A Former Studio, Still Filled With Art
Published in The New York Times
December 31, 2006
WHEN scaffolding began to block the view from his living room on the Upper West Side, Frederico Sève could have been angry. After all, the view — over the turreted roof of the Museum of Natural History — is one of the living room’s best features.
But Mr. Sève, a dealer in Latin American art, decided to look on the bright side. “We’ve never put UV protection on the glass,” he said. “So the scaffolding is actually helping to protect the artwork.”
He was referring to some of the hundreds of pieces — most of them by Latin American artists — collected by Mr. Sève and his wife, Violy McCausland, an investment banker. The 2,100-square-foot room in which they hang is larger than many suburban houses, with 24-foot ceilings, a gigantic fireplace on one side and the billboard-size window on the other. The apartment has half a dozen other rooms, but they are so ordinary, compared with the living room, that most visitors never even see them.
Ms. McCausland, 52, was born in Baranquilla, Colombia, and made her name as an investment banker at J. P. Morgan. She bought the apartment in 1997, about two years before she married Mr. Sève, now 58.
The room, with its huge north-facing window, was built in 1909 as a studio for Karl Bitter, who created the sculptural elements on the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ms. McCausland bought the apartment from a publishing executive who had filled it with neo-Classical details.
That décor was “fake,’’ Ms. McCausland said derisively. The daughter of a pioneering modernist architect, the late Roberto McCausland, she wanted form to follow function.
So Ms. McCausland, a charismatic figure who makes no small plans, asked half a dozen architects to reimagine the room. She was intrigued by their ideas but was afraid that their architecture would upstage her art collection (which got a lot bigger when she married Mr. Sève, who owned a gallery in his native Rio de Janeiro).
Two years after she bought the apartment, Ms. McCausland still hadn’t moved in. She had plenty else to do. The mother of three, and stepmother of two through Mr. Sève, she had left a comfortable post at Morgan to start a small investment bank with a partner, Stormy Byorum. Over the years, she said, she has handled some $70 billion in deals. When the partnership with Ms. Byorum broke up in 2003, she started Violy & Company, which advises companies, many in Latin America, on strategies for growth.
She is also a member of the investment committee of the Museum of Modern Art (which advises the museum’s trustees); a key supporter of Aid for AIDS, an organization fighting the disease in Latin America; and a board member of numerous other organizations. “My father did it, and my grandfather did it, so I do it,” she said of her philanthropy.
But if charity begins at home, the couple had to have one. As Ms. McCausland recalls it, her husband finally gave her an ultimatum about the Upper West Side apartment. “He didn’t think it made financial sense to keep it empty,” Ms. McCausland said. And the renovations would have taken years. So the couple let a friend, Pin Morales, an artist based in Madrid, move in, and he transformed the space using paint and plaster.
Features that the couple didn’t like, including carved wood doors, were camouflaged. It wasn’t a renovation — the guts, including an antiquated electrical system, remain — so much as an arts-and-crafts project with pedigree.
Onto the background created by Mr. Morales and others, the couple have introduced countless artworks. They range from painting on canvas — there’s a striking portrait by Wilfredo Lam, sometimes called the Cuban Picasso — to several pieces made of starfish strung together by María Fernanda Cardozo, who was born in Colombia.
A majority of the artists are from South America; Mr. Sève owns Latin Collector, a gallery that recently moved from TriBeCa to West 57th Street. And many of them are women. In addition to Ms. Cardozo’s huge hanging pieces, there are string constructions by Gego, the nickname of Gertrud Goldschmidt, a Venezuelan artist. Other recent additions include three paintings by Carmen Herrera, a Cuban-born painter whose work, favorably reviewed by critics decades ago, has recently been rediscovered. Ms. Herrera, who is past 90, lives in Lower Manhattan.
The furniture is equally eclectic — there is a chair by Mauricio Klabin, a Brazilian designer who died in 2000, and two stools by Generoso Villareal, a Mexican designer. And then there is a table by the Japanese-American master George Nakashima, which Ms. McCausland bought at auction and which serves as breakfast table, conference table and (during large gatherings) buffet.
The room has held up to 350 (during a memorial for Mr. Klabin), and 130 for a sit-down dinner, Ms. McCausland said. The couple’s dinners typically mix Latin American business and government officials, artists and designers.
“Why live in a place like this if you’re not going to have a lot of people over?” Mr. Sève said.
Both he and Ms. McCausland are advocates. His role is to promote Latin American artists. “When they come to this country, people expect them to paint palm trees,” said Tony Bechara, a painter and the chairman of El Museo del Barrio, who is a close friend of the couple. If there are any palm trees in the McCausland/Sève apartment, they’re hidden behind abstract and conceptual pieces.
Ms. McCausland’s role is to attract foreign investors to Latin American companies, a task complicated by stereotypes about the instability of governments there. True, she said, there are problems — some of her clients are Venezuelan companies whose assets could be nationalized — but there are many positives as well.
In business meetings, Ms. McCausland often compares the foreign debt of the United States with that of supposedly debt-ridden Latin American countries, not as a critique of the United States but to challenge notions that Latin American countries are living on the edge. Whatever her politics — photos of the couple with Bill Clinton give a hint — she is a pragmatist who can describe the strengths and weaknesses of every Latin American government in plain English, which she learned in childhood, and even plainer Spanish.
Whether she’s speaking to one person or a hundred, she has the room to do it in. “The energy of this room makes people relax, and that leads to dialogue, and dialogue leads to all kinds of good things,” she said. Even the scaffolding outside the window can’t change that.