NEW YORK — Marriage, they say, is a negotiation, a protracted conversation built on trust, shared goals and infinite reserves of tact.
It’s a concept not lost on Yelena Ambartsumian and Miroslav Grajewski, who, well before they traded vows Jan. 19 at St. Illuminator’s Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in Manhattan, had already mastered the art of the deal.
Two years ago, Ambartsumian, 30, an associate in the law firm Milbank, and Grajewski, 28, an engineer and executive with Zuvic Carr and Associates, embarked on a courtship sparked by a mutual passion for contemporary art. That shared appetite led them to invest piece by piece in a jointly held collection.
Their path in the art world was halting at first. “We definitely had a fair number of moments where we thought we were nuts,” Grajewski said just days before the wedding, going on to describe a romance fueled by robust curiosity and the desire to build a legacy. Were they driven to compete with other, perhaps more seasoned young trophy hunters?
Not at all, Grajewski said. Still, at Art Basel in Miami, collecting can be like a contest. “People will greet you with, ‘What did you get?’” he said, with that question abruptly followed by, “‘Oh here’s what we got in the few hours since we last saw you.’”
By contrast, he added emphatically, “We made sure we were buying a piece because we liked it and not for any other reason.”
They made their first buy, a photographic work by Willa Nasatir, after dating for only six months. “Even after such a short time, we were making harder choices than a lot of married couples,” Ambartsumian said. Their acquisitions were modest at first, becoming more ambitious with time, some priced in the tens of thousands or more for a variety of works, many by European or Near Eastern artists. Women artists represent half their collection.
To some, such sums may seem staggering. Indeed Ambartsumian’s parents — her mother a psychiatrist, her father, an electrical engineer — may well have been taken aback.
“We’re not oligarchs,” Ambartsumian said. The couple split the cost of each purchase, acquiring works at the rate of about one per month, each a considered decision and a valiant leap of faith. “The more we collected,” she said, “the more we came to trust each other, and the more we fell in love.”
The couple met in 2016 at a reception for the Museum of Modern Art junior associates. “That night I went out on my own, which was unusual for me because I’m an introvert,” Ambartsumian said. “I thought this is something I really want to do. I’ll go and make new friends. Still, I didn’t expect to meet my husband there.”
She was heading toward the exit when Grajewski rushed to introduce himself. They made their way to a balcony overlooking the MoMA Sculpture Garden to begin a conversation that seemed only to deepen as the weeks wore on.
“We couldn’t stop talking,” Ambartsumian said.
Their first formal date was a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “We wanted to go together to a place that we had gone to so many times on our own,” she said. “Visiting something familiar seemed like a safe choice.”
They continued to go to museums and attend junior associate events and art fairs. “At a certain point we realized that the only way we could keep learning was by actually getting more involved in the art world,” Grajewski said. “We felt the next step was to see what collecting was all about.”
During their treks, they would compare notes, often astonished to find that on just about every occasion they were drawn to the same several pieces, their interests encompassing canvases both abstract and figurative, vividly colorful and monochromatic, and, in addition, pieces of sculpture and photography.
That shared affinity may well have been bred in the bone. Growing up they routinely accompanied their parents — his Chilean and Polish born, hers Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan — on museum and gallery jaunts here and abroad. As children, Ambartsumian said, “We each saw a lot of the same art works.”
Once the couple set their sights on a piece, they would return to it multiple times, at varying hours, and in shifting moods. When they settled on a purchase, Grajewski, the more extroverted of the pair, would begin negotiations. The couple, who drew from their savings, had agreed in advance to split the cost.
“Each of us had veto power,” Grajewski said. At times their choices were at odds. “But from the very beginning we were opposed to any kind of passive-aggressiveness,” he said. “That didn’t mean that you couldn’t say things tactfully, only that you weren’t building up a certain resentment.”
The determining factor was, he said, “that we would decide together what we want to wake up to and see every day.”
Some of their pieces were housed early on in Ambartsumian’s former apartment near Wall Street. They would later find their way to Milford, Connecticut, where the couple now resides.
The works for the most part are vivid and generously scaled. Those dominating the living room include an outsize canvas by German neo-expressionist Andre Butzer, a doll-like portrait of a woman with saucer eyes in a scarlet frock.
Another, a geometric abstraction by Austrian Bernhard Buhmann, takes up much of a corridor wall.
Other more patently provocative pieces include a graphic depiction of bestiality by Iranian-born Belgian artist Sanam Khatibi, a fantastical landscape in which a monkey and a human female couple.
Before Ambartsumian moved to her new home in Connecticut, her mother, Dr. Barbara Sumbatian, paid a visit. Spying the painting over the dining table, as the bride recalled, Sumbatian offered a single wry comment, asking, “How are you going to explain this to your children?”
The groom’s mother, Marici Zuvic Grajewki, had raised an eyebrow as well. But his unorthodox choice in art did nothing to dent her faith in the match. What could go wrong, after all?
“Yelena and Miroslav, they have so many things in common,” she said. Her eyes crinkling in amusement, she added, “Oh, and of course they love each other.”
As guests began filing into the church, Hanna Matevosyan, Ambartsumian’s maid of honor, picked up the thread. Pinching a portion of the speech she would give at the reception, she said, “In today’s world an engineer from Connecticut and corporate lawyer in Manhattan aren’t often in the same room and usually don’t have much in common. But their fit with one another is strikingly obvious.”
A short time later Ambartsumian caused necks to crane as she glided toward the altar in an ivory flower-embroidered Elizabeth Fillmore dress, its back plunging toward her waist. Its otherwise regal look was enhanced when the officiant, the Rev. Mesrob Lakissian, intoned the familiar verses from Corinthians, “Love bears all things, hopes all things ...” and placed a crown on her head.
During the reception that followed at Eleven Madison Park, Ambartsumian put on the gown’s matching cape, a token of modesty she chose to discard just before the ceremony but intended to wear throughout the reception and dinner. Why the reversal? Vaguely, and somewhat mischievously, she said, “I just wanted a change.”
Her gesture was in keeping with the convention-bending spirit of the pair. “These are two people who are ahead of their times, behind the times, and in the moment all at once,” Matevosyan told guests at the reception.
But on this occasion, it seemed, the couple was resolutely looking forward. “Collecting was part of a journey that Yelena and I went on,” Grajewski said.
“Our goal,” Ambartsumian added, “is to give our children an investment of their parents’ time, of their learning, and of their exposure to different people, places, thoughts and experiences.”
They plan to continue expanding the collection of some two dozen original works. As the family grows, Grajewski said, “It will be something that’s ours.”