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Keeper of the Collection

Written by Sheryl Nonnenberg | Photographed by Spencer Brown

Joe Oliveira finds purpose and satisfaction in caring for his father’s art.

Managing an art collection might conjure up images of fashionable gallery openings, gala VIP receptions, and mingling with the upper echelons of the art world. For Joe Oliveira, son of legendary Bay Area artist Nathan Oliveira, it is a labor of love and an opportunity to preserve his father’s legacy. And while it may sound glamorous, it is a big responsibility that requires hard work and attention to detail. Gentry wanted to meet with Oliveira to discuss how he became the administrator of his father’s estate and exactly what is entailed in overseeing a sizable collection of paintings, prints, and sculptures.

Nathan Oliveira, who rose to prominence in the 1950s as a second-generation Bay Area figurative painter, was born in Oakland in 1928. He attended the California College of Arts and Crafts and also studied with German expressionist Max Beckman. He was a professor of art at Stanford University for 32 years, from 1964
to 1996. His paintings, which were displayed in museums in this country and Europe, often combined abstract expressionist language with figurative concepts. His principal themes were the solitary figure and abstracted landscapes, executed in rich earth tones.

When asked what it was like to grow up on the Stanford campus, Joe responds immediately with one word: “Camelot.” He goes on to explain that, in those days, he and his two sisters could roam around the campus, riding their bikes for hours at a time. “It was a different time and place,” he explains. “We wandered around with our friends, whose parents were also professors, freely and without worry.” He remembers being aware, at an early age, that his father was a famous artist. “We would always go to the shows, gallery events, and the museums. People would be crowded around him.”

Artist portraits taken by Leo Holub in 1986, including these of Nathan Oliveira, were gifted to the Cantor Arts Center by Harry and Mary Anderson in 2007.

He also has distinct memories of visiting his father’s studio, watching him work and talking about his art. By the time Joe was in his early teens, he was learning about the shipping and installation of artwork. In his high school years, he had a knack for organization and knowledge of computers—not strong points for his father, who much preferred to be creating art in his studio. Joe relates a story about how his father came to him one day and asked him to do an inventory of his drawings and prints. “I spent most of a summer organizing 12 cabinets (six drawers each) of several thousand works on paper,” he says. “It gave me a real sense of the breadth of his composition as well as what existed inside the mediums: watercolor, gouache, drawings, monotypes, and lithography.” At the end, he had created spreadsheets with pertinent details about every piece of art, which delighted his father. Unknowingly, he had also set the stage for his future as the director of his father’s art collection.

When it came time to attend college and pick a career, Joe says that his father, in no uncertain terms, warned him not to go into the arts. “Dad hated all the art world stuff—galleries, deal-ers, et cetera, which is why he became a teacher. It gave him the time he needed to work on his own art.”

Luckily, Joe had a predilection for music and attended California State Fresno, which was renowned for its jazz program. He played lead tenor saxophone in the “A band” (which Joe says was viewed as a professional-level group) and moved to Europe in order to pursue a career in music. After returning to California, he was a partner in an event company from 1990 to 2013 and an assistant director of the Stanford Jazz Band, and he helped launch the Committee for Jazz at Stanford. A call from his father in 1996 would change his course.

Joe Oliveira | Photo by Spencer Brown

“Dad was getting older and asked me if I would run the administrative side of things,” notes Joe. “He knew I had a talent for business and a thorough knowledge of his work.”

In 2001, he began managing things full time. He formed a limited liability corporation and oversaw the annual gifting of artwork to family members. He was able to relieve his mother, Mona, of all the management duties surrounding taxes and interfacing with dealers. After her death, Joe took on an even more important role, that of a support system for his father. He described how his father became very depressed following the loss of Mona and could not paint for a two-year period. Joe rearranged the studio and encouraged Nathan to try working in sculpture. “It was a different means to communicate to him that he should keep the dialogue with his process going,” Joe says. Nathan created a series of figures and masks, which required a new set of technical needs. Joe soon became proficient in working with foundries and the process of creating sculpture, from wax casting to the final step of molding in bronze. “It was a lot of work but incredibly fun—and the outcome was gorgeous,” he says.

Upon his father’s death in 2010, Joe became the administrator of Nathan Oliveira’s estate.

“My role is to work with the collection, to get the collection into the right hands, to continue relationships with art dealers, and to curate shows,” Joe explains. He has assisted the Wiegand Gallery (College of Notre Dame du Namur), the Sonoma Art Museum, and the Pacific Art League in mounting exhibitions. Prior to the pandemic, he worked with the Fresno Art Gallery, which will present a large-scale exhibition of works from the family’s collection, including many that have not been seen before. He also oversees the storage, care, and conservation of each work of art.

Nathan Oliveira
He remembers being aware, at an early age, that his father was a famous artist. “We would always go to the shows, gallery events, and the museums. People would be crowded around him.”

It helps, he says that he has “lived with the art” and has such a great love for his father’s work. This, no doubt, helps him to deal with the less enjoyable aspects, like taxes and legal issues.

He also has to have an eye on the future of the collection. “I have to think of a succession plan and what that will be.” He has created a website (nathanoliveira.com) with scanned images of Nathan’s artwork for interested collectors and curators. He works with galleries that represent his father, including Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco, Westbrook Gallery in Carmel, and Pamela Walsh Gallery in Palo Alto.

Joe Oliveira clearly enjoys what he does and takes great satisfaction in making his father’s art available for a new generation of collectors. “Art, in general, is something you identify with or you don’t,” he emphasizes. “It’s very subjective. It’s an honor and a privilege to care for his work.”

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