On May 22, 2018, French Ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, awarded Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner with the insignia of the Legion of Arts and Letters in a ceremony held at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York.
It is a privilege for me to welcome you here to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy to confer the Legion of Honor upon Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner, two internationally renowned art collectors, advisors and advocates.
Tonight, we honor two individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the art world–both individually, and as a powerful team–by supporting a wide range of contemporary artists, by editing and writing renowned books on the arts, and by generously donating their extensive and exceptional collection of modern and contemporary art to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner,
It is impossible to speak about you without remarking on your incredible strength as a couple. You make a remarkable pair: two risk-takers with synergy and curiosity. Together, you share a desire to comprehend the complexities of our times and how contemporary artists, designers, performers, and writers shape them.
Your support for the arts community is vast. Over the years, you have not only taken an interest in art, but also in the artists behind the art, visiting artists’ studios, supporting artists over the course of their careers, and forging many long-term relationships. Over the last three decades, you have shaped an internationally recognized collection of contemporary art from the 1960s to the present day, which includes hundreds of works by American and international artists, such as Christopher Wool, Jeff Koons, Dan Flavin, Cindy Sherman, Philippe Parreno, and many more. In that time, you have taken frequent trips to Europe, including Paris–a city that you consider a second home, and one of the many reasons that you decided to make such an incredible gift to the Centre Pompidou.
Before we celebrate your generous donation of more than 850 works to two of the most established arts institutions in the U.S. and France, let us go back to the beginning of your dedication to, and advocacy for, the arts more than four decades ago, even before you met each other.
Thea Westreich Wagner, you lived in the Washington, DC, area from 1964 to 1978, where the art scene provided you with opportunities to immerse yourself in the worlds of the performing and visual arts.
You established Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services in SoHo, after you moved to New York in 1988. During the following decades, your advisory office has become a highly respected art consultancy, through which artists, collectors, gallerists and other professionals create a coherent exchange network and a close community.
Your enthusiasm for the arts also extended to your involvement in publishing artists’ books.
Ethan Wagner, you began your professional career in Californian politics, and rose to senior positions in the California Legislature. In 1976, you co-founded your own public affairs consulting firm, developing a client base across the U.S. and in Europe.
In the early 1980’s, while residing in Northern California, you began to collect outsider art and ceramics, and became involved with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It was also during the presentation of Sophie Calle’s artist book at the Greene Street space near Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services that you met first Thea.
Like Thea, you gradually developed an interest in editing and publishing books.
Thea and Ethan, in the early 1990s, after you met each other, you continued pursuing your life-defining passion for the arts together, making phenomenal contributions to the field of contemporary art. Individually and together, you have published twenty-four artist’s books, including one by French artist Sophie Calle, as well as a monographic catalogue on the French artist Martin Barré, who will have a major show at the Centre Pompidou next fall.
Your 2013 publication of Collecting Art for Love, Money and More, from Phaidon Press, further provides unparalleled insights into the world of art collecting, based upon your extensive experience in co-directing the Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services for more than three decades.
As many of your close friends and partners have mentioned, the most important thing is that you always make decisions together, supporting and complementing each other in every possible way. For over a quarter-century, you have made numerous prescient decisions to support and purchase the works of most celebrated artists Anne Collier, John Dogg, Robert Gober, Jenny Holzer, Bruce Nauman, Richard Prince, among others. Recent works by artists such as Liz Deschenes, Sam Lewitt, Laura Owens, and Bernadette Corporation are also included in your collection. Driven by the steadfast commitment to champion contemporary artists and to amass a coherent collection of museum-quality artworks, you did not choose the easy path to identify a single unifying theme of your collection. Instead, the “risks” that you took to support some of the witty, cheeky and even impertinent artworks reflect your willingness to confront tough social issues, such as AIDS, and your persistent curiosity towards the art world in general.
What further distinguished your achievements from the rest was your decision to donate the hugely valuable art collection that you have spent much of your life’s energy assembling to two of the major public institutions in the U.S. and France in 2012. Your meticulously selected gifts to the two museums have greatly complimented their holdings. The 550 artworks entering the Whitney’s permanent collection not only add strength to the museum’s assemblage of 1980s works by artists like Sherrie Levine, Eva Hesse, and Cady Noland, but also augment the Whitney’s photography collection, by adding pieces created by Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Eileen Quinlan. As for the Pompidou Center, the 300 gifted works by 35 European artists made from 1960 to 2014 have been long anticipated by the museum. The consistent representations of artists such as Eija Liisa Ahtila, Martin Barré, Ryan Gander, and Danh Vo supplement the ensemble of their works already acquired by the Pompidou, while previously unrepresented artists like Simon Starling, Claire Fontaine, Annette Kelm, and Klara Liden further enrich the museum’s collection.
The resulting exhibition Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner, organized by Elisabeth Sussman, curator and Sondra Gilman Curator of Photography at the Whitney and Christine Macel, the chief curator at the Centre Pompidou, traveled from New York to Paris in 2015 and 2016. As Adam D. Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney, commented, the traveling show and the accompanying catalogue were to celebrate the entirety and transdisciplinary nature of your collection.
Dear Thea and Ethan, your impact on the global arts landscape is extraordinary. Your unceasing support for contemporary artists, your vision, and your generous donations have enriched public art collections on both sides of the Atlantic in ways that are difficult to quantify and will continue to enhance our shared cultural heritage for many years to come.
Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner, it is my pleasure to present you with the Legion of Honor.
Thea Westreich Wagner, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Officier de l’Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.
Ethan Wagner, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Officier de l’Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur.