The idea for BURNAWAY originated from a front-porch conversation about the need for more dialogue about local art. Please welcome Baxter Jones, this month’s curator of Our Front Porch, a series of guest reviews and topics for open discussion with you, our readers.
“Why don’t the wealthy people of Atlanta buy more handsome pictures? A few handsome houses have some enchanting treasures of art, but there are many palaces here built of stone and brick, furnished with velvet carpets, curtained with plush and satin and lace, ornately frescoed, rich in the possession of glass, silver and china, and yet without a worthy picture adorning the walls of a single room.”
—The Atlanta Constitution, September 16, 1890
As the quote above suggests, the lack of a large community of serious collectors in Atlanta is not a new issue. Prompted by the closing of two of the city’s best galleries, an insightful article last month on ArtsCriticATL noted: “The art world is an interdependent system of artists, collectors, galleries, museums, government and the press. Like the engine in your car, when one piston goes out, the whole thing sputters.” Given my experiences, I thought I’d pose a series of questions about the Atlanta art world from the perspective of a collector.
Where do collectors come from? What factors go into making someone an art collector? And how do we get more of them involved in the local arts community? Anyone who occasionally buys a piece at a neighborhood festival is in a sense a collector, but, for purposes of this article, I’ll focus on those who spend significant amounts of time, effort, and resources buying works by professional artists.
One way to become a collector is to accumulate a pile of money and then hire a consultant to advise you on what to buy. That works for some people, but the model I’m thinking of is different: someone forms their own taste, over time, from looking, reading, talking with other interested people, and then looking some more. A range of elements can influence a collector: family, education, travel, friends who collect, gallerists, artists, and critical journalism. And it helps to have a certain level of resources and/or a talent for spotting good work before it is widely appreciated.
My thinking on these issues has been stimulated by reading Edmund de Waal’s wonderful The Hare with Amber Eyes (click here for Jerry Cullum’s review for BURNAWAY last year). In the course of this family history that doubles as social history, the author meditates on the origins of the collecting habits of his ancestor Charles Ephrussi: “This journey [through Italy] turns Charles into a collector. Or perhaps, I think, it allows him to collect, to turn looking into having and having into knowing …. Charles learns to spend time with a picture. He has been and looked, you feel, and then gone back and looked again.” That’s a good way to start.
In my own case, my parents were a major influence. My mother was a serious painter with an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago. They began collecting in their early forties—shortly before they died in the 1962 Orly crash (click here for Paul Boshears’s thoughtful essay from last week). I realized recently that I was around that same age when I started collecting with some regularity. We lost some of the most promising collectors of that generation on that day in 1962.
My “second parents,” my aunt and uncle who raised me from age five, took me to museums often, as I now take my daughter. I benefited, more than I realized at the time, from the superb art history department at Emory. Later, when I studied in Europe for a year, I visited some of the world’s great museums as often as possible.
The next step toward becoming a collector involved visiting galleries, mostly in Atlanta. This city has been blessed over the past 25 years with some model gallery owners. Dedicated to advancing the careers of their artists, these are the ones who take the time to educate collectors (including those who come in and look for years before ever buying anything). Over the years I’ve bought a significant number of works by Atlanta artists. And when I purchased work by out-of-town artists who have New York galleries, I found a slightly better price by buying here. Local collectors who aren’t getting to know Atlanta’s galleries are just being foolish.
And when it comes to material that simply isn’t available here (in my case, surrealist drawings, mostly from the 1930s and ’40s), Atlanta galleries have been gracious and helpful in steering me to the best New York dealers.
But, in order for me to make those early visits to Atlanta galleries, I had to know about them. And I needed some encouragement to actually go. I found this motivation in my local newspaper, which featured frequent, prominently placed, well-written reviews (thank you Cathy Fox, Jerry Cullum, and others). This brings me to my greatest concern about where the future art collectors of Atlanta will come from: what happens when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the media institution with the greatest reach, almost abandons art criticism?
It’s true that there are still some reviews published in the AJC, but they are fewer and harder to find, especially online. The one remaining regular arts reporter, Howard Pousner, does a good job given the overall editorial policy, but the effect is a bit like the Last Legionnaire at Fort Zinderneuf. For a contrasting example of how vigorous arts journalism can still exist at a newspaper in a similarly sized city, check out the website of the Denver Post.
For those of us who already know we are interested in the arts, there is BURNAWAY, ArtsCriticATL, and some other online sources, and many of us subscribe to magazines such as ART PAPERS, Artforum, ARTnews, and so on. Atlanta Art Now, whose first volume Noplaceness has just come out, is a promising resource.
But what about those who don’t yet know that they would be interested, those who have no idea what Atlanta offers? Far too many recent arrivals seem quick to absorb the mindless “there’s no culture here” myth, and many budding collectors accept the notion that one has to buy from galleries elsewhere.
Not that Atlanta is as unique in this respect as we may believe. A recent article in The Art Newspaper discussed why Miami’s art market remains small despite Art Basel Miami Beach and the presence of some fine collectors: “[Miami’s situation] is not unusual–in most cities the major collectors travel to develop relationships with the best galleries and artists nationally and internationally. It is usually the levels of collectors underneath who emerge, and who sustain and develop local markets–and these new collectors can take years to develop. This is a process that is happening gradually in Miami.”
It’s happening gradually in Atlanta and other cities, too. But it’s the word “gradually” that’s tough on gallery owners and artists.
My questions for BURNAWAY’s Front Porch:
How do we reach those who are not yet involved in the arts? How do we attract new patrons–some of whom may over time develop into significant collectors–given the lack of sustained arts coverage by major media?
Which comes first, more collectors or more galleries? That is, how do we foster a “virtuous circle” of expanding audiences for art?
What is the relevance of museum exhibits and permanent collections in developing a better community of collectors?
Constructive suggestions, please.
Baxter Jones is a native Atlantan who practices copyright and trademark law. He has served in the past on the boards of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Horizon Theatre, and PushPush Theater. He is currently on the board of the High Museum and Théâtre du Rêve. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not represent any organization.
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Our Front Porch is a series inviting guest contributors to share thoughts on local art for open discussion with you, our readers. Check back after the holidays for new surprises!