What It's Like Being Married to One of the Most Famous Artists in the World
A famous artist and a South African art school graduate walk into a bar – no, this is not the beginning of a joke. It’s the way Justine Koons’s whirlwind romance with Jeff Koons (one of the highest paid living artists of our time) began back in 1995 at Bar 89 in New York City. Since then, the two have built a big life together complete with six children and the Koons Family Institute on International Law and Policy (which aims to protect children via legislation changes).
Within the past five years or so, as their kids settled into and out of schools in the Bronx, Justine turned her attention towards a local organization called the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center (KHCC). The center, for which Justine, now a board member, has painted a mural and encouraged all of her children to volunteer, has become a beacon of hope for the local community from cradle to grave via programs that support the area’s most vulnerable populations including college pre-help, career advice, and sexual assault awareness and support for kids.
The latter program, called Changing Futures, is particularly interesting to Koons in light of her family’s involvement in child protection legislation. And though its programs are local, they still impact a vast array of kids, offering about 3,000 services annually and expanding to campuses in the Bronx area to educate students about sexual assault. Its name hints at the goal to break the cycle of intergenerational abuse in families so that kids can go out into the world knowing their trauma doesn’t define them.
“After the 2016 election, I got really upset that we didn't know our neighbors. There was all this miscommunication, people not talking to each other. But KHCC is a place to get to know your neighbors and your community. You go there, and you can see kids grow up, go to college, and usually come back and give back to KHCC, which I really like,” Koons says. “And the importance of a community center like KHCC is so much more fundamental now, because you need that community that you can trust, who believes in you, and will help you overcome trauma in your life and help you get into college. Sometimes government can let you down so, you need people who are close to you who can help you out.”
Tonight, KHCC is hosting its 45th annual Benefit, which will feature long-time supporter Darryl McDaniels (of Run DMC) performing some of his hits. KHCC will also be auctioning a Louis Vuitton bag by Jeff Koons and a few more Koons-approved items. Justine will be in attendance to support the community group she loves. For more information on KHCC, visit khcc-nyc.org.
And for more about Justine and the Koons family, check out the Q and A below.
What is your day-to-day like? I have six kids, so the days are pretty busy, but they're all in school so I make time to do art work and then also help with different boards I'm on, and then doing some volunteering for KHCC.
What types of artwork are you creating? I do ceramic sculpture and oil painting. Right now, I'm working on a painting to do with body politics. I've always dealt with the female [subject] as a voyeur and somebody who views and the public and private personas that everyone has.
Is your art influenced by the news at all? It's so great to have all these women elected into government and that the Democrats have gained control of the House. All these different women's rights issues are obviously in the forefront of my mind because we're living in such a strange, to put it politely, time. [My art] is influenced by that, but since I started painting as a teenager, I've always worked with the body as a politic and how women are perceived and objectified in order to fight the ways a woman's body becomes [solely] a useful object. There's a lot of objectification of women as a vessel, something to put things into.
Also, my experience as a mom and aging is also very interesting to me because women are perceived differently as they get older. They are discriminated against more than [older] men. The aging process, being a mother, being a partner to somebody who's very well established and well known – finding my own identity and voice through all those things when all these people are pulling at you to be something for them [is difficult]. You lose yourself in it a bit. But in my work, when I’m dealing with issues that I'm interested in, I think I'm in control. I try to see that women like to be in control.
Will you ever exhibit your artwork? Maybe eventually I will, but I'm not ready to do that now.
Why did you shut down your jewelry line Gus+Al? One of the reasons I closed the company down was because I didn't want to be seen as somebody who was after making money. I would rather use my jewelry line as a way to give back rather than to generate income. So, I'll do special commissions like some work for KHCC to be auctioned. I keep within a small community.
What is it like to be married to Jeff Koons? He's very generous with his time, and he's a really great father so we spend a lot of time with our children. Children's issues are very important to us because we have such a great family and he's very supportive of me making works. We share a life. We've shared a life for 23 years. It's hard not to experience the same things and be able to inspire each other.
Is he ever involved in your creative process? No, I prefer to be alone in my studio. But he comes in and has a look every now and again. I bring a load of my sculptures home so the whole family gets to experience it.
Do any of your kids work with art? Yeah, most of my kids are artistic. There are different forms of art, music, drawing, painting and some short film or animated film making kids like to do. Our six-year-old is a really amazing drawer.
What do you talk about at the dinner table? We talk about art, we talk about school. Kids are a little bit hesitant to talk about their emotions, especially the teenagers, but we talk about colleges. We're in the thick of college apps right now. And we talk about their favorite music. They always try and get us to listen to their favorite music.
Do you ever wish that Jeff wasn't famous? That's a tough question. I think the reason he's famous is because he does great work and everything he does is in service of his art work. It's great that he is able to do something that he loves and is acknowledged for it. A visual artist is a very different kind of famous to a Hollywood star. It's not an in your face Hollywood star we need to deal with. But no, I love Jeff the way he is.
What got you interested in KHCC? KHCC is in the Bronx, and our children go to school in the Bronx, and one of the schools, Horace Mann, was doing their service learning with KHCC. So, I got to know KHCC through that. Then I was asked to join the board by my friend Lisa Lindvall because what I'm really interested in are the child sexual abuse therapy programs that they have at KHCC. Jeff and I have the Koons Family Institute, which deals with [legal] policy about missing and exploited children. We work with the International and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The fact that these child sexual therapies [offered at KHCC] are free for the community, and people come from all the boroughs to participate in these programs, was really exciting for me because there's so many tragedies that happen to children.
How does your family get involved? I painted a mural for the inside of the elevator vestibule and helped with this amazing, organic garden that we just opened a year ago. It's very hands on in terms of what you can do. My kids have been there, and other kids go there to take part in school reading programs and helping with mentoring. You get to really see how people are progressing through the different stages of life, which is great.