Jen Waters and Jesse Dunn have recently begun collecting art (disclaimer: they purchased some of my work through Whitespace Gallery). It’s a hard fact that artists often face the very practical question of whether their work “sells.” My question is how we can subvert that commercial process and value the interactions that occur within the exchange of capital? My hope is that this conversation will help to demystify that relationship and entry-level collecting. We’ll be chatting about the how and why of their collecting practice as a personal story between individuals.
Karley Sullivan: How did you become interested in collecting art?
Jen Waters: Tell her the story of your first visit to the Contemporary.
Jesse Dunn: Well, Jen asked me to go to the Contemporary for the Open Studios night. The invitation said to bring along a friend. I wasn’t sure, but she talked me into it, and I brought one of my colleagues from [Southern Polytechnic State University] along. During the night I was touring around [Michelle Schuff’s] studio, and I saw a particular piece, and I liked it, it was unusual. She had mentioned that it was part of her graduate work, and I asked her if it was for sale. She responded enthusiastically that it was.
KS: It’s all for sale!
JD: (smiles) So I purchased that. I went back for it, actually. When we went to the next open studio event I purchased the second one.
KS: So that was only a year ago?
JW: Almost two.
KS: Have you two have been collecting together the entire time?
JD: Jen brought me to it in many ways.
KS: Jen, what brought you to the appreciation of original art?
JW: It’s such a passion for me and always has been. I can’t imagine my life without art. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Cleveland Museum of Art is spectacular. My mom would take us there because I loved it so. When I was little, I thought God lived in the museum. It was my favorite place on Earth, and that was the best way I could think to explain it as a child. Since then my sense of what art means has matured, but my love for its role in paying witness to our experiences of the human and the divine has remained.
KS: I was particularly interested in interviewing you after we met because I could tell that you collect not only for the objects, but also for the pleasure of joining a creative community. Even though you don’t have a great deal of disposable income, it’s a part of your life and it is on your mind; it’s a regular practice for your household.
JW: Yes, I’ve never had the resources to spend what I would have liked to on buying original art. And now, even with merging our incomes, we often have to save for a while in order to get a single piece that we want. But we do what we can. For example, we put whitespace gallery on our wedding registry. We have guests coming from out of town, and even if no one purchases a piece for us, they will at least take a look at who we’ve listed and learn something about the artists here in Atlanta.
KS: Right, it’s meaningful to you, and that’s part of the reason … I’m here. I want to support and encourage your efforts as well. So, let’s see what you’ve got.
JW: All right, this is our newest piece. It is by InKyoung Chun. It’s called Han OK Village, which is a town near where she grew up. She described it as a sentimental piece for her, which I didn’t know when I purchased it. It was hung in the office where I worked, and I loved it. What drew me to this piece is that some of the marks here are words in Korean. They are the words to a traditional poem in InKyoung’s native language. My graduate work was in literature, and I love the intersection of poetry and painting. Here, she’s created something with so much depth and texture of experience behind it. It’s very sweet and charming, but well-executed. I think her work is delightful.
KS: Did that come through a gallery liaison?
JW: I worked directly with the artist on this.
KS: So, you have purchased directly from artists and through a gallery. Can you speak to the differences in those two processes?
JW: I’m glad you brought that up. This piece wasn’t discovered at a gallery, it was in an office environment. What’s important to embrace as a collector is to consider the entire ecosystem that makes art possible and available. I care about the artist, and [the artist’s] success; I care about the gallery, and [its] success; I care about the museum and [its] success, and I care because they all play distinct and important roles in our community.
KS: Yes, it’s important to recognize that we all contribute differently, and that our contributions work together to make a whole.
JD: Yes, and what I love about the gallery is that they provide this space where interacting with the artists is possible. Even when I met Michelle [Schuff] at her own studio and purchased directly from her, it was because I had been given access to her studio through the Contemporary. It was the same with Seana Reilly, when I met her at the Open Studios. But once I did make the choice to purchase Seana’s work, it was whitespace that carried me through the process.
JW: And when you make those relationships through a gallery, they can continue to grow not only your collection, but also your connections to the artists [who] work with that space. A good example would be Robert Walden, who’s in the current whitespace show. He’s not based in Atlanta, but Susan [Bridges] made a point to introduce him to us, especially since we had listed him as one of the artists on the wedding registry. We never would have met him without her introduction. We shared Jesse’s story of being transformed by the experience of seeing an artist in the context of [the] studio and how it made him a collector. And then Robert says, “If you’re ever in my neck of the woods, come for a studio visit!” We will take him up on that offer when we are in New York.
For Jesse the special moment was stepping into the artist’s studio and seeing what goes into creating a piece. He realized that it isn’t just magic dust and poof, there’s a piece of art. It’s hard work, thought, and process. For the engineer in him, seeing the building blocks that make it all possible was a revelation.
JD: So, purchasing directly from the artist can help them in the short run, but in the long run, we need to consider the whole. Consider the piece above the mantel, which is a photograph by Jill Frank. Some of her work is represented by a gallery that is not local, and some of it is not represented by a gallery at all. She helped me to know the pieces I could buy directly from her and the ones [for which] I would have to work with a third party. I still plan on getting some of the pieces represented by her out-of-state gallery someday and know I will need to work with them down the road. I appreciated Jill helping me understand this. Cutting out the galleries means losing that consistent social space, and the middle-person who can facilitate those crucial introductions and connections, as well as address the financial details.
JW: But galleries are not the only ways we have collected. There are many places to purchase work affordably from artists, long before they are represented. There are print sales, and festivals, and its okay to reach out to artists to purchase directly from them as long as their commitments to the greater art ecosystem are honored. Each of those opportunities to become part of the commerce of art helps to make the art ecology in a city viable.
KS: Do you have a vision for your emerging collection?
JW: We want to support the artists from our area, and to encourage the work of the people around us in the hopes of contributing to a thriving community of creative individuals.
JD: Like this piece by Seana Reilly: This piece somehow explained the functionality of art to me. Her work spoke to me as an engineer. When I saw it, I began to understand the functionality of art and how it affects us, and how it fit into my life.
JW: Yes, that trip to the Open Studios forever changed Jesse!
JD: (laughing) Yeah, Jeff and I were sitting there in Seana’s studio just pondering back and forth about the different works in our engineering terms; just playing off them with our own experience. It was a fun night, and that’s what led me to come back to Seana, and to move into this idea of spending at a higher level. I really liked this piece, and I wanted it in my home so I could remember that experience of realizing something new and rather profound.
KS: So, it is about the ecosystem; these aren’t just objects that you have purchased to hang on your wall. It’s very much about the relationships you develop in the process.
JW: Yes, I think the organic food business taught us a lot with their well-known slogan, think globally, act locally. If you support the people here in your own backyard, there is the possibility of your own backyard becoming a global destination. Newtonian law still applies: A body in motion tends to stay in motion. The body of art production and commerce actively churning in an area catches people’s attention and makes them ask: “Hey, what’s happening over there? Maybe I should be a part of it.” There needs to be the willingness to pull up the rocks and look underneath, and there [need] to be more of us willing to lift the rocks and encourage other people to look at what we [find].
This is why Jesse and I always try to bring someone with us to art events and gatherings. In particular, we try to bring friends who might otherwise feel that the world of art is unapproachable or doesn’t reflect their lifestyle. We believe being mere collectors is not enough. That is part of what I think is missing in Atlanta, those people with the curiosity to look and share what they see with their friends. Even if they aren’t artistic, and especially if they haven’t been exposed to artists on a conversational level.
JW: Before we head back to the living room, we should go back here to the sitting room for one of your favorite artists…
KS: Oh, it’s my pieces. I actually forgot about them while planning this interview. They look great!
JW: We found out in hanging them that not all of our walls are even.
KS: They look great, and obviously, I’m thrilled.
That’s an underlying reason that I was interested in interviewing you. This was the first time that I had worked with a gallery to make something for a [gestures quotation marks] collector; for someone who buys consistently, and intentionally. You keep up with the shows and have an idea of who writes, and who makes what kind of work. You have an idea of how this little world works. There’s an engagement, a functioning relationship here, and the wheels caught. Knowing that you’re making something for [people who care] enough to put their money where their mouth is can do a lot for the emerging artist’s psyche.
JW: It’s true, supporting the arts on an individual level is good for everyone involved. So, over here we have two pieces by Vesna Pavlovic. Jesse got me these pieces, one for my birthday and one for Valentine’s Day. These photographs are from her Women in Black series, and I love them. Jesse kept asking me why I wanted these in particular. It was because I was so struck by how the strength of these women is communicated in these images. I found them during a time in my life when I needed the affirmation reflected by the resilience of these women, who are under impossible circumstances. I wanted that in my home, the inspiration of them, especially the sunflower one.
JW: So, moving into the living room, we have a few more pieces in here….
That piece, over there, is by Craig Dongoski. Jesse found that one at the gallery.
JD: I found it while waiting for you, Karley. Susan and Sarah thought I would be interested because of the type of work I have purchased in the past. I like the textures and how they are like a topographic map with varying layers. It’s a cool piece, and sometimes that’s how I choose things, simply because I respond to them immediately.
KS: That’s valid. We’ve spoken before about how people seem intimidated by the idea of beginning to collect art, maybe because it has some of the same connotations that making art has. It’s a decision to encourage something specific, something unique, and that means having an opinion on what you care about. Can you talk a little more about what the whole of your collection means to you?
JW: I believe there’s a tremendous drive for narrative in our lives and with our experiences. That’s most likely because of my study [of] literature [laughs]. We [find that the narrative begins] with direct conversation with [artists] in their studio about the work, and that the anecdotes grow each time someone comes to our home. That evolving narrative is so important to clarifying what the pieces mean to us and to our home.
KS: So, what about the works that you have purchased without meeting the artist first? How do those interactions play into your narrative?
JW: The best example happened with the Ann Stewart pieces. Jesse purchased two of her prints without having met her. A few weeks later I attended an opening, and she was there. Her response to meeting someone who had purchased her work was so animated. There was no disguising or masking her enthusiasm! That’s when we had the realization that it’s also important to the artist to know where the work ends up. It was like your enthusiasm, too, and that means a lot to us—to see that the people who make the work actually care about who has bought it. And now we have a relationship.