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This story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Peter Benebek is playing imaginary art Tetris in his living room. “We’re going to move the Ruscha over there where the Neo Rauch is, and the Neo Rauch is going to go to the UTA offices,” he explains. The collector and co-founder of United Talent Agency is making room for his newest acquisition, a large canvas by the late minimalist painter Agnes Martin.
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The walls of Benedek’s Brentwood house — and of his UTA office — are almost entirely covered in art, and the collection is notably diverse: a pair of matching David Hockneys in his bedroom; a few Gerhard Richters; a towering Alex Katz portrait of Tilda Swinton; a piece by French cubist Francis Picabia; a small still life by futurist Giorgio Morandi on the stairway; a work by American modern painter Milton Avery; and a clocklike work by young artist Ricky Swallow.
“I’ve tried to figure it out,” he says of his own collecting style. “It seems to me that I’m partial to 20th century art. I really love portraiture, I really love still life, and I really like minimalism. The artists tend to either be dead or have done the major part of their work in the 20th century. Which, by the way, is not so long ago.”
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The UTA board member — his clients include David Chase, Tom Fontana and Lena Dunham (Benedek has done two cameos on Girls) — is an art benefactor as well, having served on the board of overseers of the Hammer Museum for the past decade. “Peter is a deeply passionate, informed and refined collector,” says the museum’s director, Ann Philbin. “What I love about the way he collects is that he follows no one and no trend — he knows his own mind and is unafraid to take risks and pursue the new as well as the historically uncool or overlooked. One of the highlights of his collection is the small but mighty Morandi painting — he waited years to find the perfect one.”
Benedek, 65, began his collection by purchasing a Hockney from the now-defunct Corcoran Gallery in Santa Monica on his 40th birthday for $21,000, no small sum to him at the time. With the first piece in place, Benedek suddenly had all of the passion with none of the experience. “I realized that I had no idea what I was doing,” Benedek says with a laugh. “I called David Geffen, because he’s probably got the best art collection in town, and I said, ‘David, I’m starting to buy art, and I have no idea whether I’m paying the right or wrong amount of money. How do you figure it out?’ And what he said to me is, ‘You’re a good agent, you have good taste, and you know how much talent’s worth. Your stomach will tell you whether you’re overpaying or underpaying.’ And that was the best advice I ever got from anybody.”
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Thirteen years ago, Benedek — who is married to screenwriter Barbara Benedek (The Big Chill) — hired art consultant Nancy Chaikin, and the two have worked together since to build a formidable collection, searching patiently for just the right pieces. They saw several works by Martin, for instance, before deciding on one.
Recently, Benedek’s passion for art intersected with another love — his alma mater — to open the door for the purchase of a new work. “It’s kind of a funny story. I went to the University of Michigan. I’m a big Michigan guy. I raise a lot of money for Michigan,” says the agent, who has given significant sums to the university, including donations to its School of Screen Arts & Cultures and the University of Michigan Museum of Art (which will honor him in April at its biannual gala, UMMA Glow). During the recent art transaction, he recalls, “the [seller’s agent], unbeknownst to us, was a Michigan graduate, and while we were there looking at the painting, my phone rang and [my ringtone] was the Michigan fight song. I do believe that helped us get the painting. We got a really great deal on it.”
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