The Schwartz Collection: Interview with Gerry Schwartz

At HBS, we are fortunate to be surrounded by a diverse array of contemporary, and often thought-provoking, art. A Marina Abramovic artwork casually hangs on a wall in Aldrich, a Vik Muniz on another – works that in a museum setting would garner hours of close looking, yet at HBS, more often receive the hurried glances of students as they rush past on their way to class. The MBA curriculum has increasingly begun to explore the synergies between art and business, with courses such as The Moral Leader drawing upon artworks from the Schwartz collection. In a recent workshop for class, students were asked to analyze the visual arts in the hopes of sharpening perception and deepening self-awareness – skills that are critical to today’s leaders.

The Art Society had the opportunity to speak with the man behind the collection, Gerald W. Schwartz (MBA ’70), the founder and CEO of Onex Corporation, a private equity and investing firm based in Toronto, and a long-time art appreciator and collector. In the following interview, Schwartz talks about the value of art in today’s society, the contemporary focus of the HBS collection, and advice for MBA students looking to start their own collections.

We’d love to go back to the beginning and hear about the inception of the Schwartz collection at HBS. How did the idea for the collection come into being?
I had been donating to the business school. At one point I suggested I would commit to donating $100,000 a year for a long time to come, if the money could be used to build up some artwork for the campus. While the campus is lovely, it had virtually no artwork in it. The school thought it was a good idea, and I thought it was a good idea, so off we went.

In terms of the art that you choose for inclusion in the Schwartz collection, you’ve said that decision is based on whether or not it will “evoke some reaction.” What kind of reaction are you hoping for?
I’m just hoping for a reaction of any kind. I don’t care if somebody smiles and says, “I get it,” or somebody says, “That’s shocking, I can’t stand it.” I think it’s just important that it brings out a reaction, that it makes you realize that it’s there and that it makes you think about something. If it makes you angry, why does it make you angry? If it makes you happy, why does it make you happy?

More broadly, what impact do you think art can have on HBS and the larger community? Why do you think it’s important to be surrounded by art?
I think art enlightens your experience. Business school is hard work, it’s tough. Art gives you a moment to reflect on something that has nothing to do with business, has nothing to do with being in school, and has nothing to do with exams being around the corner. I think your experience in buildings is richer when they have thoughtful and provocative art in them.

How did you become interested in art in the first place? Do you collect art personally outside of HBS?
I have always been interested in art. I have been buying and collecting art since I was a student, so this was kind of a natural interest for me and a natural need at the school.

The Schwartz collection focuses on contemporary art – is this something that you also abide by in your personal collection?
At this stage, what interests me is contemporary art. My own collection goes back to very established artists like Renoir and other Impressionists, whom I haven’t bought for a long time. I’ve been buying more contemporary pieces; most recently, I bought a Motherwell, a Gottlieb, and a Donald Judd. I just bought a beautiful Donald Judd stack. One of the things we agreed to do from the beginning, and I think this has really served us well in the program, is that we said, “Look, we’re an educational institution, so let’s buy the work of only young artists, many of whom are in school or have recently finished school. Let’s not buy big, expensive paintings, let’s buy lots of pieces by contemporary artists.” And that’s what we’ve done. We’ve generally kept a price ceiling of $10-15,000.

You mentioned that you started collecting when you were a student. Many HBS students are interested in collecting art but have a limited budget. What advice would you give to new art collectors? How do you even go about starting to build an art collection?
Two things: One, go and see lots of art. Go to lots of art galleries. Any time you’re in another city and you’ve got an extra hour and a half to spare before you have to catch a plane, run over to the local art gallery. See what they’re showing, see what interests you, and just get a feeling for it. I think that’s number one – just get exposed to as much art as you can. Number two is, of course you don’t have a lot of money, but you have a little bit of money. Maybe you have $300 to spend on a painting. Maybe you have $1400. Maybe you have $4000. You don’t have to spend $6 million or $200,000 or $15,000. And just buy things that you like. That should be your only criteria. Don’t worry about whether or not the person is going to become more valuable in the future – nobody ever gets that right. Just buy things that you really like. Say, “Gee, I’d like to have that painting in my bedroom. I’d love to wake up every morning and see that.”

We’d like to wrap up with the following question: For today’s Harvard MBAs, what is the best piece of advice (personal or professional) you’ve ever given or received?
My best piece of advice is both personal and professional. Decide what it is you really love in life, what subject, what kind of thing you really love in life, and then go and get a job in that field. Don’t go and get a job because it pays the most. You’ll end up a) having a really good time because you’re working in a field you care about and b) you’ll probably end up making more money. I think if you can find a job in a field that you like you will be fortunate for your whole career.