When I tell people I used to work for an art museum, their faces light up. “What was that like?” they ask. “Were you a curator?” Currrrator. Spoken with the same breathless awe usually reserved for astronauts and Master Sommeliers. You know, professions that are unfathomably cool and whose members one rarely meets in real life.
How disappointing for everyone involved that no, I wasn’t a curator. As director of the volunteer program, the only thing I “curated” was a corps of people willing to work for no pay. Value and aesthetics mattered not. My office wasn’t even in the museum proper, but in the basement of the administration building. Just another drone at a non-profit, that was me. Or so people think until I tell them what my job was really like.
On lunch breaks, I could peruse the museum’s special exhibitions and permanent collection, sit in on docent trainings, or attend lectures by actual curators or visiting luminaries in the art world. I also got to peer behind-the-scenes, into the mechanics of the museum. I learned how art is handled, transported, insured, stored, framed, catalogued, and how exhibitions are mocked-up before being displayed in the galleries.
My position also meant that I was the staff person in charge of the museum guild, an organization of volunteers that hosted an assortment of members-only art-related activities, including intimate lectures and viewings with museum curators, private events in the homes of art collectors, visits to art fairs, and trips to museums across the country. As their staff liaison, I was expected to attend all events and tag along on trips in a supervisory capacity. I know. Poor me.
Working at the museum was an education in art appreciation that I never imagined for myself. And best of all, it was free! No, it was better than free because I was getting paid to do it! This “education” is one of the reasons I began collecting art. Although I enjoyed art class as a child (as much as someone who couldn’t draw, paint, or sculpt could be expected to enjoy it), I didn’t grow up with an affinity for the visual arts. I was more interested in words than pictures. I don’t remember my parents buying artwork for reasons beyond function; our rented apartments just looked more homey with something colorful on the white walls.
It was my grandmother who introduced me to the concept of collecting art for more than its potential to break up a blank wall. I was in 6th or 7th grade before I took closer notice of the inexpensive Norman Rockwell and Ernie Barnes prints on her walls and began to ask about them. How had I not realized sooner that "Sugar Shack," was the same work J.J. "painted" on “Good Times?” And why do the subjects in Barnes' paintings have their eyes closed? In Rockwell’s “Moving Day,” what are those kids saying to each other? Is there a deeper meaning in the white kids having a black dog and the black kids having a white cat? I had so many questions!
I loved these discussions with my grandmother. Not only would she reveal all she knew about the artists and their work, she would also encourage me to draw my own conclusions about what I saw. As an aspiring author, it was only natural that I came to view art as just one more method of telling stories.
Another reason I loved these conversations was the way my grandmother's face brightened when she talked about her collection. I think all art collectors get that look. I remember one woman whose home I visited with the museum guild. She lives in an affluent neighborhood and exclusively collects folk art. Her collection is immense; there isn't a section of wall or a flat surface left bare. It’s likely many people wouldn’t give her unique pieces a second glance if they saw them for sale somewhere. Some people would probably even consider it junk and think her foolish for paying so much for it. During the tour of the home, one of the Guild women—a museum docent and art collector herself—whispered to me, “That looks like something my grandson could do.” Perhaps. But so what. Based on the delight the collector exhibited whenever someone asked about a particular work, you could tell she adored each and every curious piece. It mattered little, if at all, what others thought.
In another home I visited with the museum guild (this one an 18,000 square foot mansion in a more tony part of town), no one questioned the collector’s choices. We all marveled at the "big names" on the walls—Miro, Picasso, Basquiat, Stella, Rothko, to name a small few. Arguably, this owner possesses some of the finest of fine art, but she had the same look of passion and pride when talking about her collection as did the woman with the folk art when she talked about hers. As does my grandmother when she talks about her modestly priced prints.
That’s the thing I’ve learned about art and it’s one of the ways my husband and I approach cultivating our own collection. For us, collecting art is about passion for the work and taking pride in what we’ve acquired. We are as thrilled about the numbered prints we’ve bought as we are about the original works we’ve been able to collect. Everything in our collection, both high and low, is meaningful, whether it provokes thought or simply adds beauty to our home.
I suppose I've been thinking a lot about art lately because it's autumn. The fall season is abundant with major exhibition openings, art fairs, and fundraisers for various visual arts organizations. In fact, I'm working on this post through eyes made bleary by last night's Art League Houston gala. That event came on the heels of another arts event I attended just a week prior, the Community Artists’ Collective luncheon. Both organizations serve the community by supporting artists and encouraging people to not only appreciate these artists, but to collect their work.
Indeed, I’ve been enjoying the artfull season (see what I did there?) since early September’s Houston Fine Art Fair, which was followed a week later by another art fair, Texas Contemporary. These fairs are can’t-miss events for art enthusiasts and collectors in Houston. And contrary to popular misconception, there is art available in just about every price range.
Another can’t-miss event I attended recently was Mark Rothko: A Retrospective, on view until January 24, 2016 at my old stomping grounds. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is the sole U.S. venue for this exhibition, by the way, so suck it, rest of America!
Somewhere in September’s whirlwind, I found time to swing by Project Row Houses for the launch of The Collectors Club, an endeavor that seeks to develop one-on-one relationships between collectors and artists. Did I mention it’s free to join? I didn’t? Well, it’s free to join. You’re welcome.
As if Houston didn’t have enough pretty pictures for me to go see, I also took a short jaunt to Fort Worth for an event at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Co-sponsored by two of my favorite blogs, Afro Bohemian Snob and The Bubbleista, the event was an opportunity to view the work of Kehinde Wiley an artist I’ve admired for many years, but whose work I had never seen in person. Wiley’s work is featured prominently on a little television show you may have heard of. In person, I was gobsmacked at the tremendous scale and vividness of Wiley’s work. But don’t take my word for it. Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is on view until January 10, 2016. Run, don’t walk.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but I know...I know... this post is long enough as it is. So, I’ll just leave you with the challenge to get out and soak in some art of your own. If you live in or near Houston or DFW, I hope you’ll take some of my suggestions. But even if you don’t, I’m sure you’ll find no shortage of opportunities to explore the arts this fall, wherever you are. If you’re not currently an art collector, I hope you’ll become one. When you’re ready, here are my Quick & Dirty Tips for Collecting Art:
1. Go to art fairs and gallery openings. Become a member of at least one visual arts organization in your city and attend their events as much as possible. It’s a surefire way to discover what you do and don’t like. Not only could you meet other collectors, you may even develop relationships with artists and gallerists. These lovelies will be more than happy to keep you informed about happenings in the art world.
2. Make friends with artists. Most of them are pretty awesome. Says the woman who loves to hang out with artists.
3. Never be ashamed to ask about payment plans. Most gallery owners and artists are more than willing to work with a payment plan for costly pieces. And you thought layaways were a thing of the past.
4. If it speaks to you, and you can afford it, buy it. Don't wait for anyone else’s validation. Didn’t you learn that beauty is in the eye of the beholder?
5. Commission original work. Have something particular in mind? Lots of artists will work with you to create something meaningful just for you. Imagine the pride you'll feel knowing you helped create a work of art!
Are you an art collector? Why did you decide to start collecting? Do you have your own art collecting tips to share? Your turn to write.