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Mari Shaw, part 2

Mari Shaw explains her collecting impulses and enthusiasm for local and global art. Roberta interviews the collector in her Spruce St. home.


This is part 2 of an article about art collector, Mari Shaw. Read Part 1.

I asked Mari Shaw if she made art herself. “I never took art classes. I started drawing as an adult, when I was a lawyer before I was married to Peter. Then I took sculpture at Fleisher Art Memorial. In Berlin, the museums are free from 6-10 pm Thursday nights. I go and draw, with my sketch book and a pencil. My favorite spot is the Pergamon Museum. I have lots of favorite spots inside. I use a pencil but I started experimenting with a soft eye liner. There are lots of tourists and students. I talk with them. I know German pretty well, enough to get along.”



Mari Shaw with a sculptural object by German artist, Isa Genzken
Mari Shaw with a sculptural object by German artist, Isa Genzken


Shaw with one of her Isa Genzken pieces. The work will be on view at the New Museum in December.

The Shaws have had an apartment in Berlin for around four years now in the Mitte or central section of town. “I love it and Peter loves it too. Berlin is not an expensive city. When the east and west combined they had so much space… rents are still lower than Philly even. It’s changing but still you can have a big studio for little money…More than half of the art community is not German. I missed Woodstock (the rock festival) but this time I’m getting there…I’m there front and center,” she said, meaning that Berlin is her Woodstock and she’s plunged in headfirst.

What are you excited about in Philadelphia

“I’m very excited about all the new spaces coming up. I’m very excited about Thaddeus Squire (Peregrine Arts artistic director — Shaw told me she’s working on a project with him). I’m very excited about the new president of UArts. And even though I was against it I’m excited about the Barnes move. It’ll be an enormous draw. People in Europe ask me about it.

“I’m very very very excited about Michael Nutter being mayor. We know he’s going to support culture. I’m hoping I or someone else will persuade him to make culture the marketing of Philadelphia as a global city.

“Philadelphia has a reputation in the world as a great culture community. People in Europe know we have Duchamp here…and the orchestra. In theatre, everyone knows the Wilma. People get excited about Philadelphia.”

The future of the Shaw collection

“Each month or so we have a group come through (the house) to see our collection. We’re not going to have a vanity museum. I would like to have a database of the collection. We always have around 6 pieces traveling. We keep track of it (manually).

“We’re commited to young living artists. We believe they need to be seen. I also try not to turn down local museums (who want to borrow work). I haven’t allowed our Ryman from 63 to travel or our Twombly from 63. And nothing for the Biennials. It’s too risky.

“Our two Isa Genzkens are going to the New Museum (of Contemporary Art) for the opening. I have some jewelry traveling in Europe.

“About the future, we don’t know. Maybe split it up between various museums…or sell it and put the money in a foundation. I’m not going to dictate to a museum (what to do with the art) …Leaving it to the kids is too big a burden on them. Probably it’ll be a mix.

How did you start collecting?

“I didn’t want to collect art. It was Peter. I’m a child of the 1940s. (I believe) art belongs to the people. Peter took me to the museum and said look at the labels…everything was “from this collection…from that collection.” And that convinced her that collecting could ultimately be public–for the people.

“We buy virtually everything from the primary market. The artist gets the benefit. We can’t afford anything we own today!”

“We open our doors to museums and educators and we have fundraising dinners. Even though I was against (collecting) at first I love interacting with artists. I like interacting with academics too, but artists…

“We try very hard to support local artists. We intersperse local and international art and the local art holds up!

Shaw has taught a course on originality at University of Pennsylvania which delved into Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture and the concept of the creative commons. Recently she proposed a new course at Penn, a graduate-level art history seminar on German art, comparing Weimar era art with contemporary German art. The course – not yet approved by the school, says Penn’s Brownlee — would involve a week-long immersion trip to Berlin with on-site talks by artists, architects, gallerists and collectors, everything arranged by Shaw.

One of the great things about Mari Shaw is that she thinks outside the box. Because she operates pretty much outside the old-school Philadelphia art world network she is free to do things like approach institutions to teach new classes or initiate an artist’s residency program. Mari Shaw gets things done. She’s the artist of deal-making and can-do. Her way of doing things is creative and forward-moving and we’re fortunate to have her solving problems and moving mountains right here in Philadelphia.

More photos at flickr.