Over the past few months, John Morrissey has been busy hanging and displaying nearly 30 works from his coveted 200-piece art and furniture collection in his new Hobe Sound home. It’s an exciting time for the local lawyer, as this is the very first time he has actually lived with his art, despite having been collecting for three decades.
“My home in Hobe Sound was a blank canvas, an empty shell made for me and my collection,” says Morrissey, 54, who recently closed on the 4,000-square-foot Intracoastal home with lush views of mangroves and a private dock. His prior home in West Palm Beach didn’t have adequate space to display his vast collection of emerging and contemporary artists, and being able now to live among the art he has kept in storage for years has been exhilarating. “I have never been able to hang my favorite artists,” he says. “Now I can do that and also display my collectible furniture. It makes me very happy.”
Buying art has been a studied passion for Morrissey that began in 1992. While working toward his Juris Doctor degree at Georgetown Law, the young attorney-in-the-making—who also earned a degree in finance from Georgetown University’s School of Business—made it a practice to devote one hour each morning to researching everything available about emerging artists so he could make informed decisions about what to purchase. It’s a self-imposed strategy that he has stuck with over the years. “I read articles on the internet, keep up with current events in the art world, and research any emerging artists who interest me,” he says. “I look at their talent levels, intelligence, work ethic, educational background, and awards and grants. I love the whole research process, so continuing it all of these years hasn’t been difficult. It is my passion.”
An independent lawyer working in the areas of estate planning, as well as probate and trust administration and litigation, Morrissey was 5 years old when he first took an interest in collecting things. As a young boy living in Lake Worth and Lantana, he was enamored with comic books, coins, and baseball cards. “Art collecting is a grown-up version of what I did as a kid,” he says. As he grew older, he started attending shows and fairs and learned how to trade. In his early twenties, he transferred that interest into collecting emerging artists, especially female and minority artists.
“In the early 1990s, when I started collecting, the world was changing,” notes Morrissey. “As a white male, I felt like a dinosaur in the art world. So I concentrated on female figurative painters and photographers and Black artists, a lot of people from Yale School of Art.”
Two of his earliest purchases were “pop shop” prints by the famed Keith Haring, a couple of years after the artist’s death, but since then Morrissey has focused solely on emerging artists. “I took out a loan to buy the Haring prints,” he recalls of his big purchase in 1992. “But now I prefer original paintings, drawings, or limited-edition photographs by young, much lesser-known artists on their way up. My goal is to own historically important works. Once an artist becomes successful, I am no longer interested in buying more of their art.”
Some favored American artists whose works he currently owns include Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Hilary Harkness, and Natalie Frank. His collection also includes pieces by Robyn O’Neil, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tommy Kha, Adam Pendleton, and Anj Smith. Recently, he has been collecting more art by international artists, including Montenegro-born Darja Bajagic (“Her work is dark and Gothic,” says Morrissey), and Dominican Firelei Báez. “I am buying more Caribbean and Asian-American artists now,” he says.
Other artists he has “discovered” through his research and purchased in the past span the globe, including American photographer/artist Jack Pierson, Puerto Rican painter Enoc Perez, French-born painter and sculptor Nicole Eisenman, American photographer Katy Grannan, British painter Cecily Brown, and American painter and installation artist Karen Kilimnik.
Morrissey’s mission to discover young talent before the artists become too big (and too expensive) has paid off. Back in 2003, for example, he purchased a Kehinde Wiley for $16,000. At auction today, the New York–based portrait artist fetches more than $650,000 per painting. In 2017, Wiley was commissioned to paint then-President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery; he also painted a portrait of rapper Big Daddy Kane, which Morrissey bought and loaned to the Boca Raton Museum of Art in 2015.
“I had four of Wiley’s paintings over the years and have sold them for many multiples,” Morrissey says. “I bought him when he was young. I don’t get emotionally attached to what I collect, and I don’t look back. I constantly seek out new artists to collect.”
Between 2004 and 2005, Morrissey paid less than $10,000 for three works by Mickalene Thomas, a New York–based visual artist, which he later sold. Thomas’ work can now command in the six figures. Similarly, in 2005, he paid $4,000 for two works by New York–based conceptual artist Adam Pendleton. Today, Pendleton is represented by Pace Gallery and also sees six-figure sales for his work.
Morrissey takes pride in his erudition as a collector and admits that he has done very well with it. “I felt early on that collecting artists with diverse ethnic backgrounds would prove successful, and I now feel a great sense of accomplishment,” he says.
His new home in Hobe Sound is still in progress on the decor front but already filled with artwork. Eight works by American painter Hilary Harkness—which Morrissey purchased years before she became a big name—grace the walls. Represented by the Mary Boone Gallery, Harkness is inspired by history, women’s issues, and literature. Her art is so detailed and labor-intensive that she typically completes only two pieces a year.
He owns six oil paintings by British artist Anj Smith, all of which are hanging in the first-floor guest room of his new home. Represented by Hauser & Wirth, Smith’s detailed works explore issues like identity, anxiety, and eroticism. Also part of Morrissey’s collection are three large-scale graphite drawings on paper by American Robyn O’Neil, displayed in the second-floor living/dining area. Throughout her career, O’Neil’s major theme has been the insignificance of man and animal at the mercy of nature.
Over the years, Morrissey has purchased a dozen works by Asian-American photographer Tommy Kha. Some he has sold, but he still owns three, which hang on the walls in the master bedroom. In the foyer, a dramatic sculpture by British visual artist brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman sits on a raised platform behind the staircase. The resin-and-paint sculpture is hard not to notice, with intertwining, naked body parts that create a somewhat jarring form. Much of the art by the Chapman brothers focuses on sex, politics, and morality and is intended to shock the viewer. And recently, the duo stopped working together as a team, which could increase the value of the works they have done together, like this one.
Mid-century is the furniture design genre that most interests Morrissey, and in his home, he proudly showcases a seven-piece display of pieces by George Nakashima—benches, chairs, a coffee table, and a dining table. He started buying from the Japanese-American woodworker/architect/furniture maker in the early to mid-2000s in anticipation of eventually owning a home large enough to accommodate the furniture. Nakashima, a father of the American Craft Movement, believed in treating wood with sensitivity, creating furniture that showed its natural features. “George remained true to his craft and kept imperfections in the wood,” Morrissey says. “His work was all made by hand and is very authentic.”
Having grown up by the water in South Florida, Morrissey loves water sports and tries to get out and kayak or paddleboard whenever he can. Lately, he has also been busy discovering new restaurants in the Hobe Sound area, counting Kork and Taylor Beach House Cafe as two newly discovered local favorites.
But his passion for undiscovered art remains in control of most of his personal time, as he continues to look for hot emerging artists. “It is hard to be the first one to discover a new artist now,” Morrissey says of the current market. “But I am always looking for the next untapped artist.”