Emily Fisher Landau, patron of contemporary art, dies aged 102
Emily Fisher Landau, a New Yorker who used Lloyd’s insurance from a spectacular jewel heist in her home to fund one of America’s finest contemporary art collections, died March 27 in Palm Beach, Florida. She was 102 years old.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Candia Fisher.
From 1991 to 2017, Ms. Landau opened her collection of 1,200 artworks to the public at the Fisher Landau Center for Art, a converted former factory in Long Island City, Queens. In 2010, she pledged nearly 400 works, valued at the time between $50 million and $75 million, to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she was a longtime trustee.
Ms. Landau’s journey into the art world began unexpectedly on a spring afternoon in 1969 while she was out having lunch. Armed burglars disguised as air-conditioning repairmen broke into her apartment in the Imperial House building on the Upper East Side, handcuffed the cook in a guest closet and opened a floor safe hidden in another closet.
For birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, her husband Martin Fisher, a real estate developer, had given her parures – coordinating necklace, earring, ring and bracelet sets set with emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds over the years – along with a 39 carat blue and white diamond solitaire. All were kept in the safe.
“I was devastated,” Ms. Landau said of the robbery in interviews conducted for a Whitney catalog, Legacy: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection. But she added: “I decided I didn’t want the jewelry anymore. Now I had seed capital for a collection”, thanks to the insurance settlement.
“What I really wanted to buy were paintings,” she said, “so the theft was probably one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.” (The Imperial House crime scene on East 69th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues was from the her husband’s company, Fisher Brothers.)
Ms. Landau wanted to be an artist before her father, also a developer, sent her to secretarial school. Later, without ever taking an art history course, she began collecting informally. After the jewelry theft, her first major item was a three-and-a-half foot Calder mobile, which she bought from its owner in Central Park West in 1968.
“At the time I didn’t have a car or driver, so I came back on the Crosstown bus on West 86th Street and got up and carried the Calder like a Christmas tree,” she said. “No one asked me anything.”
Ms. Landau soon discovered the work of Josef Albers when, while walking along East 57th Street, she chanced upon a poster in a window for an exhibition at the Pace Gallery. “It frightened my eye — so minimally,” she said. “From the moment I saw Albers, I knew I loved simplicity. Albers was my starting point as a collector. I never collected anything because it was fashionable. It was always about what I instinctively liked.”
Her curiosity led her upstairs to Pace and what turned out to be a long association with the gallery and its owner, Arne Glimcher. “Originally, I bought art with my husband,” she said. Her first major acquisition was a trio of paintings—by Picasso, Dubuffet, and Léger—that Mr. Glimcher had shown her, all leaning against a wall in his office. “Later I would buy on my own,” she said.
Her career as a collector changed and accelerated after the 1969 theft. She went on to buy works by Matisse, Mondrian, Jean Arp, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Paul Klee, Louise Nevelson and Lucas Samaras. “I spent all the money on art,” she said. “Those were buying years.”
Pace, along with Manhattan’s Leo Castelli Gallery, remained an important source for her growing collection, but Mr. Glimcher’s gallery partner Fred Mueller proved a role model for the integration of art, artists and New York society. She recalls a party at his austere Gracie Square apartment where Ms. Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol circulated among their own artworks with other guests. “His example actually gave me the impetus to go deeper,” says Ms. Landau.
But then her husband died in 1976. “After that there was a big gap in the collection,” she says. “I stopped.”
Around 1980, Ms. Landau met New York theater and restaurant designer Bill Katz and commissioned him to renovate her Park Avenue apartment, into which she had since moved. The commission turned into a long-term relationship in which Mr. Katz, also an art consultant, advised her on collecting beyond the core modernism she already had.
“‘Emily, if you wanted to look at the work of younger people, it would be life-changing and an interesting experience for you,'” she recalled him telling her.
Visiting studios in New York’s heated art world of the 1980s and ’90s, Ms. Landau focused on contemporary work, sometimes buying the entire space, as she did at a Rodney Graham exhibition.
“She had the temperament to go with the zeitgeist,” said New York art consultant Amy Cappellazzo. “She became known as a major collector and I think her taste fueled that moment in the ’80s and ’90s. Others followed.”
By the mid-1980s, Ms. Landau had become a Trustee at Whitney, where she served on a series of boards for almost 25 years. The fourth floor of the museum, then located on Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side, was named in her honor in 1994, the year she established an endowment for the Whitney Biennial exhibitions.
“She was probably one of the most important trustees in Whitney history,” said Leonard Lauder, the museum’s chairman emeritus.
In the mid-1980s, as the New York art market swelled and museums expanded across the country, Ms. Landau took on an increasingly important place in the New York art ecosystem, providing personal support to artists and institutional support to museums.
Alongside the Whitney, she has served on committees for the Museum of Modern Art and on the boards of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the SITE Santa Fe Museum, both in New Mexico. For her support of her cultural institutions, she was inducted as a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government.
Outside of the art world, she founded the Fisher Landau Foundation to research dyslexia and support children with dyslexia—she was dyslexic herself—and the Fisher Landau Center for the Treatment of Learning Disabilities for Children, Adolescents, and Adults at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. She also had a seat on the board of the Metropolitan Opera.
In the late 1980s, Ms. Landau found a 25,000-square-foot former parachute harness factory in Long Island City to house her collection — a private museum open to the public free of charge. Max Gordon, a minimalist London architect fresh from his conversion of a paint factory into the Saatchi Collection in London, transformed the Queens factory, a three-storey concrete structure, into the Fisher Landau Center for Art.
“Having her own museum, she was a great example for history’s leading collectors, who collect not only for themselves but also for posterity,” said Mr. Lauder. “She bought more for tomorrow than today.”
Emily Lanzner was born on August 23, 1920 in Glens Falls, NY near Lake George and grew up in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. She lived in Emily Court, a building her father Samuel Lanzner designed and owned after his daughter. Her mother, Cecilia Lanzner, was a housewife.
After a brief marriage, she met and later married Mr. Fisher, then the young landlord of an apartment where she lived in Forest Hills, Queens. She had three children with him, Richard, Anthony and Candia. In 1978, after Mr. Fisher’s death, she married Sheldon Landau, a retired apparel manufacturer. Their son Anthony and his wife Anne died in a plane crash in 2003. That same year, her grandson Andrew died in a car accident. Richard, their elder son, died in 2006. Mr. Landau died in 2009.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Landau leaves behind nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
With the series of tragedies in her immediate family – all of which coincided with the changing markets in the art world in the 2000s – Ms. Landau’s interest in collecting waned.
“From about 2004 to 2008, a lot of hedge fund people speculated,” said New York gallery owner Barbara Gladstone. “They were a different breed, and Emily was happy to step aside. It is typical of pre-2000 collectors who have made it their mission to refine their collections. She didn’t just buy because it would increase in value. It’s a wonderfully old-fashioned tradition.”
Frau Landau’s Center for Art remained open to the public until 2017. In her final years, she struggled with Alzheimer’s disease and lived primarily in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“Whenever she saw a woman wearing expensive jewelry,” her daughter Candia Fisher said, “she always said, ‘That could be art on the walls.'”