Jeffrey Gundlach, the billionaire investor and Amherst native who made a historic $42.5 million pledge to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery this week, began his relationship to the Elmwood Avenue institution as a young boy.
“My first experience was that of being a fairly young Buffalonian, being dragged there by my mother and my grandmother,” said Gundlach, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif. and briefly entertained putting together a bid for the Buffalo Bills with Jim Kelly in 2015.
But for Gundlach, it was not love at first sight. Gundlach, whose grandmother Helen Fuchs Gundlach was a noted local painter, avoided modern art as an adult. Instead, he collected landscapes and seascapes by California painters of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
“I had no interest in non-representational art at all,” Gundlach said. “I thought it was a joke. I thought it was a scam. You know, you put a pile of rocks in the corner and people call it art.”
That all changed during a 2002 trip to the Tate museum in London, where he came face-to-face with a painting by Piet Mondrian that blew his mind.
“It’s like I’m hit by a thunderbolt and I go, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!’ I just totally get this,” he said. “All of a sudden, at that moment, all I cared about was more modern art.”
Gundlach’s art collection grew along with his rise as an investment manager.
Like much about the man who has come to be known America’s reigning “bond king,” Gundlach’s entry into the world of investment banking was unorthodox.
After attending Dartmouth College and Yale University, he moved to Los Angeles in 1983, where he was a drummer for several minor rock bands. According to a Fortune magazine story, he decided to become an investment banker after watching an episode of the television show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” which listed the profession as the most lucrative.
With almost no knowledge of the bond market, he landed an entry-level job at TCW, where he eventually became one of the most successful bond traders in the United States across a storied, 24-year career. After a dispute with TCW management in 2009, he left his longtime employer and struck out on his own with dozens of his employees. His new firm, DoubleLine Capital, has since amassed more than $90 billion in assets. The details of his messy breakup with TCW played out in a salacious court battle that ended in mixed verdicts and also aired some interesting details relating to Gundlach’s affinity for modern art.
According to an article in the trade journal Pensions and Investments, Gundlach used the code words “Artwork” and “Gallery” during sensitive negotiations with another asset management company while he was at TCW. The logo for DoubleLine is based on one of his own Mondrian paintings.
Gundlach’s knowledge of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s collection is encyclopedic.
“There are parts, when we talk about the history of the museum, that he knows better than I do,” Sirén said.
Asked to name his favorite works from the collection, Gundlach launched into an annotated list of nearly every noteworthy masterpiece the gallery owns. These ranged from a beloved Mondrian – “Always loved Mondrian, every Mondrian, everywhere in the world,” he said – to a prized canvas by Franz Kline, so few of whose paintings, he said, “look the way you want them to.”
“Certain people just get it,” said Buffalo native and art market expert Amy Cappellazzo of Gundlach’s eye for talent. “It’s very rare you meet someone who has the capacity to collect, but also has the intellectual thirst, the almost insatiable intellectual thirst, to know about the objects and the artist and the movement and the period and the artist’s entire production.”
So what was it that ultimately prompted Gundlach to contribute such a game-changing sum to the Albright-Knox project?
“I’ve been solicited to give money to many institutions: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, my alma mater Dartmouth College. And, OK, fine, they’re all great institutions,” he said. “It’s wonderful to support them, but what difference does it make if I give $42.5 million to Dartmouth College or to the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York? You’d need a microscope to find it. And quite frankly, they don’t really need it.”
In other words, Gundlach ran the numbers and saw that his money would go much farther in Buffalo than anywhere else.
“I don’t spread things thin,” Gundlach said. “I focus deeply. I do that with my work, with my company. I want to make a difference to the things that I apply myself to and not just, as T.S. Elliot said, mete out my life piecemeal. So, I said, this will make a difference.”