Becoming an Art Collector Can Sneak Up on You

Becoming an Art Collector Can Sneak Up on You

Theresa Abel

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 .
photography by Eric Tadsen

Abel Contemporary Gallery 
6858 Paoli Road
Paoli, WI 53508

Staff Pick: Unfinished Thoughts

Dreamlike, a summer pastoral landscape emerges through a haze of atmospheric light, as if conjured by our own vision.  Brushy suggestions of clouds meander across an otherwise ambiguous and aleatory sky while we stand at the edge of a field fading into scattered optical unconscious. This oil painting by Jonathan Wilde, exhibited in his current show with Craig Clifford entitled Birds and Boundaries, as its title suggests, is in name, unfinished. However, as it hangs framed on a white gallery wall, its name is a bit of a paradox.

Unfinished Thoughts, Jonathan Wilde, 17.5" x 28"

Unfinished Thoughts, Jonathan Wilde, 17.5" x 28"

Unfinished Thoughts belongs to a class of works that Art Historians call non finito, that is to say, intentionally left unfinished. Though the technique traditionally was used in sculpture during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, nineteenth-century artists during the Romantic era began applying the style to their paintings. Many scholars, myself included, argue that this quality signals the beginning of Modernism as we know it. 

Artists, especially painters, have historically struggled with the finishing their works. While Jacques-Louise David and Paul Cézanne embraced non finito works, deliberately leaving large areas unfinished or blank entirely, others, such as Claude Monet and Joseph Mallord William Turner, never felt their works were finished and rather continued to develop over their careers, returning again and again to paintings to make small additions here and there. These works represent the problem of infinite of possibility, finite time, and the possibility of over working (of which I am myself, a watercolor artist, acutely aware). Camille Pissarro even famously proclaimed that “[t]o finish a work, is to kill it.”

Non finito works are, at their core, experimental; we can see the artist’s process as he works out visual challenges— his thoughts leaving their mark across the canvas. I believe that works like Unfinished Thoughts hold a particular power as they insist the viewer actively participate; our inherently creative minds make sense of the “partial” image  by filling incomplete portions— we too become artists in our own right. Looking becomes making.

Q&A with Jonathan Wilde and Craig Clifford

Wilde's responses as they were sent to Abel Contemporary Gallery

Wilde's responses as they were sent to Abel Contemporary Gallery

Established Wisconsin artists, Craig Clifford and Jonathan Wilde, will be featured in an upcoming exhibit entitled Birds and Boundaries. We emailed these two with a few questions as to what we can expect to see in this exhibition of their newest works and their artistic processes— Clifford emailed his answers, while Wilde sent us a delightfully handwritten response on the back of a local library book sale flyer (see image).  

Throughout my art education I have become fascinated by artist notes in all forms: pieces of scrap paper half-discarded in the studio, new ideas both fleeting and overworked, and small notes never meant for eyes other than the artist's-- they all reveal an inner life often hidden from the public eye. However, I would suggest that these "answers" provide a greater insight into the artist than any type-faced, seriffed response. 


-Lauren Miller 

Craig Clifford,  Range

Craig Clifford, Range

Why did you decide to work in your chosen media?

CC: Clay works the way my mind works.  The material allows me to change course quickly, cut off a part and add a new part.  There isn't another material that looks like glaze.  The more times, I fire a piece the deeper and richer my colors get. I'm not great at measuring, but if I'm off somewhere clay is soft and I can fill the gap with another piece of clay.  My first ceramics class was in 1988 and I still learn new things about ceramics all of the time.

JW: I am attracted to oils mainly because of the strength of the colors, feel I can get more “umph”. As well I like how the  paint can be maneuvered for effect. Partially, they are easier to frame than works on paper which generally require mattes, glass, etc

How has your work changed over time?

CC: My work has always been sculptural in nature, but the main aspects of the pieces were functional; teapots mostly.  This body of work starts to move away from the functional object, although a couple of teapots still show up.  

JW: Technically I try to pay more attention to value changes, how they lend themselves to enhancing the subject matter

Jonathan Wilde,  Life Getting Easier , 25 x 37

Jonathan Wilde, Life Getting Easier, 25 x 37


What's the most indispensable item in your studio?

two of Clifford's favorite tools in his studio   

two of Clifford's favorite tools in his studio


CC: My favorite tool is a long nail cleaner, from a beauty shop (image attached).  I'm not even sure how I got the tool, maybe a student left the tool in class.  One end is pointy, but rounded, while the other end is flat, perfect for smoothing.  I've probably have had the tool for ten years and will go into a beauty supply store looking for for a replacement, but can only find the short ones.

JW: Most indispensable… Well I suppose Me! The usual— paint and brushes— good quality, being important. Speaking of brushes, an unusual “ingredient” I really like is “lard oil” which really helps to keep brushes in good form.


Is there an artist who has strongly influenced your work?

CC: Tony Marsh has influenced my work the most.  Tony was my undergraduate teacher, his work isn't anything like mine, but Tony taught me how to work and be an artist.  I look at a lot of artwork and take something from all of it, but there isn't really one person.

JW: Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth, Peter Poskas, Marc R. Hanson.


Can you tell us something noteworthy about your current work?

CC: It's hard for me to comment about the current body of work, I'm still in the making process.  This work is more narrative to me.  It's small, but there little bits of story spread out through the pieces.  I maybe the only person who is aware of these stories, because I make them up in my head as I make.  

JW: I feel I’m getting more “out of the paint,” or  at least I’m trying to push it. When it works it can be responsible for paintings that are closer to accomplishing what I set out to do/capture.


Birds and Boundaries opens Friday, April 20th 2018, please join us for an opening reception from 5-9pm with the artists  and light refreshments.

Staff Pick: Iceberg Jars

The death of a glacier is an ear-splitting event. A cacophonous chorus of moans, groans, shrieks and wails accompanied by rounds of shotgun cracks create a deafening atmosphere unlike anything else on earth. These death rattles are the loudest natural phenomenon—louder than volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and thunderstorms combined. However, sound cannot travel in a vacuum, like that contained in a bell jar, a vessel which became immensely popular for the display of taxidermy and other curiosities during the Victorian era. Richard Jones’s Iceberg Jars, part of the Abel Contemporary Gallery’s Water exhibition, play with the imminent reality that glacial ice, due to man’s interactions with the environment, will soon become such a curiousity.


The Iceberg Jars are reminiscent of biological specimens in a natural history collection, preserved for study so that future generations may study these bygone relics. Their striking beauty is bittersweet and in their viewing one is confronted with a mix of emotions: awe, loss, veneration, introspection, a desire to touch something so transient, fragile, and breakable. Upon lifting their lids and reaching in to feel the glistening texture of the exposed tip of the iceberg, one discovers the surprising weight of the sculpture which invites further investigation after the realization that the inner “berg” may be lifted out to enable functional use (I envision these as fantastic ice buckets and imagine watching the ice melt down around the inner piece, dripping down along the long contours of submerged half of the iceberg, and pooling at the base of the jar). 



-Lauren Miller

Staff Pick: Scene of the Crime

Rounding the leaden door of the so-called “Cooler” gallery, we are transported, like Alice down the rabbit hole, into a world in which our existence is diminutive in the presence of an enormous severed string of pearls. Of course, the sensation of being made small by a work of art is nothing new, evoking the sublime often being the artist’s goal. However, in the case of Lisa Gralnick’s Scene of the Crime, what dwarfs the viewer is not only the colossal sculpture, but rather the act which created this spectacle and our interactions with the piece. 

Pearls are the world’s oldest gems, found among the tombs of Egyptian queens, referenced in ancient Chinese texts, and imbedded in Greek jewelry. Before the discovery of modern cultivation techniques, pearls were both financially and, at times, legally out of the reach of anyone not of royal or noble blood. Functioning as symbols of the wearer’s purity, piousness, and often femininity, strings of pearls often stand in for their iconic owners, Coco Channel, Jackie Kennedy, Grace Kelly and Marge Simpson to name a few. 

Curiously, from their conception, pearls are products of irritation— being formed by particles covered in layer upon layer of a crystalline substance excreted by their mollusk craftsmen. Gralnick’s work is also seeded by a similar punctum. The gesture of tearing off one’s pearls— be it by one’s own hand in a fit of hysteria, like the femme fatale staring in a film noir, or by an assailant, as in the case Bruce Wayne (Batman)’s Mother’s tragic demise— is a trope of climactic rejection of their emblematic affluence. 

Scene of the Crime poses the viewer in the position of witness, or perhaps investigator, of such a dramatic and pivotal episode. The larger than life evidence imbues the claustrophobic “Cooler Gallery” with echoing and inescapable lines of questioning: “What happened here?”; “Who has done this?”; and “Why?” A single matching pearl stud lays discarded near the exit, its partner no where to be found— hinting that the owner escaped the Scene of the Crime and still is at large. 

-Lauren Miller


About the author: Lauren is the newest addition to the Abel Gallery, bringing with her a BA with Honors and two years of PhD work from the University of Wisconsin— Madison in Art History and Visual Cultures; several years of curatorial and exhibition work for the Chazen Museum of Art, the James Watrous Gallery, and the Ebling Library; and an unrelenting enthusiasm for the Arts. She engages with interdisciplinary topics running the gamut from nineteenth-century spiritualist photography and victorian sorcery, to phenomenological examinations of Cézanne and his contemporaries, to early anatomical texts.

Madison Essentials - A Farmer at Heart, A Printmaker at Hand

The latest issue of Madison Essentials had a lovely feature on S. V. Medaris, a painter and printmaker represented by the gallery. Read the article below, and see her work at the gallery!

A Farmer at Heart, a Printmaker at Hand

"I think we are slowly losing our tie to the land, as the percentage of people who live in the country is much smaller than times past." Hearing S.V. (Sue) Medaris, you wouldn't expect her to be a printmaker. She's so enamored with her muses that you almost miss the way she chooses to honor them.

Home Elements and Concepts - Creating Art Pt. II

"Meaningful art is an important part of our society. You may purchase art for the joy it brings and to enhance your home’s interior, but it also helps support artists so that they can devote themselves to their craft. How does one become an artist and how is art priced? In my last article, I explained how one becomes an artist through formal education and practical experience followed by the challenge to create a professional and consistent body of work. The final steps include getting the work from the studio to exhibition, then hopefully to being purchased. "

-Theresa Abel

Read the rest of the article by following the link below.

Creating Art Part II

Meaningful art is an important part of our society. You may purchase art for the joy it brings and to enhance your home's interior, but it also helps support artists so that they can devote themselves to their craft. How does one become an artist and how is art priced?