Bob and Margo Roth: Collecting Ahead of the Curve
On November 17 last year, Margo Roth and her granddaughter, Liza Namy, attended the opening night of Nick Cave: Forothermore at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Open through April 10, 2023, the career-spanning retrospective of Cave’s art honors his “lifelong commitment to creating space for those who feel marginalized by dominant society and culture.”
“It was a lot of fun,” Margo says of the opening night party. “We attended a private dinner afterward, and Nick was very charming, so that was exciting.”
Margo attended the show because one of the featured pieces, Penny Catcher, resembling a life-sized marionette, is normally suspended in a corner of her living room. Unfortunately, she was unable to attend with her beloved husband and partner in art collecting, Bob Roth, who had died unexpectedly after a sudden illness in April of 2022.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago had asked them to loan the dapper, dangling black-suited figure for Forothermore, which ran at MCA Chicago from May 14 to October 2, 2022, before moving to the Guggenheim. Chicagoan Cave started as a costume designer and choreographer and has crafted many theatrical pieces for parades and installations. Upon first seeing the piece, Margo found the controversial black-faced head with an exaggerated wide-open mouth—as if a target for an old arcade penny-tossing game—“intimidating.”
“I knew that she didn’t want it, and that was unusual for us to differ,” Bob had said during an interview and tour of their remarkable collection several months before his death. He added that was the longest he ever took to purchase a piece of art from a New York art dealer, roughly a year.
“I was hoping they would lose it on the way,” Margo kidded him. “We wanted one of his other pieces, but it was too tall to fit in that space.”
“Actually, that was the first piece I can remember that ever happening, because we always have pretty much the same taste,” Bob then clarified.
Today, after a rough year, Margo reveals that she is okay and still enjoying life with her family. “I miss Bob, and I am sad, but I am functioning, and I’m pretty independent,” she says.
A year ago, during the tour of their home brimming with museum-quality pieces, Margo pointed out paintings and photographs by a range of renowned contemporary artists from Helen Frankenthaler, Roy Lichtenstein, and Pablo Picasso to Radcliff Bailey, Annie Leibovitz, and Carrie Mae Weems.
One of her favorites was a striking, resplendently-red image in the library by Irish photographer Richard Mosse, who spent time in the Democratic Republic of Congo to complete his commanding project The Enclave. The photos capture rebel fighters from different factions moving through the dense undergrowth of the eastern region of the country. From 2010 to 2014, Mosse employed an outdated military infrared film technology designed during World War II to reveal camouflaged elements concealed within the landscape.
“The infrared film makes all of the vegetation red so when you get up close you see all of the people in the photo, the rebels or the refugees fleeing from that conflict,” she explained.
Margo also paused to admire a piece in their front hallway by El Anatsui, a Ghanaian sculptor who has gained international attention from his “bottle-top installations.” He has people collect pop cans, beer cans, and bottle tops, and then he hammers them and creates framed sculptures, large and small. She stops to look at a trademark lenticular piece by Hank Willis Thomas, White Is Black, that hangs in their front hall. She then shifted her position several times to view the hologram-like work made from different stripes of text or images that change what it says depending on your viewpoint: Black imitates White, Black imitates Black, White imitates Black, and so on.
The Roths had lovingly, painstakingly adorned every wall, hallway, nook and cranny of their home with eye-catching, engaging art. The residence itself stands as a piece of historic, architectural art, built for Alfred Rankin, father-in-law of recent Cleveland Arts Prize winner Clara Rankin.
Cleveland artist Hildur Jonsson, who rarely gives interviews but was happy to talk about the Roths, who have known her for a couple decades and own two of her pieces, said at that time: “They are always so positive, pleasant, they’re both just great human beings. I can’t say enough positive things about them. They’ve just been so supportive of artists and the whole community.”
Roughly a year before the Roths got married in 1964, Bob started collecting lithographs and prints. “We decided purchasing art is what we would do with our extra money instead of putting it in the bank,” recalled Bob, who had recently retired as a pharmacist. “We bought a couple pieces a year, and after a certain period of time, you have a lot of art!”
One of the first pieces he had bought was an orange and green American flag by Jasper Johns, now adorning an upper hallway wall. It’s one of the artist’s iconic series in which, when you stare at the white dot in the center and then look at a white wall, your eyes see the real colors of the flag. The price tag was $50, but if he paid $100, the gallerist informed him, he could get a signed copy. Bob handed over the $100. Today, he then said with a wry smile, that signed copy is worth $15,000.
After about fifteen years, the couple chose to forgo prints and lithographs to focus on original contemporary artworks with a special interest in African American artists. They sold ten of their prints at Sotheby’s and used the $100,000 they made to invest in $150,000 worth of artists with unique pieces rather than prints. They began to work with Joanne Cohen, who ran Progressive Insurance’s regional artwork program for many years before directing the Cleveland Clinic Foundation’s art program for nearly fifteen years. Currently, she consults with collectors through her art advisory business.
“The Roths were early adopters ahead of the curve,” Cohen said prior to Bob’s death. “They were acquiring prints by artists like Andy Warhol before many others in Cleveland. They collected in an immersive and exhaustive way, and they frequented arts institutions not just in Cleveland but nationally that enabled them to fuel their passion.”
Over the years, they occasionally met Cohen in New York to visit galleries, including the Jack Shainman Gallery that has a focus on artists from Africa, East Asia, and North America.
“African American art is important to us,” Bob had explained. “It’s bold and exciting, it’s underrepresented, and we enjoy it.”
Dennis Barrie, PhD, vice president, experience design, Western Reserve Historical Society, considers the Roths two of his closest friends. He met them when he returned to Cleveland in September 1993 to direct the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
“Bob was one of the most astute collectors in the Cleveland area and had a very discerning eye,” Barrie says. “He was willing to take risks on collecting African American artists pretty early on. Now there’s a wave of interest in these creators, but he and Margo were willing to take the chance on artists like Nick Cave long before that.”
In August 2019, Bob had opened the District Gallery at the Van Aken District in Shaker Heights with two partners: Karen Chaikin, his niece on Margo’s side, and Richard Uria. The three had a combined fifty years of art collecting experience. Uria had heard about the Roth’s home gallery from a mutual friend and requested a tour. After viewing their splendid contemporary collection, Uria asked Bob if he was interested in selling some of their artworks in a new gallery.
“I said I have no interest in that whatsoever, and I just won’t do it,” Bob had told his friend. “I’m not an academic, and I don’t like reading about things. I buy instinctively, and that’s it. I’m not interested in what people think about the art.”
However, Bob had thought the new Van Aken District would be an ideal location to place an art gallery, and it became a huge success and source of fun for the partners. Currently, District Gallery is in the process of relocating sometime this summer around the corner in Van Aken District to a larger space on Tuttle Road next to Nature’s Oasis.
The Roths were also quite overjoyed to see young people and couples investing in art, just like they did early in their marriage. Their advice for fledgling collectors then was, no matter how trite it may sound, follow the old adage: Buy what you enjoy and enjoy it.
“It’s an inexpensive way to collect something that might be valuable, but you should never hope for that,” Bob had concluded. “You can’t buy a piece and say, ‘What will that be worth?’ People ask that, but I think it’s impossible to know. Just enjoy it.”
Sage advice from a great collector with Margo, and an affable, kind gentleman. May he rest in peace.