The art collection of music industry legend Mo Ostin unveiled at Sotheby's

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The art collection of music industry legend Mo Ostin unveiled at Sotheby's
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Moon View, 1984, acrylic, colored Xerox paper collage and oil paint stick on canvas, 66 by 60 ¼ in. Estimate $7 – 10 million. Courtesy Sotheby's.

NEW YORK, NY.- “He listened to artists and always put them first,” was how Fleetwood Mac singer and songwriter Stevie Nicks remembered Mo Ostin (1925 - 2022), the legendary record executive who was pivotal in the band’s ascent to the rock’n’roll pantheon. In a rare interview, Ostin echoed this sentiment, explaining that, in his view, “the artist is the person who should be in the foreground.”

Mo Ostin’s unerring ear for music, his instinctive ability to identify artistic talent and his transformative role in the music industry have – despite his own famous modesty – been widely celebrated. Described as “one of the greatest record men of all time, and a prime architect of the modern music business,” Ostin presided over Warner Bros. Records for more than three decades and was a leader in the field for more than half a century, instrumental in transforming a traditional industry with a staid mindset into an innovative business at the forefront of culture. As the New York Times explains:

“The list of artists signed to the constellation of affiliated Warner Bros. labels when they were guided by Mr. Ostin reads like a dream-world music hall of fame. It includes pivotal singers of the 1950s like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Sammy Davis Jr.; innovators of the 1960s and ’70s like Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and the Grateful Dead; and game-changers of the ’80s and ’90s like Madonna, R.E.M. and Green Day.” [New York Times, Mo Ostin obituary, August 2022]

Yet even this extraordinary list is only the tip of the iceberg. The pantheon of artists whose careers Ostin developed also includes Randy Newman, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Black Sabbath, Dire Straits, Prince, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, among many more.

Fundamental to all of this was Mo’s personal connection with, and respect for, the artists, in which his beloved wife of 50 years also played a vital part. Alongside him throughout his career was Evelyn, a radiant personality whose profound warmth, empathy and insight frequently proved vital in securing the confidence of artists Mo was trying to sign to his label. Together, Mo and Evelyn were a formidable team.

While Ostin’s impact on the music industry is well documented, his more private passion for the visual arts was equally strong: in 1996, he commissioned Roy Lichtenstein to create a new logo for DreamWorks Records; and his early days at Verve Records saw him strike an agreement with Picasso (sadly unrealized, much to Ostin’s regret) whereby the artist would make an animated film about Don Quixote.

Art also ran all the way through Ostin’s personal life: as a child, he visited museums with his parents, and his early career saw him work with the great collector Norman Granz, whose friendship with Picasso and passion for collecting must have certainly made an impact, as did Steven J. Ross, the late Chairman of Warner Bros. and also a passionate collector. Art was often at the heart of Ostin’s friendships and conversations, and, from the moment he could afford it, art also surrounded him at home.

Over the course of some five decades, Ostin sought out magnificent artworks which, just like the music he nurtured, were all best in kind. This May, Sotheby’s will offer 33 rarely-seen works from Mo Ostin’s collection, which reflect Ostin’s exacting personal taste and confidence and love of painting and drawing across generations, and together allow for a first ever glimpse of the extraordinary art collector behind the more familiar entertainment industry powerhouse.

Just as with music, the visual art to which Ostin gravitated was diverse, ranging in date from 1915 through to works created as recently as 2019, and spanning a full spectrum of artists, from René Magritte and Pablo Picasso, to Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Cy Twombly; from Richard Estes, Brice Marden, Albert Oehlen and Richard Prince to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mark Grotjahn, Takashi Murakami, Joe Bradley and Cecily Brown.

While Ostin would generously oblige museum requests to borrow works for major exhibitions, the full scope of his collection has always remained relatively unknown, with many of the works within the collection never having been seen outside his home, in public or on the market, since Ostin acquired them, in many instances decades ago.

Mo Ostin: An Artist’s Vision

After initially working at jazz record label Verve, Mo Ostin went on to Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, where he persuaded a reluctant Sinatra to extend the label’s range into new genres. Following the acquisition of Reprise Records by Warner Bros. in the mid-1960s, Ostin took on a greater role as an executive and immediately embarked on a series of signings that would quickly establish the label at the vanguard of the wave of popular music and culture. Among the major early signings led by Ostin were The Kinks, still a relatively unknown entity in the United States, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which would soon become one of the defining acts of the 1960s. Ostin famously defined his ethos and strategy at the time as moving away from hit-factory, assembly line production to an artist-driven focus: “Let’s just make good records and turn those into hits.”

Through the late 1960s and 1970s, Ostin would continue to build the Warner Bros. roster as a showcase for the most talented artists of the time, signing Randy Newman, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, the Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Paul Simon, and Rod Stewart, among many more. Ostin’s breadth of creative understanding also led him to sign acts spanning a range of diverse styles, from Black Sabbath through the Allman Brothers to Steve Martin and Richard Pryor for their comedy albums. He even signed Tiny Tim, the improbable singer-songwriter and ukulele player.

Ostin would not only help define the style and sound of pop culture through the 1970s, but would also continue to find new ways to develop talent and adapt to changes in culture over the decades. The 1980s saw him sign yet more leading talents of the moment, including Prince, REM, Dire Straits and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Ostin’s resume with Warner overflows with hands-on examples of his influence and vision. As an executive, Ostin was driven to work directly with artists, understanding the creative process and what feeds artists in their pursuit of their vision. With an unmistakable, innate ability to identify great talent and artistry, Ostin’s taste making prowess is readily evident in his pursuits as a collector.

The Ostins and Philanthropy

The same nurturing instincts that were so key to Ostin’s professional success were also reflected in Mo and Evelyn’s abundant and generous philanthropy. Their legacy of charitable giving lives on within the Los Angeles community and beyond, most notably at UCLA, from which Mo graduated in 1951. Ostin’s devotion to UCLA is manifest in two beautiful, state of the art buildings – both designed by award-winning Los Angeles architect Kevin Daly - which today provide students with pioneering spaces in which to enjoy and expand their passions. The first of these, the Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center, which opened in 2014, combines elegant spaces for both teaching and performing, in which students can create, share and study music in a digitally integrated, professional quality environment. The second, the Mo Ostin Basketball Centre which opened in 2019, is an equally striking building – an inventive 36,000-square-foot, naturally ventilated and lit training facility for the UCLA Bruins’ men’s and women’s basketball programs.

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