Jun Kaneko, Duncan Columns, 2015. Glazed ceramic, 38 columns, 148 x 30 in. each.

Collecting Together: Q&A with Karen and Robert Duncan

Recipients of the 2023 Patron Award

Karen and Robert Duncan, Chairman Emeritus at his family-owned business Duncan Aviation, are longtime collectors and supporters of art, particularly contemporary art. Their sculpture collection, which includes works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Carl Andre, Jim Dine, Richard Long, Sophie Ryder, Antony Gormley, and Annabeth Rosen, among many others, fills the house and grounds of their 40-acre estate in Lincoln, Nebraska. They also operate an exhibition space called Assemblage in Lincoln, with their friends and fellow collectors Kathy and Marc LeBaron, that often features retrospective exhibitions drawing on both collections. In addition, the Duncans and LeBarons support a by-invitation artist residency in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Dedicated patrons of the arts and of living sculptors, the Duncans consider their most gratifying act of philanthropy to be the transformation of the Carnegie Library in Clarinda, Iowa, where they were both raised, into the Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum.

Nick Cave, Untitled Soundsuit, 2008. Mixed media with mannequin, 100 x 25 x 14 in.

How did you get started collecting?
Robert Duncan:
I think both of us have collecting in our DNA. When we were children, we were collecting things. Karen, what did you collect as a child?
Karen Duncan: I collected butterflies and books.
RD: And I remember collecting miniature license plates out of cereal boxes. You’d buy the cereal box, and you never knew what state you were going to get. I got frustrated, so I called the company and bought the whole collection.

Where did each of you grow up?
Clarinda, Iowa, both of us. When we first got married, we moved to Lincoln, and Robert worked all the time, day and night. I didn’t know a soul and was miserable. Then someone said to me, “You know we have an incredible contemporary art museum here. Have you been?” I hadn’t even heard of it. He said that they were always looking for people to help out and that I should stop by. I was so desperate, I did. At the time, George Neubert was the director at the Sheldon Museum of Art. We got along really well, and he became a mentor. We’re great friends today. I ended up doing fundraisers for him at Sheldon.
RD: The only time that Karen and I could spend together, because I really did work a lot, was when we traveled. On a trip to Spain, early on—we were very young—we went to the Prado, and then we went to a gallery across the street, where there was an artist who had done a Spanish impressionist painting of an olive grove, and he had a publication. We were so taken by the whole thing that we bought a painting, and I carried it home on the airplane.
KD: That was our first painting. If I remember correctly, we paid several thousand dollars, and that was probably in the early ’80s—it was a lot of money for us. It hangs in our bedroom.

Karen and Robert Duncan with Dennis Oppenheim’s Device to Root Out Evil, 2002.

And from there you just kept going?
We started going to galleries and more museums, and that’s what happened.
RD: We were attracted to sculpture early on, partly because we have plenty of space outside. The house that we lived in at the time had four and a half acres, and it was easy for us to site sculpture on the grounds. Sculpture was more affordable in some ways, and we just latched onto it for some reason.

You kept that first piece.
RD: We still have it all—we’ve sold hardly anything.
KD: We traded one and sold one, that’s all we’ve ever done.
RD: It really accelerated when I retired 15 years ago—we devoted our time to looking for art and meeting artists, and I’ll bet we’ve met 400, 500, 600 artists since we started this collecting journey. That’s really important to us, to meet and develop a relationship with the artist whenever we can.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction, 1946/1979. Cast aluminum and black lacquer, 119.5 x 112 x 36 in.

Do the two of you have similar tastes?
It’s interesting because we did this project of art collecting together. Today, after more than 40 years, if we go into a gallery, he’ll go one direction, I’ll go the other; then we’ll come back and meet, and we will pick out the same pieces. When you learn together, you learn the same things. We don’t often disagree; once in a while, but not often.

How did you start the artist residency program in Puerto Vallarta with the LeBarons?
RD: We both have homes there, and Marc and I bought property. We weren’t doing anything with it, so Karen suggested that we turn it into an artist residency. For 15 years now, we’ve had on average three or four artists who come for a month. You develop a really close relationship with the artists like this, because they come over for dinner all the time and we go over to the studio to see what they’re working on.

(Left to right): Red Grooms, Lumberjack, 1977–84, bronze, 99 x 47 x 18 in.; Louise Bourgeois, Spider, bronze and steel, 128.5 x 298 x 278 in.; and Jun Kaneko, Untitled (88-07-21), 1988, ceramic, 71 x 36 x 18 in.

You also started a museum. How did that happen?
About 10 years ago, Karen was speaking with the woman who runs our house, and she said that we needed to build a new building for art and book storage.
KD: I said, “The only thing I would consider buying is an old Carnegie library and moving it onto the property.” That would be our library, and we could store art in it. She was amazed that you could buy a library, and she searched Carnegie libraries for sale; there were lots of them. And then she said to me, “You have to come over here and look at this one.” I was busy, but she insisted. So, I looked, and it was the Clarinda Carnegie Library—they were going to auction it off the next day. I lived in that library growing up. We ended up buying it.
RD: But we couldn’t move it to our house. It had to stay there.
KD: We decided to make it into a contemporary art museum in Clarinda. It has truly changed the face of that community.
RD: It’s the most gratifying thing we’ve done from a philanthropic standpoint.

How has having your collection in Lincoln affected it and the artists in it?
Our property is about 40 acres, and we built a classical home 20 years ago. Both the house and the grounds are filled with art. It’s a very special place because of what it is and where it is.
KD: It’s 40 acres within the city limits, which is amazing.

Subodh Gupta, Dada, 2010–14. Stainless steel, 275.56 x 354.31 in. Photo: Joel Satore

And it allows you to acquire large sculptural pieces.
I have a story about that. We flew around the world with the LeBarons in our own aircraft; Marc and I are both pilots. We stopped in New Delhi, India, where we met Subodh Gupta and went to his studio. I asked him to come to Nebraska, and he said that he’d come cook for us some day. We looked at several of his pieces, and they were really expensive. The next day, we went to a museum, the only one we visited on the whole trip, and outside was a Gupta tree, like a banyan tree. My god, Karen and I fell in love. We called the gallery, and it was way beyond our means. Nine months earlier, we were at Art Basel Miami, where the booth of a New York gallery was showing an exhibition of Robert Motherwell’s work. I told them that we had a blue “Open” series painting, and they asked us to loan it for a special show. I said, “Sure, we loan works whenever we’re asked.” Later, the gallery called and said they had someone who wanted to buy the Motherwell. When I asked what it was worth, it knocked me off my chair. The long and the short of it is, we traded our Motherwell for the Gupta tree, which was more attractive to us because it’s by a living sculptor whom we could meet and get to know. And he did come to the house to dedicate the piece, and he cooked for us.
KD: Through Subodh we met his wife, Bharti Kher. We ended up buying Six Women, which we had seen in her studio. That was priced out of our budget, too; but for two years, Robert and I talked about that amazing piece. And then one day, he came home and said, “You’re not going to believe this but Six Women is in the United States.” It had been to Canada for a show, then Boston. And I said, “We were meant to buy that piece, let’s just buy it.”

Collecting seems unusually personal for you both.
It’s true.
RD: And, as a number of people have told us, you can see our personalities, who we are, through our collection.