A girl walks into an art gallery and falls in love.
With a painting.
That girl (okay, me), might just have a little bit of a problem when it comes to art. I love many mediums, many styles, many price points. From folk art to hand-cut papel picado — the Mexican paper banners — crafted by an artisan from Albuquerque, my art “collection” is a mix of this and that.
Which left me wondering, is there an art to collecting art?
“Collecting art is a multifaceted exchange, and to me, it’s not just about the stuff,” says Emily Harris Halpern, the assistant director of Crosstown Arts, the fabulous new contemporary arts organization that provides resources and opportunities for artists to connect with the Memphis community.
We asked Emily and three of the city’s best-known art cheerleaders — David Lusk, owner of David Lusk Gallery; artist Sue Layman Lightman of Sue Layman Designs and Pat Brown of T Clifton Art Gallery — to share their advice on how, and perhaps more importantly, why, to build an art collection.
How to Build an Art Collection
Why is it important to collect original art?
“Purchasing original art from living artists contributes directly to their livelihood and development of their careers and allows them to continue to work and grow. This creates deep value beyond a transaction,” says Emily. “The process sparks friendships, builds relationships amongst individuals and communities, and strengthens our cultural economy and community as a whole.”
Sue Layman Lightman, whose gallery is in the historic South Main District, says original art has character and individuality. “Originals carry a special degree of uniqueness that has always moved me,” says Sue. “I feel a special connection knowing it’s an original piece and that my purchase has helped another artist further his or her career.”
“Isn’t it more exciting to own something made by hand versus mass produced by a machine?” asks Pat Brown of T Clifton, a gallery in the Broad Avenue Arts District. “Original art inspires. It stimulates conversation. It connects you to another person – the artist.”
For David Lusk, who owns galleries in both Memphis and Nashville, “It’s about what the art gives back to you. Sure it may match the sofa, but it completes the room while offering something for you to contemplate (and it impresses your friends).”
So, where – and how – does one start?
Sue says before you begin collecting art, it’s important for you to do a little homework. Figure out what styles, mediums and designers speak to you. “You can look in magazines, online or attend local art fairs and festivals in your area to explore and find pieces that touch your heart and make you happy,” says Sue. “Once you get an idea of what you have a passion for, it’s time for the fun to begin — buying!”
“I mostly agree with the ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ statement,” says David. “But — like selecting wines, college, a spouse or cookies — the more [you] look and assess and think about artworks, the better trained your eye and mind become. See as many shows, galleries, museums and art fairs as possible.”
“Group exhibitions are a great way to see work by many artists at one time,” says Emily, who advises signing up for newsletters from arts organizations and browsing online resources for inspiration.
And sometimes, you just have to go with your gut, says Pat, who advises to simply “leap in!” when it comes to starting a collection. “Tom (Clifton) and I both encourage you to collect based on what you love – not what you think others will appreciate, what you see in a magazine nor based on price.”
Does the art I collect have to be the same medium, theme or style?
“Mercy, no. Wouldn’t that be boring?” asks Pat. “This is why our gallery features art to wear (jewelry), art to hang (painting and wall sculptures) and art that sits (three-dimensional art such as glass, sculpture and ceramic). Remember, original art can be functional as well. Jewelry, wine glasses, candle sticks, platters, lighting – original art comes in all shapes, sizes and budgets.”
“If we’re talking about a small collection here, I’d say to keep the imagery, media and scales widely varied,” says David. “You don’t want to see a whole house filled with landscapes by one artist, or all black and white photographs of flowers, or only ceramics hanging on the wall.”
“I love to mix and match art pieces,” says Sue, whose own works are brilliantly colorful paintings. “Bringing in an array of mediums and styles brings new dimensions to every room in your home, giving each area its own story to tell.”
Any other advice for collectors-to-be?
“Get out there and look at art,” says David.
“Please don’t focus on finding the ‘deal’ when considering an art purchase,” says Pat. “The artist is sharing a piece of his or her soul with you. Celebrate and treasure this gift.”
“It’s important to buy art that makes you happy so you can find a feeling of satisfaction every day when you look at the piece hanging on your wall or the sculpture sitting on your coffee table,” adds Sue. “Art is expressive, and it allows you to connect with it very strongly if you let it. Love art, and it will love you right back — I guarantee it!”
As Emily points out, the start of your collection might be closer than you think. “Don’t forget about gifts or heirlooms. These could be surprising starts to a really meaningful collection,” she says.
Finally, we asked our experts to tell us about their first, or a memorable, piece of art they purchased.
“A lithograph by Edna Hibe,” says Pat. “I still cherish it even though I purchased it 30 years ago. One of the first exhibits Tom featured at the gallery was works by Hibel. I still smile each morning when I walk into my living room and see it. Of course, Tom ensured it was framed correctly.”
Emily and David both pointed to a woodcut by Ted Faiers, a well-known Memphis artist who passed away in the ’80s. Emily worked as an intern for David Lusk Gallery and helped archive the Faiers estate. “Over that summer, alongside the Faiers’ daughter Lydia, I unearthed hundreds of incredible canvases and works on paper from his studio, garage and home.” Emily calls the 1952 Faiers woodcut “Mother and Child” “a small, magical woodcut of brightly colored figures.”
Faiers had died a few years before David made the purchase of his woodcut, “Night Magic,” which was the first piece he really had to save up for. “I actually look at that piece almost every day, and I’m still intrigued by the colors and its surrealistic imagery,” he says.
“To be honest, I can’t remember the first piece I ever bought, but I remember the pieces that I loved and didn’t buy,” exclaims Sue. “The works I’ve fallen in love with through the years and passed on have stuck with me. There’s always a way to make room in your budget for art if you think you can’t live without it.”
Emily Harris Halpern shared a few ideas to help you start (or build!) your art collection:
- LocateArts is an artists’ registry sharing images and biographies of artists all over Tennessee
- Join ArtsMemphis’ CSA program (Community Supported Art) as a fun and easy way to get started. This is like a Community Supported Agriculture program, but instead of produce, you buy in and receive art.
- Educate yourself. On November 8, Crosstown Arts, ArtsMemphis and UrbanArt Commission will host a program on art collecting that’s free and open to the public. Look for details on Crosstown Arts’ website in the next few weeks.
Thanks to our art champions for their great advice!