December 30, 2011 10:04 pm

Lunch with the FT: Peter Brant

The industrialist and art collector reveals why he identifies with the 99 per cent

Peter M. Brant – 63-year-old industrialist, real estate mogul, magazine proprietor, art collector, polo player, husband of a supermodel, father of nine (by two wives) – is someone most people would categorise as a member of the 1 per cent. There is his net worth, which reports have put at between $500m and $1.4bn, his affinity for empire-building (four of his grown children work in his business empire), his 53-acre estate in Greenwich, Connecticut, and his penchant for Anderson & Sheppard tailoring: when he arrived for our lunch, he had on a grey flannel double-breasted suit, blue and white pinstriped shirt, navy knit tie, white pocket hankie and gold knot cufflinks. If you were drawing up a stereotype of a corporate titan, it would probably look a lot like this.

But Brant himself would say this is wrong. In fact, during our meal he says, to be specific: “I identify with the 99 per cent.”

As a statement, it is something to chew on. Especially because the place Brant picked to eat, Sant Ambroeus, is in the heart of 1 per cent land – the core of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, near the Whitney Museum – and because one of the reasons we are having lunch in the first place is to talk about Brant’s role as a great art benefactor, generally another 1 per cent sort of thing.

Brant has his own art foundation in Greenwich, where he lives with his second wife, Stephanie Seymour, and their four children (including a stepson from Seymour’s earlier marriage to guitarist Tommy Andrews). Named the Brant Foundation Art Study Center, it opened in 2008, is run by his daughter Allison, from his first marriage, and holds two shows a year, as well as being a research institution. Its most recent exhibition, which opened in November, is devoted to the work of David Altmejd, a Canadian artist who represented his country in 2007 at the Venice Biennale and is known for giant, often disturbing sculptures that mix body parts with other tactile substances (crystals, hair, textiles). Challenging art, incidentally, is one more thing the 1 per cent are often attracted to.

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And yet, “I don’t view collecting art as being in that 1 per cent,” says Brant, once we sit down, order drinks (iced tea for him, soda for me) and establish that we have met before over food, at the dinner table of fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa. Brant’s wife and Alaïa are very close; last summer, when I was in Paris for couture and stayed at 3 Rooms, Alaïa’s B&B, Brant’s son Harry was also there, reporting on the shows for the Brant-owned Interview magazine, founded by Andy Warhol in 1969. In the Brant world, interests and relationships tend to bleed into one another. After our lunch, for example, he was going to Miami Basel art fair, which he does every year, to co-host a dinner celebrating the launch of the Russian edition of Interview, which is licensed to Russian billionaire Vlad Doronin, who happens to be Naomi Campbell’s boyfriend, Campbell being another Alaïa/Seymour connection.

Not just that, but the dinner is also intended as a celebration of the new Ferrari Spider 458, with Ferrari chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo as guest of honour. I ask Brant if he thinks Montezemolo should run for prime minister of Italy, as has been widely rumoured. “He’s done a great job with Ferrari,” he replies. “Why not?” He thinks government has sold industrialists “down the river” and likes the idea of an industrialist as head of government. This gets back to the 99 per cent issue.

“I’m putting my consciousness towards trying to teach people through pictures and sculptures that there’s something better in the world,” says Brant. “That’s what the world needs more of. To understand Occupy Wall Street, you have to understand artists. Art is freedom – freedom of expression – and its message has resonated through society for centuries.”

Whether or not you swallow this explanation will have something to do with how you see Brant. He has been relatively public of late, thanks to an acrimonious almost-divorce from Seymour that was splashed all over US gossip columns for much of summer 2010. It involved stories of drugs (he talked about her past stints in rehab), punishment (she said he cut off her credit cards) and art theft (both accused each other of making off with some of their holdings). Though reports at the time typically depicted Brant in full tycoon splendour – People magazine called him “the polo-playing owner of Interview, Antiques, and Art in America” – and various publications recalled his 84-day stint in jail in 1990 for failing to keep good tax records, his primary job is actually as chairman of White Birch, one of the largest pulp and paper companies in North America. These are pretty challenging times for the newsprint industry, with White Birch seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2010.

Indeed, what became clear during our two courses – first artichoke salad, which Brant always has when he comes to Sant Ambroeus, and then tuna tartare – is that Brant sees himself as an old-fashioned mogul in the Mellon/Rockefeller mould, struggling, just like the rest of us, through the mess created by new-fangled moguls. And where businessmen such as Stephen Schwarzmann and John Paulson work in the ephemeral world of conceptual financial instruments, Brant works in the tangible world of pulp and paper.

For Brant is a guy who makes things, like newsprint, and owns things, likes houses, horses, and art. His narrative is the classic American narrative: father came to America from Europe with nothing in 1939, worked hard, started a small pulp and paper business; son worked hard, made a fortune. But now that narrative has changed – “What was a simple business 20 years ago has become extremely complicated,” he says – and he needs to cook up something new. Which is where the art comes in: Brant is ready to give something back.

Brant grew up in Queens, New York, and went to the same elementary school as Donald Trump (they became friends at the age of five, played on many sports teams together, and are still close; New York magazine has referred to Brant as “Trump with taste”) and started collecting art when he was 18, inspired by his Bulgarian father, who collected French rococo paintings. Peter, however, focused on late 20th-century works; his first purchase was a Warhol drawing, and today he has one of the world’s best Warhol collections. In total, he is reported to have more than 500 works of art, though when I ask how many exactly, he says: “I couldn’t give you a ballpark figure and swear it was accurate to within 200 pieces.” This seems extraordinary to me but he explains it by saying he is “a Pisces – I’m very good at focusing on big problems and negotiations but I’m not a day-to-day structure guy. I try to go where the action is and leave the management to get on with it.”

He says he and Seymour live with “about 10 per cent” of their collection at any given time, changing pieces every six months or so, with the rest at the foundation or on loan to other institutions (on average the foundation lends to a dozen other shows a year). He likes Jean-Michel Basquiat, and produced the 1996 biopic that another artist friend, Julian Schnabel, made about Basquiat, and he owns pieces by Jasper Johns, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Karen Kilimnik (an American painter and installation artist who will be the subject of a show next year), and Urs Fischer. He describes his criteria for buying as “anything that affects me, negatively or positively, and which I think will be important later on”. He recently bought a piece by Nate Lowman, an American artist who works in graffiti and collage. When asked if he buys from his gut, he snorts, and shakes his head, although initially it’s hard to tell whether this is at my question or to reject the bread being offered by the waiter.

“Any serious collector who tells you that they buy from their gut is lying,” he says, spearing some parmesan and lettuce from his appetiser, which is destined for said gut. “It’s like saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder: what appears to be beautiful today may not be judged beautiful in a few years. A perfect example is the Warhol ‘Marilyn’; in the 1960s it was deemed garish. Art needs to be socialised, and you need a lot of context to understand that, and that doesn’t mean having read a few art history books.”

When Brant sees an artist he is interested in, he does two things: he tries to meet them and he studies them. Sometimes he also becomes friends with them, as he did with Warhol and Urs Fischer. “When I first saw Jeff Koons’ work, it really troubled me,” he says. “I thought it was baroque, highly decorative, in-your-face. I went to his first show six or seven times.” He has since become an avid Koons collector and, among other work, owns the 43ft-tall Koons topiary sculpture “Puppy”, which resides on the lawn of the foundation and is planted every spring.

Brant has a more intense relationship with his hobbies than most people do; he does not just play polo, for example, but for 20 years was ranked the world’s top amateur polo player. He also used to breed racehorses, and co-owned a horse that won the Kentucky Derby in 1984 as well as breeding one that won a few years later. When he was getting divorced from his first wife, Sandy, in 1995, he realised he couldn’t afford both polo and racehorses, so one had to go. “I decided polo was healthier.”

A relatively small round of tuna arrives arrayed on a plate with a few sprigs of greenery on top. Given everything else he has to do, I wonder how involved he is in the foundation. “Like they say in poker, ‘I’m all in,’” he replies. “I decide what artists we show, and work with them on how the show is hung, curate it or co-curate it.”

Still, the foundation is a fluid enterprise, just as his collection is fluid. “Long-term I would, maybe, put a collection in a place – a city, a state, an institution – that really wants to have it,” Brant says. “But the only way to get a great offer for that is to build a great collection.” He often sells pieces to buy other pieces or, if necessary, to fund his pulp and paper business.

“If I have to raise money, it’s what I do,” he says, though there are pieces he would never part with. When I ask him what he would take to a desert island, he says, “a little portrait of Marilyn Monroe Warhol did that used to belong to Philip Johnson called ‘Licorice Marilyn’ and one called ‘Blue Shot Marilyn’, that I bought in 1967 for $5,000. It literally got shot, and then Andy covered up the bullet hole like it was a pimple. I love that piece.”

He adds: “If I had all the art I had sold since I was 18, I would have one of the best art collections in the world. Really. But you have to operate on the premise everything can shift at any time.”

And for Brant this is true in work as well as art. The market for recycled paper has shifted to China, while the North American newspaper business, which has been his main customer, has downshifted. “Forty years ago, when I got into this business, Europe consumed 50 per cent of the newsprint North America did,” he says. “Now it consumes more. Ten years ago, 90-95 per cent of the product went to North America; today 65 per cent leaves North America. In 2000, there were 16m tonnes of newsprint made in North America, today it’s 7.5m. Who would have guessed 10 years ago that newspapers would be in the state they are?” He looks at me challengingly. I raise my eyebrows. We both ask for coffee.

And yet he believes pulp and paper “will be a viable business going forward. Not a growth business but a viable business. It’s undergoing a restructuring, like the auto industry, but it will level out.” Before I can open my mouth he says, “I don’t know when. But soon, I think.”

The waiter takes away the coffee and the table looks pretty bare – just two water glasses – but Brant is still engaged. “Here’s how I look at the world,” he says: “Some days, some assets produce more cash and other assets have more equity benefits; then it changes again. You have to play the long game and try not to sink the ship on the way. Diversification is key.”

This gets me thinking and after we part I go across the street to the Whitney, whose official name is the Whitney Museum of American Art, and ask staff there about its origins. The museum, I learn, was founded by Henry Whitney, an oil heir, and Gertrude Whitney, great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a man who made his fortune in railways and shipping. Which is to say: industry.

Really, I should have known.

Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s fashion editor

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Sant Ambroeus

1000 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10021

Diet Coke $5.00

Iced tea $6.00

Chilled asparagus $16.00

Artichoke salad $22.00

Tuna tartare x2 $44.00

Café Latte $6.50

Cappuccino $6.50

Total (including tax) $115.41

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Andy Warhol, Interview and me, by Bob Colacello

In the fall of 1970, I was 23 and studying for an MFA in Film Criticism at Columbia University when Andy Warhol hired me as managing editor and art director of Interview magazine. To say I was expected to learn on the job is an extreme understatement.

My new boss offered a few guidelines: make every photograph as big as possible; don’t put type on the pictures; no poetry; tape recording is preferable to writing in general. He then flew off to the Venice Film Festival. Warhol had founded the magazine the previous year with the poet Gerard Malanga, but they had fallen out – hence the no-poetry edict.

Interview was originally called inter/VIEW: A Film Journal, but when Peter Brant and Joe Allen acquired a 50 per cent interest in 1971, they insisted on putting the famous founder’s name above the title, and it was re-christened Andy Warhol’s Interview. We created a new cursive logo that looked tossed off but had actually gone through a dozen revisions before Andy gave his final approval. And we expanded the reach of our interviews beyond actors and directors to authors, artists, rock stars, dancers, decorators, designers and models – lots of models, who were featured as “Viewgirls” and “Intermen”, with sexy full-page portraits and a few lines of adoring text.

Without knowing it, we were actually creating the world’s first celebrity magazine – People didn’t appear until 1973. What did we look for in choosing our subjects? In a word, glamour, that unexplainable combination of beauty, style, and notoriety, what Diana Vreeland (our editorial idol) called pizzazz. Therefore, Luchino Visconti was glamorous but Woody Allen was not. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and Bianca Jagger had it; Dustin Hoffman, Diane Keaton, and Yoko Ono did not. Fashion designers were inherently glamorous and a major source of advertising, so Halston, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, and Valentino turned up in almost every issue. Obviously, there was a tongue-and-chic element to all of this – as with everything Warhol put out – but there was also a fundamental seriousness beneath the fabulous surface.

Andy was a big believer in discovering and encouraging young talent. Peter Beard, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Bruce Weber were among the photographers whose work we published very early in their careers. Fran Lebowitz’s first book, Metropolitan Life, was a collection of the columns she started writing for us in 1972 and Prince was an Interman when he was still performing in East Village dives in purple bikini underpants. By the late 1970s, Truman Capote was contributing the pieces that would become Music for Chameleons (1980), and such prominent public figures as Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker were granting interviews. I managed to get First Lady Nancy Reagan for our Christmas 1981 cover, with text taken from Andy’s rather disconnected White House conversation with her, and it set off a firestorm of criticism among art-world liberals. Helen Marden, the wife of painter Brice Marden, didn’t speak to me until 1993, a decade after I’d left Warhol’s Factory for the hallowed halls of Condé Nast.

Bob Colacello is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair

This article has been corrected since original publication to reflect the fact that Peter M. Brant was jailed for failing to keep good records, not tax evasion; and to correct the dates cited for his horses’ Kentucky Derby wins.

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