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For the Love of Art



Story by Gay Lyons | Photography by Ben Finch

Visitors to Rob and June Heller’s 5300 square foot home in West Knoxville usually assume it was custom built to hold the couple’s art collection, but that’s not so. In fact, Rob had some convincing to do.

“June didn’t want to move [from the house we’d lived in for 20 years],” says Rob. “She didn’t believe the art was going to fit. I had to promise her I’d move everything myself. I hired two guys, and it took three months. We took five columns out of the living room and two out of the dining room to make more room for art. I took the blueprints and laid out where all the major pieces of art would go.”

“He nailed it,” says June. “It is as though the house was designed for our art.”

The Hellers moved 11 times during their first 13 years together. The lived in nine places: London, Singapore, Geneva, Budapest, Munich, Dallas, Houston, Chicago and Nashville.

“We’ve loved everywhere we’ve lived,” says June. “The hard part is moving.” After living in Kingsport his “whole life,” Rob graduated from The Citadel and headed to Vietnam in 1970.

“I wanted an experience,” he says. ”I wanted to see the world. I didn’t care if it was Vietnam. That gave me the zest. I wanted to learn about other people.”

Rob and June still love to travel.

Some of their favorites are Katmandu, Nepal, Africa, Antarctica and Tibet.

“We’ve been to 92 countries,” says Rob. “And almost everywhere is awesome,” June adds. “We love Paris. We like cruises: we like the way you’re treated on a fine ship.”

“When we moved to London two weeks after we got married, I developed a taste for wine and cigars,” says Rob. “And we started going to antique stores and galleries.”

They still have the first piece of art they purchased: a Bernard Buffet painting that hangs above the fireplace in the master bedroom.

“We bought it for a fraction of its worth,” says Rob. “Value has never been it for us. We have never sold a piece of art.”

Instead of selling their art, the Hellers have begun a series of planned donations to Knoxville Museum of Art. They have donated seven pieces and will be donating more. Their relationship with the museum began when they moved to Knoxville in 1993.

“We found the museum, and the rest is history,” says June.

“One of us has been on the board of KMA for 20 years,” Rob says. “We made a commitment a few years ago when we received the Clayton Award [from the museum.] As you get older, you need to think about your art and whether it might be a good fit for KMA. I want people to know that KMA needs money. When you die, don’t give all your money to your children. Give some to KMA.”

“We asked David [Butler, Executive Director of KMA] and Stephen [Wicks, KMA’s Curator]: 'What do you want?'" says June. “They made a list.”

Between January 30-April 22, 2019, visitors can see 40-50 pieces of the Hellers’ art at the museum.

“KMA wants to piece together the story of our collection,” says Rob. “We’ve given them pieces by Frank Stella, Henry Moore, Jim Dine and George Rickey. You don’t see those in small museums.”

“KMA wanted some pieces to round out its ‘Glass Alley,’” says June. “We bought a piece for the end [of the alley] that people are drawn to. There are nose prints on the glass.”

The Hellers’ collection includes paintings, drawings and sculptures. Its provenance ranges from Knoxville to the Ivory Coast. There’s a papier mache piece in a powder room and a 180 pound piece by Thomas Swan that sits in an alcove in the master suite. A favorite painting selected for its texture and color palette hangs in the backgammon room in the master suite where the Hellers enjoy their 38-year running game of gin rummy. Nearby hangs an original two-piece poster by Toulouse Lautrec that belonged to June’s mother.

“We love art,” says Rob.” Every day I walk through the house and enjoy the art and notice how the light changes pieces. I’ll say good night. We’re caretakers.”

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