The Life and Times of an Iconic Philadelphia Art Collection
by Heath Ballowe
Much has been written about art collectors, and much has been said about the long-time Philadelphia Collectors Vicente Lim and Robert Tooey. In 2004, Helen Drutt English wrote in American Craft Magazine, “Like collectors before them, Vicente Lim and Robert Tooey hold the reigns of history, as they pursue an affinity with the art of their time.” Thirteen years later, their commitment to preserving the legacy of 20th century American Craft still has not waned.
With the media’s constant coverage of the record breaking auction prices being paid for contemporary art it is hard to maintain the frame of reference that the vast majority of art collectors are real people, with real jobs, that live average lives. That case rings even more true when it comes to the demographics of art collectors in Philadelphia. Vicente, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson University who works in an area hospital, and Robert, now a retired US Postal Supervisor, have never been grouped in with the high society collectors tripping over themselves to pay a record breaking price for a work of art. They are, and always have been, modest collectors that understood the important cultural legacy of visual art and saved their pennies for the opportunity to live with beautiful handmade objects.
In the early 1980s Lim and Tooey started their collection small, collecting inexpensive prints and drawings, but it wasn’t long before they were both seduced by the potentially endless possibilities of art in clay. Vicente in particular, was taken by the work of Viola Frey. So, when he made a trip to her studio he brought back one of her masterpieces, ‘Woman With Orange Hands’, not even stopping to consider that the small home they lived in at the time wasn’t equipped to display it. Vicente and Bob didn’t panic when the ceilings in their home weren’t high enough to fit her massive 8-foot scale. They simply made the obvious choice to them at the time - they modified their home to fit the sculpture.
Eventually, Vicente and Robert saved up enough money to purchase a home that could accommodate ‘Woman With Orange Hands’, which also made it possible for them to grow their collection even larger, as well as allowed their interests to expand further than just the work itself. Their ferocious desire to understand the history of the art they had surrounded themselves with drove them to read every magazine, visit every exhibition and read every book about contemporary ceramics they could get their hands on. What started out as merely documenting the provenance of the Lim/Tooey Collection has become a massive collection of ephemera, cataloguing the history of American Craft. It has also given Vicente an encyclopedic comprehension of ceramics history. In a field of study that often seems separate from the rest of the art historical cannon, Vicente’s extensive body of knowledge has become a valuable resource for ceramics historians and artists. This has garnered him a substantial social media following, as a result.
In recent years, as square-footage in their home has seemingly evaporated, Vicente and Bob have greatly decreased their rate of collection. They continue, but choose to add only a few pieces here and there comprised mostly of works they believe managed to slip through their fingers the first go round. Their role as “contemporary collectors” has shifted to “stewards of a historical collection.” They have generously chosen to become mentors to the next generation of Philadelphia art collectors by employing the legacy they have acquired as a teaching tool by loaning works for exhibitions and using their experience to teach aspiring collectors how to begin. As a person gets to know these two incredible men, it is difficult to not become inspired by their passion and commitment to the art community in Philadelphia. We can all be certain that they, and their collection, will continue to inspire for generations to come.