Young Collectors 2023 Art

How Tennis Star Reilly Opelka Found a New Sport To Master: Art Collecting

Portrait of Reilly Opelka with Friedrich Kunath's All my fears trapped inside (installation shot), 2005-23. Photographed at Studio Kunath. 

This profile is part of CULTURED’s 2023 Young Collectors list.

Some collectors can’t keep track of all the artists that fill their homes. Others are on a first-name basis with them. Reilly Opelka actually plans the year around his—starting with Friedrich Kunath, whom the junior Wimbledon champion tennis player refers to as “Freddy.” First introduced by their mutual acquaintance, Matthew Chevallard, a CULTURED Young Collector alum, Opelka and Kunath’s relationship quickly blossomed into constant contact. Before the athlete was benched for an injury earlier this year, the painter could be found in the stands at every match, and if Kunath ever FaceTimes you from his studio in Los Angeles, it is safe to assume that Opelka is somewhere within earshot. The friendship has been formative for both, and its influence is manifested in the growth of Opelka’s expanding collection. “Freddy was a gateway,” Opelka says. “He opened the door for me.” It wasn’t long before Tim Van Laere, whom Opelka describes as his “biggest mentor in art,” walked right through it.

“I have found that the art world can be quite unwelcoming. I’m so thankful that Tim has been the opposite,” Opelka says. “I can ask him anything.” A commanding Belgian with a twinkle in his eye and an ever-present cheeky smile on his face, the gallerist dedicates his time to irreverent artists who take their work seriously and see life as a joke waiting to be told. Some members of Van Laere’s roster appear in Opelka’s collection—including Jonathan Meese, Rinus Van de Velde, and Kati Heck—many of whom the collector met in person and struck up close friendships with in no time. In “Legende,” Heck’s show at Tim Van Laere Gallery last May, Opelka was not only a guest but also a muse featured in one work. “That might have been my favorite show of last year,” the athlete recalls.

His intimate connection to artists like Kunath, Heck, and Van de Velde has enabled Opelka to adopt a different approach than most: he buys the artist, not just the work. “I look at them as a whole,” he says. “I buy from artists I’m a fan of, and that is one thing I’ve never regretted. I’m not as particular about the work itself—I’d rather have something from one of my favorite artists than cling to individual works. I’m stuck to the ones I love most.” This philosophy is not exclusive to living artists or those in Opelka’s personal network. He has a self-described German fetish—for Albert Oehlen, Kai Althoff, and Georg Baselitz in particular. “Oehlen said something that really resonated with me: ‘All great artists, at some time, end up playing with the abstract,’” Opelka recalls. “That is something I definitely take with me when thinking about my collecting.” A professional in the spotlight himself, it makes sense that Opelka would admire painters whose approaches evolve and progress with time. One match doesn’t make a champion.