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The Collecting Duo Pushing for Diversity

As museums grow, their collecting becomes more targeted, since they are building on an already substantial base of work. Gaps emerge to be filled, trends come along to be shaped and biases reveal themselves to be corrected.

If an expanding museum is lucky enough to have devoted supporters, sometimes they assist with strategic acquisitions. Atlanta’s High Museum of Art has found such patrons in the former Sotheby’s executive John Auerbach and the art consultant Ed Tang. The married couple have made it their mission to help the museum diversify its collection of contemporary works, some of which they find at art fairs like this week’s Frieze New York.

Over the last two years, Mr. Auerbach and Mr. Tang have played a role in 16 acquisitions, sometimes providing part or all of the funds for a purchase and other times giving work outright.

Eleven of those works are on view now or going up next week, including Gerald Lovell’s oil painting “Friendship Tower” (2021) and Tyler Mitchell’s “The Hewitt Family” (2021), an assemblage of photographic prints mounted on a mirror. Other artists whose work has been acquired as part of Mr. Auerbach and Mr. Tang’s efforts include Ludovic Nkoth and Kudzanai-Violet Hwami.

Mr. Auerbach, 44, was born and raised in Atlanta, and now serves as the chief executive of the art storage company Uovo. Mr. Tang, 35, is a native of Hong Kong and a founder of the consultancy Art-Bureau. They split their time between New York City and Litchfield, Conn.

They have been working closely with the High’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Michael Rooks.

“We’re doing our best to increase our holdings dramatically in terms of work by artists of color, women and those across the L.B.G.T.Q.I. spectrum,” Mr. Rooks said.

The High, he said, is not unique among museums in this focus. But what is unusual is the mind meld between the High’s staff and the collectors, who communicate nearly every week.

Partly because of his Atlanta roots, Mr. Auerbach has been the point person on the project. He met Mr. Rooks through a mutual friend, and they hit it off.

“It grew naturally,” Mr. Auerbach said. “Michael would call and say, ‘I saw this amazing Jeffrey Gibson punching bag.’” (He was referring to Mr. Gibson’s “The Love You Give Is the Love You Get” (2020), a beaded sculpture currently on view at the High in the exhibition “What Is Left Unspoken, Love.”)

Mr. Auerbach responded that he knew the gallery where the work was being offered, Roberts Projects of Los Angeles. He told Mr. Rooks, “I’ll call them, and we’ll buy it for you.”

After purchasing the piece, the couple held onto it for a bit. “We got to live with it for a while, and now it’s in its permanent home at the High,” Mr. Auerbach said.

Mr. Tang, who moved to the United States eight years ago, said the couple’s focus on diverse makers was personal. “Artists of color need equal footing,” he said.

Mr. Auerbach added that the museum’s mission “resonates for us. We’re a diverse family.”

Rand Suffolk, the High’s director, said it was the “degree of intention” that stood out to him about Mr. Auerbach and Mr. Tang.

“They are super intentional about wanting to help us move the needle and make a difference in the community,” said Mr. Suffolk, who has led the museum for six years. The High now has more than 18,000 works in its permanent collection.

Mr. Suffolk said the museum’s diversity push had been having the desired effect. The High’s nonwhite visitorship more than tripled from 2015 to 2020, and about 60 percent of its audience is now under the age of 35, not counting school groups.

“We’ve been candid about wanting to earn a different kind of credibility in our community,” Mr. Suffolk said. “People want to see themselves represented.”

The High has also made sure that the gifts from Mr. Auerbach and Mr. Tang have been placed on view quickly.

“It’s affirming for John and Ed,” Mr. Suffolk said. “We don’t put them in storage.”

The donations, however, have hardly depleted the art stores of the collectors. At home, they live with works by Cecily Brown, Wade Guyton, Salman Toor and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, among others. Paintings are favored, but sculptures and other media are represented, too.

As part of their collecting, they frequent art fairs. Mr. Auerbach recalled buying Chase Hall’s ​​“The Away Team (Little League)” (2021) at such an event last year; it is part of their gift to the High.

“We love looking around at fairs and talking to gallerists,” Mr. Auerbach said, adding that they planned to attend Frieze New York this week.

They are also engaged in other philanthropic efforts, including donations to other museums. “There’s a lot on our walls we’re giving away,” Mr. Auerbach said, mentioning a Christina Quarles painting that is a promised gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In Connecticut, they have also founded the Beecher Residency, which will begin this summer. One artist at a time will live and work in a notable Modernist home they own, the Stillman House, designed by the architect Marcel Breuer and completed in 1951.

For Mr. Auerbach, his work with the High ties back to his childhood.

“My mother used to take me there,” he said, “and that instilled my interest in art.” He can recall various exhibitions that he attended in the 1980s, as well as a specific work by Larry Bell that he saw when he was 10.

“The High is close to my heart,” Mr. Auerbach said, noting that the increasing diversity of the visitors was encouraging. “To be able to play a small part in that is very rewarding.”

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