A 5,000-square-foot duplex in New York that’s been the showcase for a huge collection of Outsider Art is hitting the market for the first time in a quarter-century.

It’s being sold by the sons of the late art-collecting couple Ronald and June Shelp. The two have listed it with Philip and Julie Gaynor of Brown Harris Stevens for $6.25 million. “My mother was the guiding force behind the creation of the apartment,” says the Shelps’ elder son, Kent. “My father was probably more the driving force behind the art.”

Ronald, an insurance executive who became the chief executive officer and president of the New York City Partnership and the New York Chamber of Commerce and Industry, was also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He wrote a book about his former boss, AIG Chairman Hank Greenberg, titled Fallen Giant: The Amazing Story of Hank Greenberg and the History of AIG. June, an economist, served as director of the New York State Housing Finance Agency and then became a consultant. 

Before they purchased the apartment, on 16th Street between Fifth Avenue and Union Square Park, the family lived in what Kent describes as “a much smaller and a more conventional apartment” on Washington Square West. After the couple’s second son, Russell, was born, they decided it was time for more room, and in the late 1990s, decided to go north into what was then a comparatively gritty neighborhood.

Gut Renovation
The building is known as the Photo Arts Building and dates from the turn of the 20th century. It was designed as an industrial building with soaring ceilings and massive windows.

By the time the Shelps purchased their apartment, it had been converted into lofts both residential and commercial. Their apartment was previously a photo studio, and as such had to be gut-renovated before they could move in.

The renovation “was a very long process,” Kent says, and was executed by the architect Rebecca Rasmussen and the interior designer Jeffrey Bilhuber. “My mother was a very strong-willed person,” Kent continues. “She had her ideas about what things should be, and come hell or high water, that was how it would end up.” Ronald would subsequently claim that “two different construction crews quit en masse,” Kent recalls, “because they didn’t want to deal with my mother anymore.”

The final result was worth it. Visitors to the four-bedroom, three-bath apartment come out of a private elevator entrance, walk through a foyer, and step into a double-height living room with 20-foot ceilings on the apartment’s first floor. “The way my mother laid out the apartment is that when you first walk into the main section it’s extremely open,” Kent says. A kitchen opens into the living area; there’s also a formal dining area, library, and home office. The second floor has a walkway with a low wall open to see below. It’s mostly devoted to the house’s four bedrooms.

The duplex also contains a separate, one-bed, one-bath apartment that’s accessible from the front foyer. It, too, is split into two levels; a kitchen and bathroom are on the first floor. A sleeping area is reached by a spiral staircase.

The Art
The real purpose of the main apartment, Kent says, is that “it’s essentially an art gallery.”

Ronald was from a small town in Georgia and “explained to us throughout our lives that he felt a special connection to the American South,” says Russell. As such, Outsider Art, a term that generally describes self-taught artists who don’t necessarily make their art with the intention of selling it, was a natural collecting area for him.

“I think he also felt like he wanted to contribute to recognizing Outsider Art and also supporting the artists financially,” Russell says. “He saw it as a way to contribute to recognizing people who made art in this place that formed him as a person.”

The Shelps became major collectors of Thornton Dial, an artist now recognized as a seminal part of American art history. Of the couple’s 150 artworks, “roughly 50 are by Thornton Dial Sr.,” says Kent, “and then a couple more are by other members of the Dial family.” The collection also includes pieces by Lonnie Holley, who is now represented by the major contemporary art gallery Blum & Poe, Joe Light, Mary T. Smith, and Bessie Harvey.

Ronald died in 2021; June died earlier this year. Now, the two sons say, they have to figure out what to do with the art, and are considering donating some of it to the Smithsonian and other institutions, keeping some of it, and potentially selling the rest. 

“We don’t anticipate living in apartments that can display that much art,” Russell says. “But since we were really young, our parents told us to keep things we really like, and I plan to keep one or two works that are really special to us.”

This article was provided by Bloomberg News.