studioNOTES: support for artists/ideas and information

Number 16

June - August 1997

DAVE H. appears to be a reasonable, articulate, and intelligent man who holds down a responsible job at a large company. Yet he has a problem so rare that researchers have not even begun to study it: Instead of spending his salary on raising a family, building a house or buying the latest electronic gadgets, he spends it on art. He is, by his own admission, an "Art Addict."

He says the walls of his condo haven't been painted in all the years he's lived there. As if it would matter: You can't see them because they are filled almost floor to ceiling with framed art. Living room, kitchen, dining area, bedroom, bathroom - everywhere. And that's only the highlights of his collection. Leaning against the walls is more work. Piled on chairs and stacked on the floor in presentation portfolios is even more. His collection follows no particular theme, although the pieces tend to be small to medium in size, representational, and more or less humanistic. Most are prints, but there are also drawings photographs, paintings, watercolors and mixed media reliefs. The subjects are usually figures or still lifes. Relatively few are abstractions, because "I can't relate to it [abstraction]," although he buys one if he "senses it's good." The artists are ones known mainly in the greater SF Bay Area, but there are also some prints by such luminaries as Henry Moore, Rouault and Goya, as well as a few pieces by as-yet-unrecognized students.

About 15 years ago he came across an article in Triptych explaining Georgia O'Keeffe's work. Fascinated, he set out to learn more about art. He went to galleries and museums, and attended talks by artists, curators, and dealers. "I didn't buy more than a half a dozen pieces a year at most for the first couple of years, because I really didn't know what I was doing and art seemed like one of these tremendously expensive, sophisticated - the upper classes kind of thing. Then I got more into it, and more understanding, and certain things piqued my interest, particularly prints, which had the advantage of being relatively inexpensive and small, and it [the commitment] just sort of happened."

He continues to look at art at every opportunity and to keep learning, "[but] I'm never quite sure why I buy art. I think in some cases it's a validation of what I've learned. This of course assumes I'm making good choices. I think it's a way I can contribute to the whole arts culture, by helping to support it. Fortunately I can do that. Can I live without buying art? Probably, but it would take a lot of self control at this point."

He buys a piece when "I feel compelled by it and feel a commitment on the part of the artist. The greatest pleasure is when I come across work that is 'unknown' and wonderful at open studios. I like to encourage artists, because I recognize that it's such a hard thing for them to be successful. Any time someone buys something from them, it is a vindication of what they're doing. And I think that's important."

studioNOTES asked Dave H. if he had suggestions for artists or for would-be art buyers. He had the following to say, but stressed that it is only one collector's point of view.

Is there anything that artists can do to make it easier for people to collect their work?

Obviously one of the things - as you pointed out in the most recent studioNOTES - is just get it up in various places. I think that artists, whether they are well accomplished and successful or not so, should make extensive use of open studios. It's a wonderful way to have things seen. It's tempting to say if an artist wants to sell they should make art that someone else will understand, as opposed to something that only they can understand. I think they would then maybe be prostituting themselves. So you've got that kind of a contradiction. Many artists do what they do because they are compelled to do it, and to make it accessible to the general public, they might have to somehow inhibit that compulsion. On the other hand you've got to pay the bills. I don't have a good answer to that.

Well, what makes it easier for you, personally, to buy something?

I think usually it's because I get a sense of what is being communicated. Or a sense of what the artist is trying to do. If I have no sense of that whatsoever, I'm probably not going to be interested. . . . [But] it has to be aesthetic as well as communicative. And you can argue up and down about what's aesthetic, but - I suppose the thing is - if it could be written on a paper as easily as painted, assuming the person could write, then I don't think it's visual art---which doesn't diminish its cultural value, just places it in a different arena.

What things get in the way of making a sale?

I think the other thing that artists have to recognize sometimes is, if people are buying art for themselves, it's got to be something they might display. . . .If an artist is going make something, they should have in mind that somebody's going to want to look at it. And if they forget that then, I'm not saying they shouldn't make it, but I'm not sure that they should think that they're going to be able to sell it.

Do you think it is as necessary for artists to promote their work as it is for people in other professions?

Yes. I have lots of great ideas as an engineer. Nobody's going to come to me with money to go do them. I have to go out and vigorously sell those ideas at an affordable price, demonstrate what the benefit is. And I think it's no different for an artist. I think many artists don't recognize that. Too many of them believe that the world owes them a living because of their talent. And that's a very hard lesson to learn in any profession.

Have you noticed anything that artists who are successful have in common?

One of the things that makes one artist become significant and another not is just that they've got the guts to go and do it. Artists are really successful are those who don't pull their punches.

Is there something that artists in general can do to increase consciousness about their work?

One of the things artists can do is provide a lot more information about why they made it the way they did. You know, very rarely do you go to a gallery show or a museum and have an extensive discussion of what's behind the work. I think artists need to encourage that - better, thorough explanation, as much as possible, without being tedious, about what it's about.

You see a lot of work. Do you have any hints for artists on pricing their work?

I think you have to have some awareness for what the market is, both in terms of what it is and how good your work is. And I think you try to somehow fit into that. I don't think an artist should be embarrassed about what they ask. You can always negotiate down, although I don't normally do that with artists. But I think an artist needs to recover the value of the work. And they shouldn't be shy about that. If, at an open studio, I notice that an artist has seriously undervalued their work, I'll tell them. If I decide to purchase their work, I've been known to even pay somewhat more than asked. If other collectors, looking at "low-end" art did the same thing, it would be better for everyone. Even though we all have budgets, the "starving" artist may not be able to produce work for us to enjoy.

What advice would you give to would-be collectors?

I think one of the things to say is there's a lot of interesting work out there - that it doesn't have to be real expensive to enjoy it. If you wish to simply gratify yourself by whatever it is that impresses you about art, you really don't have to go and spend your car payments on it. Or in some cases, the whole car. It's nice if you can. I'll never own a real blockbuster piece, but that's not important to me. And I think if you have something that you've become dedicated to or really into, you can get enjoyment through it or from it on a limited scale. I think if you get to know the artists and talk to them and so forth. . . . you get a lot more insight to what's going on, and that is a very humanistic kind of a thing.

That's a good point, that people don't have to spend a lot to get good work, but how does one start?

I think you start by doing a lot of looking. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to go out and just try to buy something. You know, you can buy for decoration, and I know a lot of dealers who have contempt for the people who do, but I say "Hey, you've got to start somewhere." If you think about my earliest-purchased pieces, they were decorative. But that's how I started, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think it's important to get guidance, like what I did with the Graphic Arts Council tours. By going on all these field trips and having an artist talk about what they're doing, or gallery owners talk about things, or museum curators, you start developing an appreciation. You may filter it through your own sensibilities, but I think it's really helpful, and ultimately more satisfying to get some guidance.

Finally, you told me that you currently can only afford to buy things that are not too expensive. What would you do, though, if you came into a lot of money?

It would be fun if I won the lottery or something, to open a gallery for relatively unknown artists. There's so many good artists out there - there really are - that just don't have any visibility. And it'd be nice to give them visibility.

-Benny Shaboy, Mountain View CA, 04.23.97

Copyright © 1997 by studioNOTES

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