This article was written by Hillary Brown and originally posted to UGA Today on March 5, 2020.
The Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia received a major gift from John and Sara Shlesinger consisting of 110 contemporary works of art valued at over $2.6 million from the Shlesingers’ personal collection, spanning a wide variety of artists and mediums.
A partial list of artists represented in the donation includes Damien Hirst, Daniel Arsham, Shannon Ebner, David Altjmed and Mike Kelley. According to William U. Eiland, director of the Georgia Museum of Art, this gift will fundamentally transform how the museum operates.
“This gift from Sara and John Shlesinger to the Georgia Museum of Art is certainly a quantitative change for our collection, but most important, it is a qualitative one,” said Eiland. “It gives us the means not only to teach and to exhibit the cutting-edge art of the past 25 years, but also allows us to help students and our general audiences to find, to understand and to step beyond that edge. Overnight, due to their generosity, we are able to extend our collection planning and augment our ability to teach in an age when visual-arts education has become more and more necessary.”
Sara Shlesinger grew up surrounded by realist and impressionist art and studied art history abroad, earning a bachelor’s in fine arts from Brandeis University. Meanwhile, John—a 1983 UGA master’s of business administration graduate—knew little about art before marrying Sara, but collected local contemporary art. Interested in starting a collection together and curious about the contemporary art world, they traveled and visited galleries and museums.
In 1997, they decided to purchase an early spin painting by Damien Hirst—now a part of the gift to the museum. The couple first focused on Young British Artists, amassing works by Hirst, Gary Hume, Sarah Morris and Gavin Turk. They then expanded their vision, developing relationships with gallerists, dealers and the artists themselves in order to fully understand and appreciate the art they collect.
After 23 years, the couple have amassed a collection of several hundred works by emerging and established contemporary artists from around the world. Most recently, the Shlesingers acquired works by Katharine Fritsch, Nathaniel Mary Quinn and Atlanta’s own Shanequa Gay.
Gabriela Palmieri, former vice chair of Sotheby’s North America and now an independent art consultant, has worked with the Shlesingers for years. Palmieri says she can think of almost no other collectors who approach art in the way the Shlesingers do, citing their tendency to take risks and the fact that they buy works because they love them and want to live with them, not as part of an investment portfolio.
“Their tendency to collect works from across an artist’s lifetime will allow UGA students to see the trajectories of different careers. That’s unusual even among people who collect contemporary work,” said Palmieri. “Their desire to educate and instruct was a driving factor in this gift.”
For example, she points to their purchase of one of Damien Hirst’s early spin paintings the year it was made. Created using a mechanism that rotates the canvas and leaving much to the power of chance, these works were a new approach to painting, almost removing the hand of the artist.
In celebration of the donation, the museum plans to have a small exhibition this summer with a larger one to follow that will introduce visitors to the works provided by the Shlesingers.
John Shlesinger is a vice chairman at CBRE, a publicly traded, global commercial real estate firm, and serves on the boards of the Atlanta History Center, Oakland Cemetery and Tech Square Ventures. He was previously a member of UGA’s Board of Visitors and the board of the High Museum of Art.
Sara Shlesinger is a community leader on both a local and national basis. She is a board member at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum and is on the advisory board for Art 21. Sara has served on the selection committee for the Venice Biennale and on MoMA’s Modern Women’s Fund Committee. In Atlanta, she was on the founding board for the Children’s Museum and is currently involved with various organizations and working in the art world.