what I own. I cannot imagine parting with any works. My collection brings back memories; I’m connected to it because of my own past. If I had an endless budget for art, I would not replace anything that I own.
I have great appreciation for some of the collections that I have been exposed to. Glenn took me to see part of Eli Broad’s collection of Cindy Sherman’s works decades ago; Glenn and John’s collection is breathtaking; I walked through Ken Griffin’s collection at his place in Chicago one time. That is a very different kind of collecting and out of my zip code in terms of obtainability, but those works are their passions. All of the works in my collection take me to places and times in my life.
Artwork by Pascal, acquired from Zane Bennett.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO A NEW COLLECTOR?
Don’t overthink it. It’s great to immerse yourself in studying and learning about an artist, and you could end up buying that artist’s work. But I think in some way, art has to find you. There should be an emotional connection there. If you’re putting in effort to find that connection, it’s probably not there. It either happens or it doesn’t.
I’d also say that you can find art in unexpected places. One of my favorite pieces that I have is a lithograph from the late 1700’s, of this Dutch woman holding her child and looking out at the sea. It was rolled up underneath my dad’s work bench in the garage and oil had dripped on it. I knew it was there, but I never really thought about it.
My parents were getting rid of stuff just as I was joining the Navy. The lithograph was in terrible condition, and they were going to give it to Goodwill. I said, “I want that!” Later, I was talking to somebody in San Diego, and they said, “You could send that to a museum.” A museum in San Diego ended up restoring and framing the work. Then they exhibited it for six months before sending it back to me. I said, “What do you think this is worth?” They said, “We think it’s worth $60,000 to $100,000.” I could never sell it.