This article appears in the Sept./Oct. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine.
When Laura Vranes and John McIntyre celebrated their first wedding anniversary in October 2008, they wanted to do something special. Not only was it a year since they exchanged vows, they also both had birthdays that month. They didn’t go out to dinner. Nor did they exchange gifts. Instead, they bought one piece of art. It was something they saw as the beginning of an annual tradition: they would buy one piece of art for every year spent together.
Except it didn’t pan out that way. The next day, they purchased another artwork. Yet another quickly followed after that. Seven years later, their collection numbers over 300 pieces, and there are no signs the couple will quit acquiring anytime soon. Collecting art—street art in particular—has become more than a hobby. It’s their passion.
Vranes has always been attracted to street art, which, loosely described, is a blend of graffiti and pop culture. “When I was six my family went to New York City, where I saw graffiti,” she recalls. “It just stayed with me. I thought it was beautiful. People are intimidated by it and don’t give it a chance, but lots of stories can be told through street art.”
McIntyre was more than willing to give street art a chance. “My interest began with Laura,” he says. “We like the same things. I had no problem jumping on board. I had liked street art for years but was too busy to look into it. Laura pushed us in that direction.”
Pushed she did. Their collection includes mostly emerging artists as well as some of the genre’s most famous names, including Banksy, Mr. Brainwash, and Shepard Fairey, who created President Obama’s iconic “Hope” campaign poster.
But for the couple, collecting big names isn’t what their passion is about. Through their collecting, Vranes and McIntyre have gotten to know artists all over the world in countries as far afield as China, Russia, Norway, and Ireland. “I’ve communicated with just about each of them,” remarks Vranes. “I’ve had conversations. I’ve emailed, I’ve phoned.”
While most people might be intimidated at the thought of contacting artists out of the blue—particularly ones with such names as Zombie, Zeus, and Polar Bear—Vranes is unperturbed. “I just say, ‘I love your work.’” she explains. “I’m interested in collecting your work. I’d like to inquire about a piece.”
“She just goes after it,” McIntyre laughs. “It’s quite interesting to see!”
This is what makes their collection so much more than the works that comprise it. It’s the people behind each and every acquisition. “We’ve made so many friends,” comments Vranes. “For almost all of the pieces, there is a personal relationship.”
When the couple purchased a work by Kansas City artist Ryan Haralson, for example, they did so on a payment plan. McIntyre communicated with him over seven months, and the two established a rapport, so much so that the artist visited the couple. While in Omaha, he created a painting of Alice in Wonderland, a character Vranes loves, and presented it to her. “We didn’t know it was going to be a gift,” recounts McIntyre. “Not only did we get a fabulous piece of art, we got a friendship.”
Still, if one were to choose any of the 300-plus works that best sum up the couple’s often quirky passion, it would perhaps be one by Paris-based street artist Polar Bear. It features a little girl in pigtails scrawling graffiti on a wall.
And what is it that she is writing? “Art is life.”
For Vranes and McIntyre, nothing could be closer to the truth.