Les and Carolyn Stephens never intended to become art collectors.
The longtime Spokane residents first began acquiring art in the 1970s as a way to decorate their home. Fifty years later, the endeavor has resulted in a collection of over 100 pieces and their very own exhibition at Gonzaga's Jundt Art Museum, on display through the start of 2024.
The couple met while attending Whitman College in Walla Walla and bought their first piece in 1972, a year after graduating. From then, Carolyn Stephens says, their collection gradually grew.
"In the first decade of this 50 years of collecting art, we didn't think in terms of, 'Oh let's buy a dozen,'" Carolyn Stephens says. "It was, 'Can we afford one or two pieces?'"
The Stephenses have long been active in Eastern Washington's art community. Carolyn, an artist herself, began teaching art history at Spokane Falls Community College in 1980.
She and her husband were able to gain exposure to many American artists and expand their collection by engaging with local art lectures, presentations and exhibitions.
Additionally, Carolyn's time as an instructor gave them an opportunity to explore some of the most prominent art capitals in the world, including New York City, London and Paris. During these travels, they learned about contemporary art and how to identify high-quality works.
The Stephenses procured most of their collection directly from artists, as well as through the secondary art market. Les attributes their ability to collect a diverse array of pieces to the secondary market, where artworks are resold by collectors rather than the artists themselves.
"We would see more and more pieces that were attractive — pieces that we've seen in museums and galleries around the country — and they became available at a price that we could afford," he says.
About half of the couple's collection is on display for the Jundt's fall 2023 exhibit, "Five Critical Decades of Art: The Stephens Collection." Until Jan. 6, the gallery is filled with an array of styles, mediums and trends from contemporary art history.
A unique feature of the exhibition, according to Les, is the range of ages among the artworks. The collection spans from the 1940s to the 2010s, with the oldest piece dating to 1948.
"It's not very often that you see a contemporary survey," Les says. "You go to New York, you'll find some rooms going in chronological periods, but I think that was kind of the fun of [this exhibition] is that it's over 50 years of work."
Curation of the Stephens Collection exhibition has been in the works for three years, says Karen Kaiser, the Jundt's curator of education. She says this is the first time in over a decade that the Jundt has hosted an exhibition based on a privately owned collection.
"It's nice to have something available to the students where they can see what's actually made by contemporary artists," Kaiser says.
The exhibition showcases a mix of popular art forms from different periods, including pop art, photorealism, folk art, environmental art, abstraction and figurative art. Prints make up the majority of the collection, but it also has wood sculptures, ceramics, paintings, photography and drawings.
One piece on display is photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's "Patti Smith," a black-and-white portrait of the punk rock artist taken in 1985.
There are also nontraditional artworks, such as a video recording of "Keyboard Cat" by Spokane artist Charlie Schmidt, which gained viral popularity on the internet in 2007. Also on display is a 1985 Keith Haring shower curtain adorned with the artist's iconic dancing figures.
Les says the exhibition is eclectic in nature because it contains artwork from both regional artists and those well-known outside the Inland Northwest.
"I think there's that richness of getting to know some of the artists, but also just the interconnection between the art," he says.
Carolyn says they care about supporting the new generation of local artists and hope the community finds various ways to engage with their collection.
"Just [knowing] that you got their brains to think, their eyes to look at things and maybe have a back and forth conversation" is enough, she says.
Robin Dare, the Jundt's preparator and a personal friend of the Stephenses, agrees that the exhibit provides a strong overview of regional artists. Dare was in charge of arranging and displaying the pieces in the gallery and says he worked in collaboration with the couple and museum curator Paul Manoguerra to decide which pieces would be in the exhibition.
Dare hopes the showcase is fun for the public and leaves visitors with a sense of curiosity.
"Strong social themes — social commentary — are part of this collection in a lot of ways," Dare says. "There's some very powerful things you investigate."
The Jundt Art Museum's affiliation with Gonzaga University was an important consideration for the Stephenses because, Carolyn says, their collection was always designed to be an active contribution to teaching institutions. She says that while the show reflects the couple's tastes, they hope students and faculty can engage with the artworks as educational tools.
The couple doesn't plan to buy much more art. In fact, their goal is to donate and rehome their collection with educational institutions.
"It makes a difference to me that if we have accumulated this vast array of works," Carolyn says, "why wouldn't you want it to go to institutions that have active campuses and residencies that get people to come here and see all this?" ♦
Five Critical Decades of Art: The Stephens Collection • Through Jan. 6, 2024; open Mon-Sat from 10 am-4 pm • Free • Jundt Art Museum • 200 E. Desmet Ave. • gonzaga.edu/jundt • 509-313-6843