Palm Beachers Irene and Jim Karp explore different themes in contemporary art and share the breadth of their collection across three sites
Today, Irene and Jim Karp have three distinct art collections in three locations. But 30 years ago, Irene says it was hard to find her footing as a new collector from Kentucky trying to navigate the New York gallery scene. “We couldn’t buy anything in those days,” she recalls. “If you walked into a gallery you had to talk to the gallerista at the front desk. They would take your name, and if they knew your name and what your collection was, they would call you back. I always felt like I had walked into Saks Fifth Avenue and somebody looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have a good figure, I’m not going to sell you a dress.’ I couldn’t understand how that world really worked.”
Their daughter Elly worked at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and introduced them to a former curator who took them through the galleries in Chelsea. The more they saw, the more they began to appreciate contemporary art. When Art Basel Miami Beach came on the scene in 2002, it became their go-to fair. The Karps now boast a vast and diverse grouping of works spread across their homes in Louisville, Kentucky, and Palm Beach, as well as Jim’s office in Indiana.
When the Karps began a second life in Palm Beach in 2003, they moved into a home with lots of empty walls that they were eager to fill. “Jim had always been fascinated with the cultural and political influence Cuba had on South Florida, and here we were in a home built in the 1920s by Marion Sims Wyeth,” says Irene. “We began to play with this Cuban cultural influence. We started learning about Cuban art,” continues Irene, who points out that about 45 percent of their collection in Florida is Cuban.
She adds that the first works they purchased could have been created when their home was still with the original owners—pieces made in the 1940s and ’50s by the likes of Mario Carreño, Wifredo Lam, Réne Portocarrero, and Raúl Martinez. While these artists have all passed, Irene notes that she and Jim also engage with the Cuban artists of today, including José Toirac, Fernando Rodríguez Falcón, Frank Mujica, and Adrián Fernández. “When Cuba opened and we were able to travel to Cuba, we started making connections with contemporary artists as well,” she says. “There was never a plan for it, other than what was happening in Cuba.”
Their acquisitions cover the “whole trajectory” of recent Cuban history and its artistic implications. Artists of the 1960s and ’70s, Irene explains, were “highly influenced and limited by Castro and were not allowed to do the work they wanted to do. Instead, they were told what kind of art they could produce.” Contemporary artists are now rebelling against that.
One of Irene and Jim’s earliest Cuban acquisitions—Mario Carreño’s 1946 portrait of his wife entitled Retrato de Maria Luisa Bermudez—sits in a place of pride in their home. Carreño was working in Paris at the same time as Picasso, and the painting reflects that influence. “The piece over the fireplace is one of the first pieces we bought, and no matter what more valuable works we buy or more contemporary high-worth artists we buy, we never think about taking that painting down. That painting is perfect where it hangs, and we get great pleasure seeing it no matter how much it is financially worth.”
Photography by Jerry Rabinowitz
Irene and Jim’s interest extends beyond Cuban creatives. Irene had majored in art history and always loved the impressionists, but she credits Jim with far greater knowledge. Both have been eager to learn and contribute to the cultural art scene wherever they live. Irene is on the board of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, was formerly on the board of the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County, and is involved with the Center for Creative Education. She was on the board of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville when the museum underwent an expansion led by Kulapat Yantrasast. The Thai architect became a close friend of the Karps, and Jim asked him to design his America Place headquarters in the River Ridge Commerce Center in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
“The point of the building was to prove that culture and commerce could work together to create a better environment for everyone,” explains Irene. “It took two years to develop the concept for America Place, and Jim and Kulapat decided that there would be art space in the lobby and throughout the building, as well as outdoor sculpture so that people going to work could take in the art and a yoga relaxation moment before going to their desks.”
This would be the start of another major collection, one that many people could enjoy on a daily basis. The Karps wanted to share art with those who worked at the industrial park, including employees at a more than one-million-square-foot Amazon distribution center, a cookie factory, a water-bottling facility, and an auto parts plant. Irene also turned to the team at the Speed to add an outreach component to America Place’s art offerings. “We worked with the Speed to create programming within our lobby space that would [center around] conversations about art and culture,” she says.
In addition, the Karps have created a school, the River Ridge Learning Center, for the children (ages 2-6) of those who work in the industrial park. These children, says Irene, “will come to this facility where art and music will be a big part of what they are learning.”
The artwork in the lobby of America Place, where Jim serves as CEO, is more focused on the impact of political and current events, especially the Black Lives Matter movement and gender issues. Represented artists include Kehinde Wiley, Nina Chanel Abney, Andreas Eriksson, Vik Muniz, and Ori Gersht, and their works become part of a learning curriculum, says Irene. The gallery also boasts pieces by Cuban artists Alexandre Arrechea and Dayton Gonzalez.
The project is in its early days, but Irene is encouraged that Jim has pulled off his vision. One day she came into the lobby and saw a man sitting eating his lunch and wondered who he was. “I asked the receptionist and she said, “That’s the DHL driver who likes to come in and have his lunch in here and stare at the art.’”
Irene and Jim’s Louisville collection has many great works by artists such as Alice Neel, Jacob Lawrence, Pierre Bonnard, Frank Bowling, Helen Frankenthaler, Olafur Eliasson, and Liza Lou. Unlike their Palm Beach home, however, this abode is running out of wall space. “Every time we get a new piece, I go around the house measuring,” she says. “Where is it going to go? Which is a great problem to have. We have never, ever, ever sold a work of art or put it in storage. It creates a dilemma. I like a clean look, and I don’t want our home to look like a gallery. They are very distinct collections, which makes it fun.”
And much like that driver in the office building gallery, Irene has found peace and importance gazing at the works in her collections. When a hurricane threatened Palm Beach a few years ago, Irene and Jim worried about their art, but decided to let the chips fall as they may. Irene sat in front of each piece, absorbing them for what she thought might be the last time. She decided that if she could save any works, she would preserve those by the late Cuban artists in her collection because they truly are irreplaceable.