What I Buy and Why: Millennial Collectors James and Kimberly Elbaor on the $1,200 Oscar Murillo Work That Got Away

We caught up with the couple from their home in Chicago.

James Elbaor and Kimberly Trautmann.
James Elbaor and Kimberly Trautmann.

Chicago-based collectors James and Kimberly Elbaor are on a journey.

Coming to the art world from finance (James is the founder of investment firm Marlton LLC, and Kimberly is the head of DRW Venture Capital), the pair had to learn the ropes when it comes to buying—and it was intimidating at first.

But quiet determination will get you far, and together, the couple has been building a burgeoning collection of Millennial artists, including some of the hottest names out there, such as Robert Nava, Korakrit Arunanondchai, and Stephanie Hier, among others.

We caught up with the couple about how they first fell in love with collecting, the massive surprise that landed on their doorstep one day, and an incredible missed opportunity to buy an Oscar Murillo for $1,200.

Courtesy James Elbaor and Kimberly Trautmann.

Courtesy James Elbaor and Kimberly Trautmann.

What was your first purchase?

Both of us had an interest in artists of our generation and our appreciation originally consisted of the occasional date night gallery visit. We initially felt the art world was intimidating and inaccessible for us, but over years of acquainting ourselves with peers in contemporary art, we grew comfortable with the gallery system.

In 2016, we took the plunge by acquiring a large-scale painting by Charles Mayton, The Politics of Borders, from David Lewis in New York. That particular work was in Mayton’s solo show at the American Academy in Rome. The truth is, we just really liked this painting, and at that moment we knew that living with art by artists of our generation was a fulfilling starting point for us both.

Courtesy James Elbaor and Kimberly Trautmann.

Courtesy James Elbaor and Kimberly Trautmann.

What was your most recent purchase?

An untitled collage by Antonio Tarsis from Carlos Ishikawa in London.

Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?

Definitely Chris Huen Sin Kan, as well as another work by William Mackrell. This would be our fourth acquisition of something by Will. We are big fans.

We’re also looking to develop a more international scope of artists we seek out. So it was exciting timing to discover Chris Huen Sin Kan’s work via Simon Lee in London, a gallery with whom we have an ongoing relationship. We were lucky enough to work with the gallery in purchasing our France-Lise McGurn in 2019.

Courtesy James Elbaor and Kimberly Trautmann.

Courtesy James Elbaor and Kimberly Trautmann.

What is the most expensive work of art that you own?

Robert Nava’s 2020 painting, Beware of Wolves, Two Rooms for Rent.

Where do you buy art most frequently?

Gabriela Palmieri and Andrew Dubow have been instrumental, not only in helping to further cultivate our understanding of various practices, but with the logistical process as well. We’ve found that the contemporary art industry can, at times, feel a bit inaccessible. Gabriela and Andrew have been critical agents in removing any sense of being an outsider, making our experience of art that much more enjoyable.

Courtesy James Elbaor and Kimberly Trautmann.

Courtesy James Elbaor and Kimberly Trautmann.

What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?

We have Stephanie Hier’s 2017 Step Into The Light above the mantel in our dining room, but nothing above the sofa or in the bathroom. We are paranoid steamy showers would ruin anything we put in there.

What is the most impractical work of art you own?

Hands down, Untitled (fragment from “Alps”) by Andra Ursuta. We were already interested in her, so when the opportunity to acquire one arose, we jumped. Unfortunately for us, James jumped without considering the dimensions. It was only when the crate arrived on our doorstep that we realised the size was… impressive. So while impractical, this beloved addition remains in storage until we can find suitable wall space.

What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?

James’s sister is a London-based curator and writer, and it was through her that we were connected to Hilary Crisp, who facilitated Oscar Murillo’s first-ever show at her namesake gallery in Whitechapel in 2011. At the time, Murillo was still a student at the Royal College of Art and because he had never exhibited formally before, a mid-size painting was available for around £900. Financials aside, his role within our shared generation is clearly undeniable, so it is pretty disappointing to have overlooked that opportunity.

If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?

James: Edward Hopper’s New York Movie. Would pluck that off MoMA’s wall if I could.

Kim: Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.

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