Featured Collection: The Hess Art Collection

(Click to see works in the context of their surroundings)

The Hess Art Collection is a popular destination for tourists in California’s wine country. Founded by Donald Hess in a dual role as art collector and business man, the collection incudes only a limited number artists with whom he has a personal relationship, including Anselm Kiefer, Andy Goldsworthy, and Francis Bacon. This article provides a glimpse of what makes this collection so special.

By: Robert Ceballos, Director of the Hess Art Collection

The juxtaposition seemed odd. Obviously he needed to get from point to point and it’s not really practical to walk form San Francisco to Napa. Just the same, the sight of Andy Goldsworthy driving a petroleum powered vehicle down a wooded road struck me as a bit out of place. Granted, it was one of San Francisco’s eco friendly City Share Cars, but it did not fit at all with my preconceptions – silly though they may have been. We were to meet at the museum but his GPS (yes, his GPS) had placed The Hess Art Collection Winery slightly east of where it really is, so he turned around a little lost. I spied him in the bubble-shaped eco car, fairly removed from my original picture of him shivering in the predawn cold, saturated by nature, leaves falling and the sound of a stream nearby – with absolutely no sight of technology in the picture.

At its most basic definition, technology is merely the knowledge and use of tools and Goldsworthy is a master at implements & implementation, using what is at hand to bring together many parts into one ephemeral and organic whole. As our cars passed, he caught my startled look of recognition, and then the sudden flash of my brake lights in his rear view mirror; he soon turned his car to follow me to our meeting place.

To say the least, Goldsworthy is something of an icon in the “art circle” and I had to remind myself not to be nervous – I kept thinking about the “bubble car”. I was relieved to find him personable and quite down to earth. Of course, using that last phrase I risk a rather poor pun but the description is nevertheless apt: He set to business with no pretention, only a steadfast assuredness of the business we needed to cover. We were to discuss the possibilities of a new installation for the Hess Art Collection. Unfortunately we will not do but from my point of view, I got to spend twenty minutes with an art super-hero.

The Cornerstone of the Collection – a Personal Relationship with the Artist

I learned a few things that day. We had some of Goldsworthy’s Snow Ball Drawings mislabeled, which lead to a larger discussion of how he did them. He went into some detail and left me with a heightened appreciation for them. I did not know, for example, the seeds he used for pigment were collected in the woods near Jackson, California, or that he boiled them to help leach the color, or that he had written some of this information very inconspicuously along the paper’s edge. After he left, I realized that core to the Hess Art Collection, is the fact that I am able to meet, speak to, and learn from the artists. Our founder and chairman, Donald M. Hess, made a commitment early on to collect only from living artists for the very reason I just described, which he put very succinctly: It is very important to me to have a personal relationship with the artist.”

Donald Hess’s relationship between collector and artist is the cornerstone of the collection. It is not adequate, let alone desirable, to merely own a work; instead there must be a synergy between collector and work, artist and collector and ultimately the dynamic between an artist and his work. If it is a painting, Mr. Hess wants to find passion and conviction coming through all the layers of paint, but he also wants to also hear about it from the artist.

To this point, Mr. Hess speaks wistfully of the impossibility of dinner with Picasso or lunch with Van Gogh. Although he admires old master works and understands their importance in both a historical and emotional context, it is contemporary art that moves him because there is an interactive, ongoing dynamism in which he can participate.

An hour in the museum with him is a series of engaging, personal stories, and not long into it, the realization of a profound conviction on Mr. Hess’s part, that what he is doing as a collector has a larger social purpose. Moreover, one leaves feeling she has been part something very real, that Donald Hess is a committed and passionate collector and his investment is driven by ‘spirit’ rather than hope for future profit; Mr. Hess is proud to say he has never sold a work. Indeed, collecting for him is not a hobby, it is a purpose-filled calling with simple and clear criteria for adding to the collection:

I rely chiefly on my intuition and on my own eyes. However, I still find that when I wake up several times at night and thinking about a painting, as a result of having been deeply moved by a particular piece of art, that continues to be the best indicator for purchasing a new work. I am certainly not influenced by fashionable trends, nor does it matter to me how well known an artist is. My main criteria are: An artwork cannot just be visually pleasing – it has to deeply touch me in such a way that during the week before finally purchasing the artwork I constantly think about it.

When one meets Mr. Hess, his appetite for challenges and growth is immediately apparent. He genuinely is interested in meeting you, and if you engage him you are in for an energetic conversation. Contemporary artists move him to consider new and occasionally unpleasant ideas and ways of understanding; their work relates to the culture and time of his daily experience. Mr. Hess loves piquant witty conversations with artists and he is full of questions about their work. Arguably, a person’s response to contemporary art is fresh by default; newer works lack the layered patina of art’s historical varnish that accumulates when a painting has been distilled and served to us in a neat, digestible package.

Donald Hess’s Art Acquisition Approach – Collecting in Depth

Donald Hess’s experience in acquisition is always of the new and presents an important and well developed concept. He often refers to the collection as “difficult,” meaning the works have pushed the envelope and strive to push the viewer past a certain level of comfort. Furthermore, he sees it as his job to defend the art against, as he puts it, “an often uncomprehending public.” By this he means that people will often dismiss a work based on their first impressions and preexisting biases. It is his task to show the work and to promote a discourse between the viewer and the work – in this way the artist is supported and the art fulfills its intended purpose to challenge the viewer and influence, in some way, his way of experiencing the world.

It is essential to Mr. Hess that he follow an artist’s creative development over many years; he uses the term “collecting in depth” and states: “I do not buy varied isolated works, preferring to limit myself to a small group of about 20 artists. It is important [that I] acquire his or her art at regular intervals.”

It could well be argued that a painting or sculpture obtains more meaning when seen as part of a corpus. To this end, we curated our Napa museum space as a series of small retrospectives, where the breath of an artist’s oeuvre is represented in a concise, easily encompassed group. We take great care not to simply pack the walls with as much as they can bear. Instead, following the adage of less is more; we approach our exhibits with economy so that works work in harmony rather than conflict with one another. We hope that visitors are encouraged to take in the exhibition with thought and deliberateness, without feeling the need to rush. This metered, thought- provoking aspect of our exhibit is paramount to the overall experience we strive to promote.

A Passion for Wine and Art

After 20 years, The Hess Collection experience embraces two passions: Wine and art. We hope that if someone comes to taste the wine that they will discover the art, and conversely, as we work to introduce visitors to our wines, the art provides an additional magnet to bring people to the facility. The format employed at the Hess Collection in Napa is the prototype of two other wineries held by our parent company Hess Family Estates.. Bodega Colomé in Argentina and Glen Carlou in South Africa. Both share the wine and art concept but in a manner unique and sensitive to their particular place and culture.

In all locations, the art display is treated very non-commercially. The artists frequently take part in how their work is displayed and they maintain copyrights; any time we wish to reproduce them we must obtain their permission. We do not place images from the collection on our labels and there have been only a handful of occasions where we have used images from the museum in ads, and then only after the artist approved the proof. We are very careful to draw a line between the art and the marketing of our brands.

This is the truly amazing thing about Donald Hess in his dual role as art collector and business man: Although not entirely mutually exclusive, the two sides of the business remain, for the most part, separate with some symbiotic echoes of one another. At the end of the day, one’s experience of both art and wine is purely subjective. Learning to appreciate good wine and good art is an organic process, our tastes evolve and it takes time and commitment to develop deeper appreciation. The art, displayed in the setting of a winery, makes a statement of exacting quality and commitment to value, without degrading the essential character of either.

From its inception, The Hess Collection has encouraged visitors by offering access to the museum free of charge. This is another example of Donald Hess’s insistence that the collection be experienced by as large a public as possible. Following this cue, we take it as our duty to exhibit the work and support the artist. Earlier, when I made reference to our parent company, I had to hover over that statement for a bit and think about how to phrase it in a way that conveys the small hands-on approach we take. Hess Family Estates is a small, privately held corporation. Within that group, the Hess Art Collection is its own entity. When one speaks of corporations and parent companies it is difficult not to denote a certain largess, but in fact we remain a comparatively small company whose leader is a man with a tremendous social conscience and a hands-on approach. Mind you, a disclaimer is needed desperately needed here. I say that under his pay, but I say it sincerely after 17 years working for him. I realize from this experience that there is an uncommon sincerity and integrity to Mr. Hess’s endeavors.

All of the Mr. Hess’ companies are naturally based. In the 1960s artist Rolf Iseli convinced him that he had to care for the land, long before there was a mainstream green movement. Mr. Hess has continued to do things his own way, with a tremendous degree of consideration for the social and environmental impacts of his actions. Our vineyards are all sustainable, some organic, and with increasing frequency, biodynamic. Conversely, many of the artists in the collection – Anselm Kiefer, Markus Raetz and Robert Rauschenberg to name just three – espouse the same views. The intention of the Hess Art Collection is to inspire thought and change one’s world view in some way. It reflects a core philosophical value of the Hess Family Estates that the he two parts, wine and art, are intricately related.

So in some circuitous way, this gets us back to Andy Goldsworthy and his “bubble car.” At the core of the Hess Art Collection is a sincerity and authenticity that unfortunately, in our world of global markets, is becoming increasingly rare. There is an authenticity to the approach of collecting art, not for prestige but because it opens one’s world to new possibilities that can only be achieved by diverse and meaningful human interactions. The artist can no more find recognition and growth alone in his studio than the businessman can find growth only within what is measurably safe and predictable. The binding word here is risk, artist and businessman working in interactive symbiosis, one challenging the other to go beyond what is standard, commonly wise, or expected. In this way, both take risks in search of authenticity and the forging of new realities. Goldsworthy – or indeed any artist’s presence in the life of the Hess Art Collection – makes it real … and real is something the world desperately needs. That and famous artists lost in the woods driving “bubble cars.”


Located in Napa Valley, the Hess Art Collection showcases a world-class fine art collection, along with award-winning world-class wines. The Hess Collection Visitor Center is open to the public daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The Hess Art Collection may be viewed free of charge from 10:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily. For information about the Hess Art Collection and its wine/art tours and directions to the winery, go to http://www.hesscollection.com/web/experience.html or call (707) 265-3489.