Collector’s Corner: Carl and Marilynn Thoma Are Unafraid to Buy—and Conserve—Art That’s Tough to Care For

Collector’s Corner: Carl and Marilynn Thoma Are Unafraid to Buy—and Conserve—Art That’s Tough to Care For

It was a classic tale of old meets new: Carl Thoma started collecting art in the 1970s when he worked in Silicon Valley, gravitating to pioneering digital pieces. His wife, Marilynn, meanwhile, became obsessed with Viceregal art, those artworks produced in Spain’s colonies in Mexico and South America during the 17th and 18th centuries. Altogether, the couple now owns some 1,500 objects.

Both categories come with unique challenges. With digital art, it’s a race to stay ahead of rapid advances in technology while ensuring that the works remain in working order. “It’s not like going to an art gallery, buying a painting, and [taking it] home to start enjoying it,” he said.

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One such work, a favorite of Carl’s, is John Gerrard’s Oil Stick Work (2008), in which a simulated character named Angelo Martinez gradually, over the course of years, paints a barn in an isolated Midwestern field. The work is programmed to unfold until 2038. Gerrard made it using software produced by a company that has since gone out of business.

Thoma employs two full-time conservators to keep such pieces up-to-date; they teamed with Gerrard to get Oil Stick Work back up and running by working meticulously on its source code. “It’s an issue before you buy a piece of art—how you can keep it working,” Carl Thoma said.

Thoma’s first serious purchase of digital-based art was Leo Villareal’s Big Bang (2008), a concentric 1,000-light LED piece that can produce an infinite number of multicolored images via an algorithm. Thoma also has a major interest in historical video art and experimental film—a difficult pursuit, with so few dealers specializing in that area. He often works backward, tracking down veteran artists who pioneered the field more than 30 years ago, like Gary Hill and Bruce Conner, and buying from them (or their estates) unsold editions of their major pieces.

For Marilynn, collecting Viceregal art means unearthing the history behind centuries-old paintings that often have scant provenance records and are in poor condition. “That intimidates a lot of people,” Carl said. (Currently, the couple spends around $100,000 on conservation.) When Marilynn began acquiring Viceregal works, she teamed up with the late collector Frederick Mayer, who donated his holdings to the Denver Art Museum in the ’90s and early 2000s. The pair had an agreement to avoid competing for acquisitions: Marilynn would focus on South America, Mayer on Mexico.

The Thomas consider their combined collection to be a social legacy. Shows of some of their holdings have toured the country, and 10 pieces from the Viceregal collection recently went on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston (the exhibition runs through August 2023). “We’re buying to share with the public,” Carl said, adding that the artworks they seek are “pieces of history. That’s when you become a serious collector.”

A version of this article appears in the October/November 2021 issue of ARTnews, under the title “Collector’s Corner: Carl and Marilynn Thoma.”

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