Your Exclusive Peek at Dallas’ Thoma Foundation, One of America’s Most Important Private Collections

One Collecting Couple's Tour de Force

BY Catherine D. Anspon // 06.18.24

A rising tide lifts all boats, and in this case, the Dallas Art Fair has not only made the city the epicenter of Texas’ collecting energy, but it’s been a magnet for a game-changing art foundation. Cue the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation, which joins the city’s storied private The Rachofsky Collection (showcased at The Warehouse), Green Family Art Foundation, and Alden and Janelle Pinnell’s The Power Station.

Not only was this year’s Dallas Art Fair successful — again bookended by Dallas Invitational, an elevated smaller fair curated by And Now gallerist James Cope at the Fairmont Hotel — but it inspired the Thoma Foundation, which quietly into its new space 18 months ago, to throw open its Uptown doors for fair-time VIP groups and tours. This exciting first look at a remarkable private foundation owned by the philanthropic Carl and Marilynn Thoma — the couple relocated from Chicago to Dallas in 2022, for the weather and community — was one of the stories spun around Fair time.

I’d only learned of the now Dallas-based foundation when The ARTnews Top 200 Collectors 2023 issue hit the stands. Not even my well-connected art-savvy Dallas colleagues had this collecting couple on their radar. Flash forward to April 2024, and arts maven Libby Tilley, now directing PR for the Thoma Foundation, reached out with an irresistible invite for a private tour during Dallas Art Fair weekend. I replied “YES!!” and the following Friday afternoon found myself ensconced in a private collection on Cedar Springs, minutes from the Arts District.

Carl and Marilynn Thoma at the Thoma Foundation in Dallas
Marilynn and Carl Thoma with “The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” unidentified artist, late 17th century

Inside the Thoma Foundation

ARTnews had not prepared me for this handsome live/work building, where the foundation occupies more than half the second floor, an impressive, yet intimate 9,300 square feet dedicated to the collection that also serves as the Thoma Family office. Works by Yinka Shonibare CBE RA and a classic Morris Louis striped, color-fiend canvas from 1961 greeted, while paintings from the Spanish Americas, spanning the 17th through 19th centuries held court interspersed with connoisseur-level displays of Japanese bamboo basketry and a buoyant yellow column by Anne Truitt.

Curator Dr. Verónica Muñoz-Nájar and collection manager Meagan Robson began a tour, which was interrupted by founder Carl Thoma. The four of us adjourned to the conference room, while two parts of a nine-channel video by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson screened.

Anne Truitt’s Sun Flower, 1971/1984, at the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation.

Carl, soft-spoken, convivial, and low-key, shared details of their tour de force collection. His day job is managing partner and founder Thoma Bravo, a private equity corporation that specializes in technology, one of the largest software investors in the world. Wife Marilynn, his partner in collecting, was at the couple’s home, so we missed meeting; she’s the force behind the Art of the Spanish Americas collection (examples of which figure in long-term loans to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Blanton Museum of Art, Austin).

The couple met in college at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and have been on an acquisition journey together that began “about 25 to 30 years ago,” says Carl. “We started out collecting art by Taos founders and New Mexico modernists. All of that is in our Santa Fe home now,” he says. Marilynn had her own corporate career, with a Stanford MBA and an executive position at Quaker Oats; their family includes two children, Margo Thoma and Mark Thoma, both on the family board. Margo also owns TAI Modern in Santa Fe, a gallery specializing in contemporary American and Japanese bamboo art.

Honda Syoryu’s Sound of Earth, 2006, at the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation.

Carl and Marilynn sit on numerous cultural boards from the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Chicago Humanities Festival, and Blanton Museum of Art National Leadership (Marilynn) to the Hirshhorn Museum, Phoenix Art Museum, Terra Foundation for American Art, and SITE Santa Fe (Carl). They also have a passion for pinots, founding the 25-year-old Van Duzer Vineyards in Oregon. Carl says of the couple’s collecting philosophy, “The key is once you find a niche, you’ve got to really get smart on it, and then go at it with a passion.”

Besides their 1,600-work collection and its unique quartet of categories: Art of the Spanish Americas, Digital & New Media, Japanese Bamboo, Post-War Painting & Sculpture — perhaps an analogy might be the collecting range of the de Menils, who also supported the artists of their time (especially the Surrealists) while investigating ancient, Byzantine, and African art — the couple, like the de Menils, give back and are intrinsically involved in communities. To date, the separate art wing of the foundation, established in 2014, has lent more than 1,400 works of art to more than 250 exhibitions across the globe (including in many cases, paying for insurance and shipping), made more than 100 grants to nonprofit organizations totaling more than $26 million, awarded funding to 21 individuals for scholarly research, hosted 26 exhibitions at its spaces, and their mission goes on.

Our Lady of Remedies of La Paz, unidentified artist, 18th century, at the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation.

Carl says of the couple’s collecting philosophy, “The key is once you find a niche, you’ve got to really get smart on it, and then go at it with a passion.” He also uses the words “impulsive” and “intense” to describe their collecting method.

During the pandemic, with galleries shuttered, the couple doubled down on acquiring emerging Black artists to offer financial support, adding 20 key works to the collection, an approach they employed also for indigenous artists. Significantly, they were early collectors of Jeffrey Gibson, and supported his SITE Santa Fe retrospective. The Choctaw-Cherokee artist represents the U.S. in this year’s Venice Biennale; the foundation is one of the largest donors to the US. Pavilion to underwrite Gibson’s Venice project.

Carl says: “For $500,000 you can get 20 great young artists’ work, where that figure would buy a quarter of a piece in another collection. Look at Dallas collectors Craig and Kathyn Hall, where their pieces are $20 million each.”

Ja’Tovia Gary’s Citational Ethics (Saidiya Hartman, 2017), 2020, at the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Foundation.

Consequently, you’ll find important rising talents like Dallas-based, MoMA- and Pompidou-exhibited Ja’Tovia Gary’s neon signage in their collection, alongside an older generation of digital and media pioneers such as Jenny Holzer, James Turrell, Nam June Paik, Robert Irwin, Robert Wilson, Spencer Finch, Leo Villareal (the first digital work to enter the collection), and Jennifer Steinkamp.

Santa Fe trekkers will want to visit Art Vault, the foundation’s space in the city’s Railyard Arts District, a 3,500-square avant-garde venue focusing upon an immersive experience via cutting-edge digital art, one of the very few such collections open to the public in the U.S. In contrast, the Thoma Foundation Dallas’ HQ is by appointment only, for now. Stay tuned.

Thoma Foundation; by appointment only. For more collection information and/or to arrange a visit, go here

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