For the Art
One chief criteria for James Keith (JK) Brown and Eric Diefenbach’s weekend house was an adequate space for their expanding contemporary art collection. But the Manhattanites were also looking for a community with an interest in the arts, close enough to Manhattan that they could come for a night during the workweek, and nice throughout the seasons.
Their hunt ended in 2007 with a gracious modern home on Hawthorne Hill, just off Ridgebury Road. Built in 1994 with an extensive addition completed in 1999, the house offers striking vistas of Connecticut and New York as well as ample wall and lawn space for their art.
Ridgefield also offered the right community. “Actually, we found a better community, more available culturally, than we expected,” Eric says. “We knew about The Aldrich but we didn’t know about The Ridgefield Playhouse. It’s a fantastic bonus.”
“Another bonus,” adds JK, “is that there are good restaurants, especially important since we don’t cook.” Although their kitchen is well-equipped and their Vladimir Kagan dining room table and chairs are exquisite, you’re more likely to find the pair at Bissell House, Luc’s, Ross’ Bread, or 121 than at the stove.
Brown, originally from a small town in North Carolina, is 50, and an investment manager. Diefenbach, 53, grew up in Rye, and is a lawyer in private practice. They have been partners for 26 years, and collecting contemporary art for most of their relationship.
While their house—with its collection of mid-century modern furniture and museum quality art thoughtfully re-installed regularly by Diefenbach himself—is an ever-changing showcase for their remarkable eye and design instincts, there is nothing pretentious about the pair. In fact, they are much more willing to talk about almost any subject than about themselves. When asked about why they collect, Eric says that the answer is two-fold. “It’s nice to live with wonderful things,” he says. “But it’s also nice to enable people to make art,” acknowledging the important role of collectors in supporting living artists. “We think everybody benefits from that. Art makes us smarter, and helps people to understand their world better.”
“It also makes the world smaller,” says JK, citing the friends from around the world that they have met through their travels. “There’s a community of people in the art world—artists, curators, and gallery owners—that have become friends.” One of those friends is Yvonne Handler, who grew up in Ridgefield, and met JK in New York. “He was my first boss,” says Handler, who currently lives in Greenwich. “So many people in the art world are not approachable. That’s exactly the opposite of Eric and JK. They are passionate and want to get a larger group involved. They collect interesting people.”
Brown is president of the board of the New Museum. Diefenbach, who is board chairman of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, is so passionate about expanding The Aldrich’s audience that he has enlisted Handler to help him to start a young professional group of supporters of the museum. They are casting a wide net to appeal to local Ridgefielders but also to professionals in towns like Greenwich, Darien, and New Canaan. “My taste in art is really old, old work—like Baroque and Rococo,” says Handler, “but Eric and JK have been such good teachers that I’ve come to appreciate contemporary art. I don’t like all contemporary art but their collection is fantastic.”
She cites a small painting by the artist Alex Katz in the Hawthorne Hill collection as emblematic of the thoughtful way that the pair has collected. “It feels like a Matisse. It’s absolutely peaceful, serene.”
“Eric and JK care about the local community,” adds Handler. “They read the Ridgefield Press and know a lot about issues in the schools, which is so unusual as transplants from New York with no kids.” The couple doesn’t have children but with 23 nieces and nephews, they have a bird’s eye view of parenting’s joys and stresses.
Richard Klein, exhibitions director at The Aldrich, echoes Handler’s sentiment: “They are true citizens of Ridgefield. They love the things about Ridgefield that make it Ridgefield—the Memorial Day Parade, for example. They have this great local and global thing going. They take the philanthropic part of life seriously.”
Klein talks about a visit to their house as a dream come true for art enthusiasts. “You can visit and spend the night in a Gabriel Orozco bedroom,” says Klein. “They give the art proper breathing space and juxtapose artists in really interesting ways, so there’s a dialogue between established artists and emerging artists. They are also adventuresome in terms of media,” says Klein, “and are not fazed by difficult installations.”
To the untrained eye, there is something classic about the presentation of the collection and the art in it—as if the art is much older and the artists more established than either is. Klein speculates that this is because the house’s “environment is so thoughtful and beautiful that the art isn’t jarring.”
Klein also points to the house’s incomparable 180-degree view, framed by floor to ceiling windows. “There are so few places that you can see the horizon in our area. We are claustrophobic because of the trees and leaves but from those windows you can see all the way to the Taconic Mountains almost 25 miles away.” Diefenbach adds that the house has a tremendous view of Fourth of July fireworks—Ridgefield’s but also those from all the Hudson River towns. It is also a great haven for thunderstorm watching.
In many ways, the house’s windows act like frames for the changing natural landscape and the outdoor sculpture Brown and Diefenbach have installed in it. Tanya Bonakdar, owner of a Chelsea gallery, points out how the windows frame a Charles Long sculpture in its green landscape. “I know the artist would think it’s the perfect place for that work.”
With its open floor plan, beautiful landscape, and large windows, Hawthorne Hill seems like a perfect match with its owners—simultaneously mature and youthful; public and private; warm and cool, without being cold.