SANTA FE, N.M. — What started out as picking out artwork to keep their walls from being bare has evolved into a decadeslong passion for art collectors Carl and Marilynn Thoma.
Living in Chicago and thriving in business, they would travel to Santa Fe occasionally and purchase small Southwestern pieces for their home. As they “matured,” became more successful in their careers and their appreciation for arts grew, they found their own artistic interests.
Now, the Thomas have collected some 800 artworks, big and small, and from wide-reaching genres, that they display and loan to museums across the country.
“In the ’70s, we were decorating our home,” said Carl Thoma. “In the ’80s, we started treating (the art) as things we would own for the rest of our life, treating it with respect and researching the artists.”
The couple, who have solidified themselves as staples on the Santa Fe arts scene, now split time between homes in the City Different and Chicago. Carl Thoma is one of the leaders of Chicago’s Thoma Bravo, a private equity firm.
Outside of collecting and their day jobs – Marilynn works with the family’s Oregon winery – they work behind the scenes within their two cities’ arts communities.
Here in Santa Fe, Carl Thoma is on the board of Site Santa Fe, while Marilynn is a board member at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Together with their nonprofit foundation, they also have supported the Currents New Media Festival, the Museum of International Folk Art and the New Mexico School for the Arts’ new media curriculum.
The Thoma Foundation, which they began in 2014, is operated in both cities, and was created to provide support for both individuals and organizations in the fields of art the couple likes to collect.
Carl’s main interests are Geometric abstraction and vintage digital art. Marilynn’s passions are for Spanish Colonial art and New Mexico Modernism, as well as Japanese Bamboo art
According to the Thoma Foundation’s 2015 nonprofit tax form, the market value of the foundation’s assets is more than $79 million, which appears mostly to be from the organization’s securities.
“With the arts, it really has to rely on the private sector or else it will go away … . You try to spend your money where, if you don’t spend it, nobody else will support them,” said Carl Thoma.
He said that with all of Santa Fe’s “world-class activities,” along with local friends who suggested they join various boards, one thing led to another.
The couple, who bought a second home in Santa Fe about 10 years ago, did not land here by chance. Before meeting at Oklahoma State University and marrying in 1970, they both grew up in the Southwest. Marilynn was raised in Woodward, Okla., about 200 miles from where Carl grew up in the Oklahoma panhandle.
He was born in Roswell and was raised not far from Clayton, where his grandfather owned a ranch. He would often go to Santa Fe with his grandparents on business because some of the ranch land was leased from the state. With his New Mexico ties, he calls Santa Fe “an extension of home.”
“The open skies out here and expansive views are inspiring and therapeutic,” Carl Thoma said. “(Marilynn) relates to that … to me, it’s almost more home than Chicago.”
When he and his wife started purchasing art early on, it started off with Southwestern art and artworks by the Taos masters until their interests expanded to other areas.
Santa Fe also has become, as of about 10 years ago, home to their daughter, Margo Thoma, who also has followed them into the arts.
Margo said she considers herself lucky growing up around her parents’ love for the arts and remembers going to art shows with her father. She watched as he began getting inspired by and started to seriously collect digital art after seeing his wife pursue a Spanish Colonial collection.
She moved to operate a modern art gallery right off Canyon Road in a property her father purchased. In 2014, her gallery merged with TAI Gallery, which specialized in Japanese bamboo art, in the Railyard. TAI’s former owner was a friend of her parents, which helped form their passion for the art form they now collect.
Margo Thoma also is a board member at the Center for Contemporary Arts, and said having her active mom and dad around pushes her to stay busy.
“You feed off each other a little bit,” she said. “They’re really involved, so I get involved. Then my involvement increases their involvement. We’ve all become a really arty family.”
With the space left behind after Margo’s gallery merged, the Thoma Foundation opened Art House on Delgado Street, which mostly displays parts of the Thomas digital art collection in a free and open-to-the-public space.
Loans to museums
With the Thoma collection, the staff creates frequent exhibitions for Art House, while also loaning out many of Marilynn’s Spanish Colonial artworks to places like the Art Institute of Chicago and Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art.
Museums are also showing an increased interest in displaying digital artwork and Carl Thoma said pieces of the digital art collection will also soon be shipped to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art for an upcoming exhibition.
A large component of the foundation is grants and donations. Since 2015, it has given tens of thousands of dollars to writers who cover the digital arts field and, in 2016, began a research fellowship, which they hope to make an annual award for scholars who study Carl’s other passion of geometric abstract art. The couple’s foundation has also donated to various museums for exhibits or to create new positions that support their genres of interest.
“The fields they’ve chosen to champion are underserved areas,” said Mira Burack, the foundation’s associate director.
Only a few years into the foundation’s work, Carl Thoma said he feels it is starting to make progress with making a difference in their desired fields. One of the biggest challenges, he says, is making the right choices with whom they support.
He says sometimes he feels it’s easier to make money than to give it away, and that he and his wife try to answer the question: “Is our money going to make a difference or make someone’s job easier?
“If someone has already raised 80 percent, we don’t want to be the last 20 percent,” said Carl Thoma. “We’d rather be the first 20 percent and inspire somebody to do something they might not have done otherwise.”