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Oral history interview with Helen Zell, 2016 December 5-6

Zell, Helen, 1942-



Collection Information

Size: 110 Pages, Transcript

Format: Originally recorded as 2 digital wav sound files. Duration is 4 hr., 53 min.

Summary: An oral history interview with Helen Zell conducted 2016 December 5-6, by Avis Berman, for the Archives of American Art and the Center for the History of Collecting in America at the Frick Art Reference Library of The Frick Collection, at Zell's home, in Chicago, Illinois.
Zell discusses growing up as a Jewish Northerner in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; her parents and their extended family and the impact on her of visiting with her father's bohemian relatives in Brooklyn; her early interest in reading and English studies; her enthusiasm for collecting and organizing paper dolls and books as a young girl; the family's relocation to Rockville Centre, New York on Long Island; her visit as a teenager to Europe and the Rome Olympics with her grandparents; her college years at the University of Michigan, where she met her first husband, James Fadim; her work as an editor for the American Society for Microbiology; the couple's meeting and socializing with Sam and Janet Zell at the University of Michigan; their move to Chicago in 1967; her first purchases of art at the Old Town Art Fair in Chicago; her work as the general manager for the Chicago String Ensemble; her work on the Women's Board at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; her divorce from her first husband and her return to school to study interior design at the Harrington Institute and her subsequent work as an interior designer; her deeper involvement with Chicago-based art collectors through her work at the MCA. Zell also describes her reintroduction to Sam Zell after many years apart at an art fair in Chicago in 1995; their burgeoning relationship and his desire to help her acquire and develop an art collection, initially concentrating on Surrealist work; their marriage and acquisition of a neighboring apartment in their condominium building which they renovated in order to create space for their growing collection; the expansion of their collection into photography; her enthusiasm for the work of Joseph Cornell, Louise Bourgeois and Lee Bontecou, among others; the assistance of the gallerist Alan Koppel in acquiring work for the collection; her feelings about loaning from the collection for exhibitions; the valuable assistance of curators and dealers in expanding her knowledge and expertise; and her and her husband's feelings about eventually creating a legacy for their collection. Zell also recalls Robert Natkin; Grace Hokin; Bud Holland; Helyn Goldenberg; Marilynn Alsdorf; Allen Turner; Stefan Edlis; Gael Neeson; Kevin Consey; Madeline Grynsztejn; Elizabeth Smith as well as Michael Heltzer; Meredith Palmer; John Vinci; David Tunkl; Lynne Warren; and Wilbur Ross, among others.

Biographical/Historical Note

Helen Zell (1942- ) is a philanthropist and art collector in Chicago, Illinois. Avis Berman (1949- ) is an art historian and author in New York, New York.


This interview is part of the Archives of American Art Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and administrators.

Language Note

English .


Funding for this interview was provided by Barbara Fleischman.

How to Use This Collection

This interview is access restricted; written permission is required. Contact Reference Services for more information.

Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Helen Zell, 2016 December 5-6. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.