Chad Leat: At Home with the Vibrant Energy of Art

An art display inside Chat Leat's house in Bridgehampton. Lori Hawkins photos

When Chad Leat bought a new apartment in New York City — inside one of Richard Meier’s famed glass buildings — he was concerned.

So, he turned to his friend, a Bridgehampton-based architect, Preston Phillips, for some advice.

“I really like this apartment, but I’m a little worried,” Leat recalled telling Phillips. “Obviously, we’re not gonna build walls in front of windows — it would obstruct the views — but I can’t live in an apartment where I can’t have any of my art. What do you think we can do about it?”

Chad Leat in his Bridgehampton home on July 31, 2018.

In response, Phillips converted a crystalline fish bowl into an art gallery, developing a floor plan that displays a selection of Leat’s near 150-piece collection, from Keith Haring and Robert Mapplethorpe to Banksy and Andy Warhol.

“I’m not a person who buys art and puts it in a storage bin. I have a few things in storage, but I have three homes and there’s a lot in each of them,” Leat said. “I don’t buy as much as I used to. I’m kind of out of walls.”

He laughed. “I’ve never been motivated to buy art to match walls, furniture or décor. I almost 100 percent of the time buy art for what the piece means or can do on its own, and so this whole concept of art as some sort of a continuation of décor in your home is not part of my aesthetic, but then again my aesthetic is a little weird. I like a lot of color, I like to mix things up, so I’m not an authority on this. But it works for me.”

Leat’s home on Butter Lane in Bridgehampton is a gallery in its own right — “The Barnyard,” he calls it, painted barn red and dotted with some of his favorite works, nearly all hand-selected by flamboyant art collector Holly Solomon.

For those who knew her, she was a tour de force, Leat said — a muse to Warhol and Mapplethorpe who owned or dealt in the art of almost every contemporary name from the late 1970s through the 1980s.

“She became a very close friend, and she — more so than anyone — was very aggressive with me about buying art,” Leat said. “I mean, really aggressive. But Holly had a very aggressive personality. I adored her, and she adored me, I think. One of the last things she did before she died in 2002, she hung the art in that house. She not only helped me choose it, she actually put it on the walls.”

Most of that work is still exactly where she placed it, he said, surrounding him with a level of culture that he never experienced while growing up in Kansas. The closest major city was Chicago, he said, which he visited for the first time when he was a teenager.

“I remember the fascination and the vibrant energy I felt going there the first time. I had a real love for the city life,” he said. “I really liked the energy, I liked the opportunity, I was always very social, even as a kid. New York was never really on the radar. It got on the radar pretty quickly as I pursued my career in finance, but not as a young man.”

Once moving to Manhattan in 1984, the self-made businessman — the first of his family to earn a college degree — would go on to become one of the financial world’s first openly gay, high-profile leaders. Not long after relocating, he bought his first serious piece of art.

And it was completely unintentional, he said.

“When I first moved to New York, I was a very young man and I got introduced to a gay couple much, much older than I — Eric Green and Jock Truman,” Leat recalled. “It just so happened that Jock Truman, after World War II, had been one of Betty Parsons’ lead gallerists.

“I had a couple things hanging on my wall but they weren’t relevant, so Jock told me one day, ‘I want you to buy this piece of art. I think it’s really good. It’s beautiful. I think this artist is very important,’” he continued. “It was $2,500 and I said, ‘Wow, I really can’t afford that.’ And he said, ‘Well, you just pay for it over time. Whatever you can afford. You have to have it.’”

The artist turned out to be Keith Haring and, since then, Leat’s instincts have evolved immeasurably, he said, allowing him to fill his walls with major talent — Jeff Koons, Christopher Wool, Wolfgang Tillmans and Ai Wei Wei, among others — that engage all the senses.

“I just think the senses are what make us up, right? I like looking at something and getting enjoyment out of it,” he said. “I love walking by the Richard Prince ‘Marlboro Man’ and I like thinking about the sexuality of it. I like looking at the colors. I like that reminder of commercialism and consumerism in American culture and in the art community. These things all, they grab my attention. They touch my senses, and so I like it.”

“I like looking at something if it makes me think of something” he continued. “Every day in my apartment, when I walk past the two Mapplethorpe portraits, I can’t help but remember the AIDS crisis and what it did to not only a bunch of great people, but many of my friends. And that’s not a sad feeling. It’s a remembrance.”

On any given day, walking around his Bridgehampton house, he can’t help but think about Solomon, as well. It is also a remembrance — of a time that helped shape him, his home and his art collection into what they are today.

“At the time, I was panicked that I was spending too much money. I wasn’t thinking about how cool that was in the historical context. I was literally panicked,” he said. “Of course, today as I look back, what a wonderful thing to have had someone that was such a talented gallerist, who had such a keen eye for contemporary art, be a major contributor to not only the art I have in the Hamptons, but to exactly where it sits on the walls. And I enjoy that all the time.”