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A Space Where Life Meets Art and Talent Emerges

By Jenifer Mangione Vogt

I am following the gregarious Dr. Marvin Mordes through a dimly-lit gallery space, aware that I am surrounded by paintings and photographs hanging on white walls and large-scale contemporary sculptures elevated on floor platforms. We pause and he gently pushes against a gallery wall on wheels, which opens to a new space. Suddenly, sunlight streams through large windows and is reflected off a glass coffee table and modern white leather sectional in front of me. The space is like a SoHo loft with living room, library, kitchen and dining area delineated by the placement of furniture. Everywhere there is art-figurative, non-figurative painting, sculpture, and multimedia.

I am now in the private residence that Dr. Mordes shares with his wife, Elayne, whom I am interviewing about the Whitespace gallery I have just traveled through, which is part of their home in West Palm Beach. As I move from gallery to living space, I am reminded of the phrase “liminal zone” and how it is used to describe museums as otherworldly zones in which nothing bad can happen - spiritual meccas that encourage personal transformation via profound artistic expression, but, even more so, as thresholds, of sorts, between art and daily life. Not only do the Mordeses have their very own liminal zone, they have deconstructed the barrier that normally exists between life and art.

They did this in 2006 when they created Whitespace by transforming an industrial building into a private art venue. They are part of a growing cadre of private collectors who have opened public spaces to showcase their collections. It is, however, still somewhat unique to have a public museum within a private home, though the elegant and congenial Elayne Mordes shrugs off this observation. “We’re not the only ones that have this - the Rubells, Rosa (de la Cruz) - a lot of our friends have that kind of relationship,” she remarks.

Panoramic view of one of Whitespace galleries. Photo: Katie Deits.

Overall, they have about 12,000 square feet, of which the exhibition space takes up 8000 square feet. Their personal living area is not open to the public. The public space houses their collection of contemporary art, which includes work by internationally-recognized artists, such as Jenny Holzer, Frank Gehry, Erwin Wurm, Vik Muñiz, Gilbert and George, Daniel Richter, Richard Long, and Jan de Cock. Mordes prefers not to divulge the total size of their collection, but she conveys that, at any time, there are about 100 pieces on display, and that the smaller works change frequently.

It is surprising to find a collection of contemporary art this impressive on public display in a quiet suburban location, but the Mordeses prefer it to a larger city, such as Miami. “Miami never held any interest for us whatsoever. It was just too big a city-too crowded, too much traffic,” she explains.

The Mordeses have been passionate art collectors for the past thirty years and opening Whitespace was the natural extension of that passion. “Marvin and I have always shared our collection and we love sharing what we have. We’ve always donated to museums-Norton, FIU, the Guggenheim, the Hirshhorn-all around there are pieces of ours,” she explained.

The inspiration for Whitespace came from a friend when they were living in Belgium in their mid-twenties, where Dr. Mordes was participating in a study-abroad program and Elayne was teaching art at NATO headquarters. “We had a friend who was probably one of the first people to open a warehouse that would house his collection. We liked that and wanted to do something that would share that idea,” explained Mordes.

So, in their minds’ eye, they had a vision of an industrial space that could serve as both art gallery and modern home. In 2005, they began to scout for that space and found it in a building that had formerly been a dental laboratory. Mordes knew as soon as she entered that she had found the perfect location.

“I knew immediately what I wanted to do. I said, ‘just hold this till my husband can get here,’” she explained.

She made preliminary drawings and enlisted the help of a local architect. They bought the space on the last day of the year in 2005. It took them one year, from start to finish, to complete Whitespace.

The Mordeses’ passion for collecting began after they returned from Belgium. They were living in Philadelphia when they bought their first works of art. She explains, “I was back in school at Drexel getting my graduate degree in architectural design and Marvin was at the University of Pennsylvania where he was doing his neurology residency. The head of his residency program was a collector and started showing us all of this stuff he was buying and we started going to galleries and became very involved in the contemporary art scene.”

Whitespace - The Mordes Collection. Photo: Jenifer Mangione Vogt.

The way Mordes explains it, contemporary art was a natural draw for them. “I think both of us are very contemporary, edgy people. We tend to look at things that are more experimental. We were really one of the first to start buying Internet-based art. I found all of that really interesting, all that media-based art.”

“We bought the first Jenny Holzer pieces - the four hanging there,” she adds motioning to four marquee-like, electronic light boxes hanging above their kitchen cabinets.

Despite the edgy focus, Elaine and Marvin Mordes were raised in a traditional and historic neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland and had a fairy-tale romance. They have known each other since they were in middle school, but they did not begin dating until both were at the University of Maryland. They married in their early twenties and began collecting about seven years afterwards.

“It took us 10 years to learn how to collect. People today hire an art adviser, but they didn’t do that then. So, it took us 10 years of buying and selling and collecting different kinds of work until we found what was really working for us in our hearts. Learning like that teaches you a lot because you develop an eye,” she explained.

For Elayne, art collecting was the natural progression of her interest and education in the arts. But for her husband, it was more the result of the time they spent in Europe, where they travelled extensively, cultivating an interest in art and culture and attending many art exhibits. Before collecting art, they collected catalogs from all of these exhibits.

“We have a major art library. For the past year, actually, this was a major project - to catalog it all for the Library of Congress. Everything is labeled and we have a software program,” she said.

Once they amassed a sizable and noteworthy collection of art, however, the next step was to host their own exhibits. Their commitment, particularly to emerging artists, is noteworthy. Within Whitespace, they designated gallery space for exhibits by both established contemporary and emerging artists.

This will be the third season that this space is open and it is the perfect incubator for young talent. Through it, they have contributed to the careers of many artists, such as Vik Muñiz. Last year, in collaboration with the Margulies Collection, they hosted a project for Muñiz.

While they foster it, the Mordeses do not actively scout new talent, however. It tends to find them.

“They come to us through the curators we work with. Kara Walker-Tomé curated projects for us, and now Turkish artist, Sibel Kocabaşi will be curating a show next March called ‘Outside the Box,’” explained Mordes.

This year’s special projects also include a cultural exchange with the BlueLeaf Gallery in Dublin, Ireland. On November 4, the official opening date for Whitespace, there will be a reception for the exhibition of work by Marty Kelly and Claudia Alvarez. In January, Whitespace will host exhibits and projects by two well-known artists, the Ukranian-born Nathalia Edenmont and New York-based David Wojnarowicz.

Through their foundation, The Community Foundation - The Mordes Family Fund, they support the local cultural community and artists. This year they will host fundraising events at Whitespace for both the Palm Beach Opera and the Lighthouse Center for the Arts, and they will showcase work by two Palm Beach-based artists, Jackie Tufford and Kristin Miller Hopkins.

The Mordeses continue to collect and they enjoy cultivating relationships with the artists whose work they own. They are aware of art as a commodity, but their approach to collecting includes personalized patronage that fosters new talent.

Mordes explained, “We like to collect more emerging or mid-career artists. We feel that it supports the artist. It allows the artist to move forward in his or her career. You can’t totally disregard the financial end of it, but we don’t collect with that as our ulterior motive.”

Whitespace. The Mordes Collection is located at 2805 N. Australian Avenue, West Palm Beach, Florida 33407. Phone: 561.842.4131 info@whitespacecollection.com / www.whitespacecollection.com

Jenifer Mangione Vogt is an art writer based in Boca Raton, FL.