TAMPA — Stanton Storer walked through the “Unbound” exhibition at the University of Tampa’s Scarfone/Hartley gallery with a look of wonder. It makes sense in a show with pieces by renowned artists including David Hockney, Alex Katz and Robert Mapplethorpe.
But for Storer, the wonder is different. “Unbound” is drawn from his personal collection. And many of the works haven’t been on display since he bought them.
“It doesn’t feel like mine,” he said as he turned to view a grouping of pieces. “It’s surreal.”
Curated by Francesca Bacci, “Unbound” is a robust exhibition that showcases not only Storer’s avid collecting habits, but his diverse taste in art. From abstract paintings to edgy photography, woodcut prints, metal sculpture and even video installation, there are few patterns to follow. But Bacci was clever in the way items are grouped, and she found some common themes.
How did Storer amass a personal collection of more than 300 works? What triggers him to buy?
“When I find something I don’t have and I feel like I need to have it,” he said.
His passion for collecting art was stoked 20 years ago. He was an executive in the biopharma industry, working on weekends and constantly traveling. He loved his career.
But an experience with a stranger on an airplane in 1999 made him realize he needed an interest outside of his career. The passenger next to him got a phone call from his wife telling him she was divorcing him, he said. The man was crushed and Storer spent the next five hours crying with him. He asked Storer what his passion was. He couldn’t answer.
That same day, Storer attended the Art for Life fundraiser. He spotted Theo Wujcik’s Barking Dogs Signaled the End of the 20th Century. The chaos of the sharp black angles, rushes of color and collage of imagery spoke to him, as well as the size. His bid on the painting won.
Wujcik asked if he could keep the piece for a 30-year retrospective of his work that was happening at the former Gulf Coast Museum of Art. Storer was taken aback. The art cost more than a car, and he wouldn’t even be able to have it right away?
Wujcik imparted some wisdom.
“There are two people who are most important in the art world,” Wujcik told him. “Number one, the artist who creates the work. And secondly and more importantly, the person who buys the art and shares it with others.”
Storer agreed to loan it.
“Honestly, it’s probably because of that conversation that this exhibition is happening,” he said.
They were friends until Wujcik’s death in 2014. In that time, Storer collected nearly 30 of his works. With just weeks left to live, Wujcik gifted Storer the painting Guardian, which depicts a protective fu dog in rich Chinese red and jade tones.
Storer’s friend Jose Gelats introduced him to Graphicstudio, the atelier on the University of South Florida’s campus where artists come to make multiple editions of prints and sculptures. He became a subscriber and started collecting work from renowned artists including James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg and Judy Chicago.
Rauschenberg’s mixed media sculpture Tibetan Garden Song, 1986 is on display as the artist intended it to be for the first time. A child’s cello sits in a metal basin filled with glycerin. The glycerin is damaging the cello, and it will probably never be displayed this way again. But Storer wanted people to be able to experience it in its entirety.
Over the years, Storer forged such a close relationship with Graphicstudio that he often watched artists in process. That was how he came to acquire the first edition of Duke Riley’s frenetic woodblock print Monkey Biz.
Graphicstudio is the source of his most recent purchase, Emilio Segura’s bronze sculpture Submarine Homemade and the accompanying cyanotype Homemade Submarine SJXXII. He had admired the Cuban artist’s work at the Tampa Museum of Art and wanted to own a piece. Storer followed the artist as he worked at the atelier. It was finished a week before the exhibition opened.
“Unbound” also reveals how Storer became closely involved with the University of South Florida’s Contemporary Art Museum.
In fact, the first piece that greets visitors in the gallery is by Tavares Strachan, whose work he initially observed in a CAM exhibition. It’s an inviting neon piece, glowing with the words You belong here.
He was mesmerized by Los Angeles-based artist Iva Gueorguieva’s abstract collage Tree Hold at the opening for an exhibition at CAM. He immediately asked if it was for sale. It’s unusual for a museum to sell works, so Storer got a rush of adrenaline when he heard he could buy it. He has since acquired three more pieces by Gueorguieva, including the mixed media sculpture Bathing Swordsman, also on display.
Storer frequents Art Basel in Miami, where he purchased the David Hockney print Inside It Opens Up as Well. He had fallen in love with the original painting, but it was massive and too expensive. So when a savvy salesperson let him know prints were available, he scooped up number 24 of 25.
Storer also attends exhibitions of the students of USF’s fine arts programs, prompting him to collect Taylor Pilotes’ bubblegum pink fiberglass sculpture Majesty, evocative of a ’59 Cadillac. Likewise, he was introduced to Selina Roman’s photography at USF and purchased her piece Awkward Silences (Ebb Tide), with imagery of old Florida beach motels glowing from a light box. And attending the 2016 BFA exhibition led him to Chasity Williams’ Heart Heat I and II, a pair of ceramic heads, mouths agape, with synthetic hair weaved into found objects.
Storer also started an endowed scholarship for art students in Theo Wujcik’s name. Wujcik was a professor at USF for 30 years.
So why, with Storer’s many connections to USF, is the work being highlighted at UT? The two schools have a supportive relationship.
“This show is in part the result of these cross-institutional collaborations, and the positive energy and dialogues that have ensued are enriching, fruitful and worth pursuing,” Bacci said.
The influence of USF, the Institute for Research in Art and Graphicstudio comes full circle in the work that Storer considers the most important piece in the exhibition. It’s The Year Without Summer, a mixed media sculpture by Chicago-based artist Keith Edmier, whom Storer considers pivotal to his collection. He met Edmier through Graphicstudio and started collecting his work, a few pieces of which are on display.
Edmier created The Year Without Summer as a site-specific commission for a space in Storer’s wine cellar. Edmier had visited Storer’s home and made it his mission to create a piece of art for the space. He conceived a connection between the 1815 volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, when the skies went gray with ash for months and caused worldwide famine, and the death of Mary Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy, who drowned off the coast of Italy years later. After Percy’s death, someone retrieved his heart and gave it to Mary, who wrapped it in one of her poems.
Edmier had an MRI done of his own heart at USF’s medical center, made a 3-D printed mold of it and smashed it with a hammer. He placed it in the center of his personal journal filled with notes about the piece. Volcanic ash and gravel from the Mount Tambora eruption lie on the spine.
“The Year Without Summer is more than just a sculpture,” Storer said. “It is a work of art that Edmier spent four years creating and is a story of love and love lost, life and death and rebirth. This is how Keith always works: in complex, sophisticated and sexy layers.”
IF YOU GO
UNIVERSITY OF TAMPA SCARFONE/HARTLEY GALLERY
“Unbound: Highlights From the Stanton Storer Collection” remains on view through Nov. 8. Admission is free and there is free visitor parking at the Thomas parking garage on N Boulevard, accessed on North A Street. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 1-4 p.m. Saturday. The gallery is inside R.K. Bailey Arts Studios, 310 N Boulevard. (813) 253-6217. ut.edu.