Chapter 1 - Collectors and Collections
There was a time when collecting art was solely the province of princes and kings and lords of the church—only the aristocracy need apply. Mid-19th century America changed all that. Among the merely super rich, collecting art came into vogue. Collecting was not based on need but on desire. These collectors were not so crude as to collect art for money, but status and the guilty pleasure of mingling with "bohemians" were surely involved. As a result, museums mushroomed in growth in the 1870's, enriched with the treasures of the wealthy collectors of the time.
Fortunately for us all, art collecting has become democratized. Anyone can become a collector as long as he or she has some money and a passion for art. One thing has not changed since the 19th century, however. Collecting art is still based on desire, not on need.
Need and desire are what distinguish art buyers from art collectors though many an art collector started out as an art buyer. The art buyer has a specific location or need in mind, décor for example. In searching for a seascape to hang behind the sofa, the art buyer becomes increasingly exposed to art. With this focus on art, no matter what the motivation, a shift occurs and the art buyer becomes moved by desire rather than need— the hallmark of the collector. The art collector often can't say what enticed him or her to buy a particular piece in the first place. The only explanation is, "I just had to have it."
There are as many reasons a collector collects as there are people. It could be the need to surround ourselves with beautiful things, or a means of defining our personalities. Some people buy for investment or a wish to leave a legacy. Others may simply want to support emerging artists or assist in the recording of history. What all art collectors have in common is that their tastes and preferences are personal, unique to them, and their pursuit brings them first and foremost, pleasure. All true collectors—young and old, rich and not so rich—have a passion for art.
The collector revels in the thrill of the chase, the search for the perfect addition to his or her collection. The process of viewing, learning and acquisition is a joyful one and doesn't feel like work. If it does, it's not for you.
There is a cohesiveness implied in the term 'collection' and the most interesting collections are built around a theme, reflecting the vision of the collector. An eclectic grouping based on personal meaning can also have value as an entity, for the glue that holds it together—in this case, personal meaning—is there.
You may look to museums, both in their permanent collections and special exhibitions, for examples of themes. A theme can be something as straightforward as the work of a single American artist or as whimsical as the portrayal of cats in art. It can be as elegant as a Japanese woodblock print or as stylized as an Art Deco magazine cover. Some collectors are attracted to the three-dimensional and tactile qualities of sculpture. There is ethnic and folk art to consider. The possibilities are endless.
Conceiving the theme of the collection and executing that vision is the responsibility of the collector. By developing a coherent vision and point of view, a collector can create a collection that is more than the sum of its parts and actually enhance the objects in it. Collecting art is an art in itself.
One of the most brilliant and visionary collectors of the twentieth century was the industrialist and philanthropist Norton Simon. His accomplishments as an art collector rivaled his extraordinary achievements in business. He began collecting in the 1950's with the impressionist works of Degas, Renoir, Gauguin and Cezanne. In the 1960's he amassed a collection of works by Old Masters. During this time he also added to his impressionist collection and expanded into modern works.
Norton Simon's marriage to actress Jennifer Jones in 1971 was a turning point in the direction of his collections. With a few exceptions, his acquisitions until then were most definitely European. During the couple's honeymoon trip to India, Mr. Simon began to explore Indian art. This led to his first purchase of Indian art, a Mughal ivory chess set and, more importantly, to a respect for South Asian art. This admiration occupied a large part of his collecting interest for the rest of his life.
Norton Simon's influence in southern California led him to be the catalyst in the creation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He also developed his own "museum without walls" concept in which he lent his art collection to museums throughout the world. In 1974 his vast collection, considered by many to be the finest private art collection in the world, found a permanent home in Pasadena where it now resides in the Norton Simon Museum—a true masterpiece.
Obviously, most people don't have the deep pockets of a Norton Simon, a Guggenheim, or a Getty, but there are ways to build a significant collection without tons of money. Take for example the classic story of contemporary art collectors Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, a middle class Manhattan couple who have been avidly collecting the most avant-garde art of their time for the past 35 years.
Herbert Vogel is a retired postal clerk who made $16,000 a year and his wife Dorothy was a librarian. In 1965, they befriended the important conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, and after his first show, bought their first piece of art. Early on they decided to use Herb's salary for collecting and Dorothy's to live on. Over the years, they have amassed a collection of over 2,000 pieces by the most important artists of the 70's and 80's including Christo, Warhol, and Tuttle.
Herb Vogel took art history courses and introduced Dorothy to painting after they were married. They both stopped making art because they came to understand that they were better collectors than painters.
Their collecting reflects teamwork although each has a different approach to visiting galleries, museums, and artists' studios. He likes to move slowly and can stand for hours in front of a painting, communing. She walks quickly, makes up her mind about a piece, and moves on. Whatever the method, the objects in their collection were not chosen by consultants or considered "good" because they were expensive, but were the product of the Vogel's unique and personal point of view.
Their tiny one-bedroom apartment is festooned with art which is a result of their excellent and consistent eye for the cutting edge, a reflection of their intellectual journey and their specific sensibility. Each individual piece has more power as part of the collection than it would have on its own. The collection is its own work of art because it creates a context, in this case a specific period in contemporary art, and reflects the collector's concept of what art is.
Not satisfied to just to buy the art, the Vogel's made the art world their life. They made friends with the artists of their time and gave them emotional support, attending gallery openings, exhibitions and events. The art world became their home, enriching their lives visually, intellectually and socially— all on $16,000 a year.
The Vogels have no desire for their passion, their collection, to share the unhappy fate of other exquisite collections—sold at auction for enormous sums but disassembled in the process. While together, these works had been an extension of the collectors' personalities and a reflection of their passion for art and artists. Once the collection was scattered, the collectors' vision and its strength became just a memory.
For this reason the Vogels are gradually giving the National Gallery of Art every piece they have acquired over the years. In return, they receive an annuity, a considerably smaller amount of money than if they had sold the work at auction.
When the Vogels—he is in his seventies, she in her sixties—are gone, their collection will remain together under the stewardship of the National Gallery. It will document a significant period of art making in the United States during the last four decades of the 20th century, and it will also clearly describe the two people who brought that work together.
Now the question is: should YOU consider becoming a serious collector? Here are some things to think about:
Are you willing to keep an open mind and expect the unexpected? Do you look forward to filling your life with visual and intellectual stimulation? Are you amenable to educating your eye and navigating the substantial learning curve involved?
Do you look forward to meeting people–artists, dealers, collectors—who are fascinating, passionate, and often eccentric, but who are typically generous with their time and anxious to help you learn? Do you have a theme in mind for your collection, something that expresses your own vision?
I'm willing to bet the answer is yes.
Being a part of the art world can be a fulfilling addition to your life. Your life will do nothing less than change (but in a good way).