Living With Art: Baltimore’s Most Eclectic Collector

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“Czech is a very funny language,” says Kris Kudrnac with a mischievous grin. “There are fifty different ways to call someone an idiot.” As we sit in his beautiful Guilford home filled with art, the chemical engineer, business owner, and enthusiastic collector describes a circuitous and multilingual path from the Czech Republic and Montreal to Baltimore, his home for the past two decades.

Although he was born in Montreal, Kudrnac considered himself 100% Czech, because his parents emigrated to Canada just before he was born. He became fluent quickly in French and English, but Kudrnac says he always felt like he was from somewhere else–even as a kid living in Quebec, because he was not a part of the constant tension between French and English speakers. He admits he has become more aware in recent years that, while he is now legally an American, his identity is made up from many different cultures and countries.

In 1948, Kudrnac’s parents fled their home in Czechoslovakia when the communists took over and the borders closed. “My mother and father had to figure out where to go after they lost everything, which was confiscated by the communist government,” he says. “A friend in Switzerland gave them passage to Canada on a tramp steamer. The US wasn’t taking refugees, so they went to Montreal and started their lives over from scratch.”

“My dad was a chemical engineer,” Kudrnac explains. In their early days in Montreal, his father worked in a lab and supported the family as well as his parents. After many years, his father purchased the small company he worked for, and this experience provided the foundation for Kudrnac’s own professional trajectory. Building on an undergraduate degree from McGill in chemical engineering, Kudrnac transitioned from being a scientist into entrepreneurship around eco-friendly chemicals produced in Europe and South Korea used by US cosmetic companies.

Although his parents didn’t collect art, Kudrnac’s father’s hobby was photography, and he collected all kinds of photographic gear and equipment. As a teenager, Kudrnac developed an interest in art and photography that continued into adulthood, his own black and white images now interspersed seamlessly throughout his Baltimore home.

Later on, Kudrnac earned graduate degrees from MIT (1974) and Harvard Business School (1977), and worked as a chemical engineer for Corning Glass, the company responsible for many inventions including Pyrex, Corningware, and Gorilla Glass in iPhones. Kudrnac ran the pilot plant developing fiber optic cable, which today connects us all to the internet. He lived in Corning, NY, a small town filled with scientists and glass artists.

On his way to meetings on the vast Corning campus, Kudrnac would purposely walk through one of the glass plants. “I would see them blowing all kinds of glass, giant flasks for laboratories, but also, in the Steuben Glass engraving studios, art pieces. I remember seeing these master craftspeople making gorgeous engraving glass pieces using copper-wheel engraving techniques.”

It was here that Kudrnac started buying small objects (“tchotchkes, but nice ones”), and this was where he first developed an appreciation for glass that has continued throughout his life. He pauses and explains, “Also, the Czech are famous for glass, along with the Germans and Italians.” Kudrnac cites the Czech couple, Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtová, the world’s most famous modernist cast glass artists, and wonders if his love for glass is genetic, part of his Czech DNA.

We talk a bit more about his cultural heritage and what it means to migrate from one country to another. “Now my roots are my collection of stuff, not a physical place,” he says. “I have lived in Boston, Vermont, Virginia, Corning, the Czech Republic, Montreal, but my roots are not place-specific. Rather, my collection forms my roots, the things around me are aesthetically important to me, and this feels like home.”

Kudrnac remembers the first “significant” piece of art in his collection from a purchase in 1980. “I had moved from Boston to Burlington, VT, forty-three years ago. I went into a little gallery, and saw these big paintings that I really liked, so I bought one.” After that, he asked more about the artist, Cameron Davis, who today is Kudrnac’s oldest and dearest friend, and whose large, textural canvases populate his home.

“Usually when I add a new piece to my collection, I know the artist,” he explains. “Some are less famous, and there are a few famous ones, but generally speaking, I have a connection with the artist in one way or another.” Kudrnac recalls a long weekend in Princeton, NJ, where he attended a professional workshop in 1973.

“There was a show of kinetic art outside,” he says. “I saw this amazing piece by Harry Bertoia, and I loved it. I always remembered it. And then, in 2003, I looked him up online and found that he had a son, Val, who lives in PA, also a kinetic sculptor.” Kudrnac proudly displays three large metal sound sculptures by Val Bertoia. “Something serendipitously happens,” he says. “Sooner or later there is a connection, and with that, a new piece of art.”

Unlike many collectors, Kudrnac says he doesn’t purchase art for bragging rights or based on the art market, but he does enjoy hosting guests in his home so that they can share in the fun. “I couldn’t give a damn whether an artist is famous or not,” he says, citing Jasper Johns and Frank Stella prints on his wall. “I bought them because I liked them and I tend to acquire art because the aesthetic tickles me in some way.” Kudrnac explains that if he doesn’t already know the artist personally, he tries to get to know them, and has often traveled across the country and globe to visit artists and their studios.

Among art collectors, Kudrnac is ecumenical and unpredictable, unusual because of his willingness to trust his own instincts and to invest generously. “I buy art because I love it, but I am drawn to many different kinds of art, modern and contemporary, as well as what can be considered craft or even furniture.”

Baltimore-based acquisitions include sculpture by Joyce J. Scott, David Page, Jill Orlov, and Chris Bathgate, with significant pieces of glass art by Lino Tagliapietra, Stanislav Libensky & Jaroslava Brychtová, Steven Weinberg, and Tim Tate, photography by E. Brady Robinson, JM Giordano, and Devin Allen, and paintings by Chris Wilson and Jeffrey Kent, along with a series of historic family portraits in oil recovered from the Czech Republic.

Many of the sculptures live in a hybrid space between fine art, furniture design, and kinetic sculpture, with a huge and colorful wooden assemblage by Karel Appel at the center of a seating area, where it is enhanced by surprisingly comfortable furniture designed by Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, and Vico Magistretti.

While it is unusual for a collector to invest in so much art along intuitive, relationship-based, and personal aesthetics, it’s incredibly encouraging to see not only the works of art living together in rich conversation, but also the significance for the sustainability of the artists he collects.

Baltimore is a city full of artists whose work tends to be collected by individuals and museums only after they have finally achieved an internationally recognized exhibit, typically in New York. In contrast, Kudrnac offers an eclectic and authentic trajectory into a collection selected to improve the quality of his life on a daily basis, steeped equally in research, relationships, and a desire to support artists he knows and loves.

Without intending to, Kudrnac has created an innovative collecting model for Baltimore. He is a rogue collector whose taste is informed by global influences and as such, possessing the confidence to trust his own curiosity to navigate within local and international art markets.

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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