We wanted to know what makes some collectors tick, so we put seven questions to five collectors (individuals and couples). David and Birgit McQueen are an Atlanta couple; she’s an artist, he’s a global consultant in health promotion, and retired from 20 years at the CDC. Our other collectors are from Birmingham. Lydia Cheney is a prominent collector who, with her husband Jim Sokol, has a home full of museum-quality work, some of which is currently on view in the Birmingham Museum of Art’s exhibition “Third Space” [read our excellent review here]. Rebecca and Jack Drake and Margaret Alexander are also active collectors who participate in the BMA’s Collectors Circle.
Takeaways: it’s never too late to start, and follow your heart.
What made you start to collect, and when was that?
David McQueen: In college, I collected prints and worked in museums in Chicago and Boston and got interested in artifacts.
Birgit McQueen: From childhood on I gathered things in the woods, in the streets, to hold, study and enjoy in my room. These ranged from fragments of glass and china to a flattened dried frog that had been run over by a car.
The Drakes: We have been collecting art for about 10 years for Rebecca and 20 for Jack. We both love beautiful works by artists who have something to say about art and the world in which we live.
Lydia Cheney: I started to collect in my 30s; I spotted a piece (a serigraph) that I liked. The gallery owner explained the difference between a poster and a serigraph. I was off and running.
Margaret Alexander: Several things but two things do stand out. When I was in high school my mother and I were invited to spend a weekend with a cousin who was house sitting for her boss an executive with the St. Louis stock exchange. I remember sitting in the living room of this house fascinated by the “real” art on the walls all done by the same artist and then looking down on the coffee table to a big book about the artist and his work. I locked that experience away in my mind.
After college I worked for Lord and Taylor in NYC in their training program. A year later I got married and worked for an incredible and unusual craft gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia, which showcased the work of exceptional craftsmen from all over the United States. I was hooked. Working with all of these pieces every day for three years, meeting the artists who made them and traveling to New York, Boston, London on buying trips was a thrill. So I started collecting then with what little money my husband and I had.
What is your favorite or most sentimental work you’ve collected, and why?
David McQueen: It is impossible to name a favorite piece; they all have their own stories and associations. In addition, my tastes (and finances) have changed over the years from prints, to pottery to painting. For example, I loved a pre-Columbian feline stirrup pot that was donated to the Carlos Museum primarily because I thought it was too precious to be entrusted to a private individual.
Birgit McQueen: A volume of Herman Hesse’s poetry given to me at age 15. A small figurine of an elephant, also a present, but with a message attached to have courage that I later passed on to someone else with the same message; the memory of that little figurine is still vivid in my mind.
The Drakes: We do not have a favorite work of art anymore than we have a favorite grandchild.
Lydia Cheney: Hard to say … there are many that I love. A key piece is one by Odili Donald Odita, Night’s Door, mainly because I’d wanted a piece of his for so long. My other favorite artist is Enrique Martinez Celaya, whose works I have are all treasures. I love Leslie Wayne’s art too.
Margaret Alexander: I do not have a favorite. I love all of the pieces my husband and I have collected. Maybe my favorite is the latest purchase.
What is your collecting philosophy?
David McQueen: I believe in an eclectic collecting philosophy. The world of art is too diverse to be focused on one philosophy. Having said that, I have relatively little interest in Western art before the industrial revolution. I prefer the abstract, but if it is representational then I look for high quality and innovation in execution. I also believe that one should support local artists and/or artists that one knows. I am not interested in investing in art.
Birgit McQueen: A dictionary might define collecting as “the systematic acquisition of items of interest, often for investment purposes.” In my case, there is little systematic about my art choices, nor have I ever purchased anything with the idea of resale. Art pieces are like good companions. The more you relate to them, the more they reveal. Paintings on the wall are like windows into different worlds I like to know about. I am interested in how a piece is made, the execution of the work, and the thoughts of the artist versus my own interpretation.
The Drakes: We are drawn to art which is distinctive and somewhat edgy.
Lydia Cheney: Jim Sokol, husband and I buy what we like and what we can afford. I don’t analyze the process – I simply know what I like.
Margaret Alexander: Well, to be honest, I see myself as more of a buyer of art than a collector. My approach is more intuitive than intellectual. That being said, everything I have done has been innate and not deliberate. I just found myself going after all of these things without much thought even though I had no money in the early days. Back then, American crafts were my interest. Then later wood carvings from Oaxaca, Mexico, I had seen in a gallery in New Orleans. I bought pieces there because they were affordable, read books and articles, traveled to Atlanta for lectures and an exhibition, developed a friendship with the gallery owner and went with him to Mexico to buy more.
Anywhere we traveled as a family, I would search out the galleries to go to. I would make a list ahead of time. My husband would drop me off and I would run in, see an exhibition while he drove around the block. Or he would hold the kids outside while I ran in. I was always aware of all of the exhibitions in the country. It was frustrating not to get to them all.
Through the years my interests have changed from American crafts to Aboriginal art, Mexican carvings to contemporary art. During all of these years I was subscribing to art magazines that addressed my current interests or chasing after talks or exhibitions that were accessible and not too far away. I really had no goal in mind as far as collecting because we had no money. I just loved the hunt and was doing my darndest to keep up with what was going on. And then several years later a favorite uncle died and left me some money. I made my first major purchase and it was nonstop after that.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start collecting?
David McQueen: First come to an understanding of what appeals to you aesthetically, then sacrifice and buy what you like when you want it.
Birgit McQueen: Do not feel intimidated by galleries. Art is not only for the rich or sophisticated. Gallerists generally enjoy talking about artists and their work. Most gallery owners do not strike large monetary deals and understand budget limitations. Part of purchasing a piece of art supports the survival of the arts in general and the artists. Above all, find out what appeals to you and fall in love with your pieces.
Lydia Cheney: I will echo my friend, Margaret Alexander from Birmingham who said “Buy the best piece of work that you can afford by the artist you like.” Jim says “Visit gallery shows and museum exhibits as often as you can so you can decide what you like.”
Margaret Alexander: I think I went into too much detail for the last question but my reason is, it helps to set up the answer to this one. If you want to collect in any way look, read and travel to see as much as you can before you buy. A collector needs to develop an informed “eye” and a back log of knowledge about the area being collected. If you are collecting works of just one artist, one period or have an eclectic per suit look at the whole body of work. Not every piece an artist creates is wonderful even though he/she may have a big name. Know their work and hold out for the wonderful if you can. Buy what you absolutely love because you are going to live with it. Buy what you can live with … you may love it but can you live with it? Give yourself room to grow by being open to new ideas and new art definitions.
Do you collect anything besides art, or do you have a prize possession that is not art?
David McQueen: Of course, books, wine, plants, and other things. I have no prize possession that is material.
Birgit McQueen: Nothing tangible.
The Drakes: Rebecca has collected Hummel figurines for much of her life.
Lydia Cheney: I have a nice collection of ceramic figurines, Hummels, that several of my sisters also collect. Our mother, now 94 gave many of them to us.
Margaret Alexander: A cameo surrounded by pearls and diamonds left to me by my mother.
Where do you buy art?
David McQueen: Galleries are very important and a solid source of guidance for the collector. Two favorites in Atlanta are Marcia Wood and Whitespace. There are many galleries that appeal to different tastes; the secret is to find the ones that match your interests. As for cities and art, we regularly go to the Biennale in Venice to tap into what is happening in the modern art world. The German art world is exceptional at present, and Berlin is the place.
Birgit McQueen: Shop where the art is: travel, art markets, and galleries.
The Drakes: We buy art in Birmingham from Beta Pictoris Gallery and from various galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and in Germany.
Lydia Cheney: Our most reliable gallery for art is Jack Shainman in NY because we like many of the artists he carries. Jim keeps up with many galleries in NY and other cities.
Margaret Alexander: My husband and I have purchased art in Berlin, Basel, New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Oaxaca, Cuba, Venice, Lexington, Virginia, Santa Fe, Seattle, New Orleans, Chicago and Birmingham. As of now, NYC is the best destination for us. My husband has developed physical limitations and NYC is the most accessible and easiest to maneuver. We also have friends and family living there. Art fairs we have been to: Art Basel, Miami Basel, the Armory Show NYC, the Park Avenue Armory [Art Dealers Association of America’s “Art Show”], the Navy Pier Chicago, Maastricht, Havana Biennial, Venice Biennale. My favorite gallery so far is Jack Shainman in NYC.
What are you currently reading, or what has been your favorite recent read?
David McQueen: My current reading pattern is quite diverse and I thoroughly enjoy the Atlantic and the New York Review of Books as sources to let me know what I should be reading if I had the time.
Birgit McQueen: a) Dog’s Purpose (just adopted a dog) b) The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the second revolution and the 20th Century, by Peter Watson, c) Andrew Young and the Making of Modern Atlanta; and d) current copy of Artforum.
The Drakes: We have both just finished reading The Islamic Jesus and separately have started on other books about art, history and religion.
Lydia Cheney: My favorite recent read was John Grisham’s latest, The Whistler. I have a stack of books to tackle, including Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
Margaret Alexander: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.