art as roomMate: the cohens' home a pop quiz on modern art

The Kansas City Star Home Section, November 6, 1994

The art community in Kansas City is blooming like some big voluptuous flower painting by Georgia O'Keeffe. One petal of the blossom is the lively, growing gallery district at 20th and Baltimore. The newest addition, opened October 14, is the Cohen/Berkowitz Gallery for Contemporary Art. 

Lennie Berkowitz, a respected local art dealer, has offered Garth Clark Gallery ceramics from her home since 1985. Byron Cohen, however, is making a major leap, moving from collector to dealer. In this issue we show Byron and Eileen Cohen at home with their own rousing art collection.

Byron Cohen's mother, Dorothy, bought art and supported local artists. There was always art around the Cohen house. In college, Byron bought his first piece, a painting shown at one of the long-ago Mid-America biennial competitions at the Nelson Museum. 

Eileen Cohen studied art at Ohio State and taught art in area schools, community programs and did an art talk show on cable TV. She is co-owner of the deliciously artistic Panache Chocolatier shop on the Plaza. But there are more compelling reasons for the success of their collecting — success in terms of both vibrancy and appreciation — than their art backgrounds. 

Byron and Eileen continue to look at art, all kinds of art, all the time. Trips always include an art component. In other towns, they tour local museums and galleries and visit local collectors. Their social life incorporates art events and the company of artists. 

They have friends who collect. There is a creative synergism between this couple, now married 27 years. "Both of us go to almost the same piece at the same time," Byron said recently.

According to Eileen, they have studied art, grown and developed-together. "We have always had the same reactions to art. We get the same vibes. We have the same sensibilities. Although, I have noticed, when I'm attracted to something he doesn't like as much, we seem to be out of money at the time." 

Eileen explains they are both gatherers by nature. "Some people," sh.e says, "collect with a sensible plan of buying a major piece each year. This works. In a few years you have a collection. We have never been· able to discipline ourselves this way. Byron is now buying to fill cupboards. He's excited and happy he owns something, even if he can't see it." 

When the Cohens purchased their traditional 1920s Kansas City house in 1979, they bought planning to add a large room to hold their Frank Stella painting. The work came into the family before they had a wall big enough for it. "You can always tell collectors," Byron said. "They buy without knowing where a piece is going." 

Now, 15 years later, the house is beginning to fill. Photographs in this section feature the first floor only. But there is art in every room. According to Byron, "even the basement." 

The couple hired ceramicist Phillip Maberry to transform the guest half-bath on the first floor. It is an astounding experience to be in this small space, a rare chance to stand inside — instead of outside — a gorgeous, colorful ceramic. Eileen explains their motivation for the commission: "It was a desperate act by collectors who are out of wall space." 

Except for the sofas, the Cohens buy furniture and accessories the way they buy other art, one piece as a time, each piece something special they want to own. Furnishings with designer names including Eames, Reitfeld, Gallex, Corbusier and Tiffany are scattered around the rooms as are Chinese, Persian and American deco rugs. 

Eileen never worked with a decorator because the house needed no wallpaper or window treatments, but she is adamant about getting expert advice before proceeding with anything. "We used lighting people, floor people and got lots of help from our architect, Roger Kraft." 

 

 
 

 

 

 

Eileen is amazed that people buy art with getting expert advice. "They call a decorator to get their house together. They go to a realtor for advice on real estate. Why don't they go to a fine art dealer to buy art?" 

Her point is that people should buy what they like in art, but there is a lot to like. "You might as well get some good advice. You might as well buy something of quality that you like." 

Although a visit to the house is sort of a pop quiz on modern art of the '60s, 70s and '80s, Byron insists he hasn't spent enormous sums of money on the collection. "I buy emerging artists. People like Jim Dine, Duane Hanson, James Rosenquist and Frank Stella, I bought them well over 20 years ago."

Byron also advises people to get good advice and learn about emerging artists. He cautions, however, "In the '60s and 70s it was easy to figure out who the players were. It's more difficult now." 

Whether it's sense, cents or synergism that brought the Cohens' home collection together, clearly as you leave the house, it's like leaving a party. The atmosphere is vibrant and joyful. 

"Our things," Eileen says, "are not pretty. They're provocative." 

The Cohens like faces. Strong portraits and life-size figures people every room. No one ever has to eat alone in their dining room with the life-size figure of ceramicist Viola Frey holding a handful of her pots next to the table. It would take real effort to feel lonely in the Stella room with the tall "Fire suit" man and Hanson's "Seated Artist" to keep you company. 

If Byron Cohen is able to help other Kansas Citians develop as lively an art collection as he lives with daily, his gallery will indeed be an asset to the area.