Last week it was reported that the painting Past Times, by Kerry James Marshall, sold for $21.1 million to Sean Combs, music mogul and art collector. The same week Amedeo Modigliani’s 1917 painting Nu couché (Sur le côté gauche) sold for $157.2 million. Purchasing high-value work and donating large sums to museums are what most people picture when they think of art patronage. But what about those who live modest lives and still fill their homes with original art, visit museums and galleries regularly, and follow the careers of living artists? When does someone become an art collector?
I’m curious about people who value art for what it adds to their life more than its potential resale value. Did they grow up in art-filled homes? When did they begin buying original work? Do they have regrets? I sat down to talk with a few local art collectors to find out when art became important to them.
I met Rick and Kristen at my gallery when they came in to commission an artist to create a bespoke cabinet for Rick’s collection of Wendell Berry books. They live on Madison’s near west side and have filled their lovely bungalow with original paintings, sculpture, functional ceramics, and handmade furniture. When we get together, our conversations often revolve around travel, and their trips seem to prioritize visits to art museums and galleries. Even though their home is brimming with art, they surprisingly did not think of themselves as collectors until recently.
As a child, Rick was an altar boy exposed to the grandeur of art in the church. Although he grew up in a home devoid of art, an influential high-school teacher took him to theatre, ballet, and museums. Kristen’s first exposure may have been her grandmother’s amateur paintings and trips to the local art museum.
A college professor of Rick’s had original art in his home and sparked the realization that living with art had value. Over time, they met other friends who were not wealthy but had good art. It was inspiring. Visits to museums became a regular activity, but it was on a trip to Israel they purchased their first piece. Upon arriving home, they were surprised that framing the picture cost much more than the charcoal drawing itself. Kristen said from then on she wanted to spend more on art than framing. They continued to study, learning about art history while educating themselves about local artists and slowly adding works they loved and could afford.
When I asked if they had advice for people thinking about collecting, they mentioned building a relationship with a gallery whose aesthetic resonates with the collector. Good gallery staff will take the time to talk with you about artists they represent and art in general. And they can call you when new work arrives by artists you love so you get an opportunity to wait for just the right piece. Starting out this way is comfortable because you have confidence that the pricing is fair and the work is high quality. Rick and Kristen said once they learned more about art, their self-assurance grew and they were more willing to take risks. The only regrets are the pieces that got away. As Rick looks around his home, he says that being able to own art feels like a privilege.
I next visited the country home of Wanda and Byron, where quality of life in all things seems to be the prevailing philosophy. Their countryside home, southwest of Madison, has gorgeous views, which become wonderful backdrops for outdoor sculpture. Inside, their home is filled with a collection of art and antiques that can only be acquired with patience. Each piece has a story.
Byron and Wanda grew up in homes filled with framed family photos and handicrafts, such as needlepoints and decorative plates common in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where they were raised. It was in adulthood they decided to be surrounded by lovely things, purchasing antiques and art when they could afford to. At least one of their early antiques was found abandoned on the curbside and refinished by Byron and Wanda themselves. They understood the inherent value in living with beautiful and interesting things early on. To paraphrase Byron, you can have another big-screen TV or you can have lovely art.
Byron finds the notion of being a collector kind of strange. He says he and Wanda did not decide to start collecting art, it just happened. The first time they realized they were considered collectors was when they saw a published image of an artist’s work they owned with the caption “in the collection of…”
Wanda and Byron have a lot in common with Rick and Kristen. They echo the idea of potential collectors finding a professional gallery they have faith in and where they feel a sense of community. They also do not regret any acquisitions other than the ones that got away. Byron recalls a print they wanted many years ago that was not very expensive but, at the time, they could not afford. Decades later he was able to track down one of the editions, and it now hangs in their home along with the other things they say make their life richer.
Being an art collector is so much more than being a patron. It’s finding something personal or familiar in a piece and injecting your ideas and persona into it. The value of having several pieces that carry a story or remind you of something personal is that you get to show off a side of yourself family and friends might have yet to meet. Perhaps even a side that leads to you better understanding who you are.
Theresa Abel is an artist and owner/director of the Abel Contemporary Gallery, a fine art and fine craft gallery in Paoli. She studied painting at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Scuola Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florence Italy, receiving her BFA in 1991.View additional photographs at homeelementsandconcepts.com .
photography by Eric Tadsen