International Review of African American Art, fall 2004
Getting tarted Collecting Memories and African American Art
By Halima Taha
COLLECTING MEMORIES AND AFRICAN AMERICAN ART
By HALIMA TAHA
Framed by sensuous textures and a blaze of colors, I am inspired by the paintings, prints and photographs in my collection to reflect on a recent visit with my 81-year old father. The visit confirmed my thoughts about how art can shape emotions and the experience of time. The entire process of acquiring art (reading, visiting galleries and museums, interacting with artists, dealers and curators) shapes a consciousness about the collective activity of the art world and evokes pleasures which are as unique as our individual fingerprints.
My father and I talked about some of his artist friends who also happen to be among the artists I have in my personal collection. He met them at the Gilford Bower sleep-away camp in New Paltz, New York, a program sponsored by Harlem's St. Phillips Episcopal Church. Daddy fondly recalled the arts and crafts classes led by junior counselors Charles "Spinky" Alston and Romare "Romy" Bearden and the bow and arrow he made with Ad Bates who became an accomplished dancer and cabinet maker. Bearden had his first solo exhibition in Bates' loft. I managed to interject that Bates was also a source of inspiration for Jacob Lawrence's Builder series which thrilled Dad because he has recently become a Lawrence fan.
I told Dad about my first meeting with Bearden in 1984 at his Long Island City studio. Pausing in his work on the Obeah series, Bearden recalled my grandfather who was among the few black men in Harlem to own a Duesenburg. The conversation shifted to God's divinity, Camus' existentialism, Descartes' cognito, "I think therefore I am," and on to questions about how life is related to art. Daddy was intrigued.
He affectionately spoke of Selma Burke who was the camp cook: "And man could she cook!" Burke and her German artist /boyfriend, Hans Buehler, later became Dad's good friends. Savoring the flavor of good southern cuisine, Daddy recalled the many meals they enjoyed in her Harlem home.
I inquired about Augusta Savage. Although he wasn't as close to her as Selma, Dad remembers a friendly but stern woman who was extremely talented. He said everyone in Harlem admired her commitment to teaching children, which exceeded some of her own aspirations.
When Dad asked me how each of his friends are doing, I had to remind him that they have died. His sorrow is balanced by his delight in the work his mentors left behind. Now a Sunday painter, his memories are as vivid and satisfying as any painting he has made or I have owned. Acquiring art is an individual journey that each person takes in putting together a collection that will inevitably be accompanied by personal stories. It is for this reason that there is no such thing as a "typical" art collector.
Some collectors are just beginning their careers, or decorating their first homes; some are ending their careers and look forward to collecting in their retirement. Everyone has personal reasons for thinking a particular work of art is more desirable and satisfying to own than another. Whether the collector makes this selection intuitively or through knowledge of art history, art technique, market values or current trends, every choice remains an individual one. An individual's over-all collection will give further testimony to this because it is self-expressive and distinctive. Just as a work of art communicates the thoughts and feelings of the artist, so an art collection reflects the collector's perception of what is beautiful, meaningful, or technically proficient. According to Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, "Your house is your larger body." In the same way, your inner self is reflected in your collection.
Personal taste is important in collecting and can be developed by asking yourself some pertinent questions: What do l see when I really look at art? What do I feel? What do I think or understand as I look at the work? What do I like or dislike about a piece? Do I like the colors, shapes and subject? Or the way the imagery is broken up or put together? Why do I feel this way? You must have a dialogue with yourself before you have one with anybody else. The most significant function of taste is to amplify your enjoyment and delight in your collection.
The excitement in collecting begins with the understanding that collecting art simultaneously enables you to become a student, teacher, curator and historian. As a collector you develop the ability to draw not only on knowledge and sensitivity to the subject but on a vast pool of inner resources also. Collecting requires critical judgment and restraint, the humility to learn from one's mistakes, enormous patience, and courage to buy at the right moment. You must also give focus to a collection by deciding on its theme and short, immediate and long term goals for it.
There are two basic approaches to collecting art: With your eyes - relying on your own instincts and judgment; and with your ears - relying on the advice of a few carefully selected dealers. Either approach is a legitimate one. Most successful collectors employ a combination of the two. The best collector is an informed collector. Throughout a collector's career, reading and constantly looking at art is essential in building an exceptional collection.
Most people feel more comfortable going slowly at first.
(1) Spend time learning everything you possibly can about art. Books to read include: Art: AfricanAmerican by Samella Lewis, History of Art by H.W. Janson, A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum and What is Art? by John Canady.
Visit local dealers, ask to see paintings and prices. Visit and join a few museums. Talk to friends who collect art. Enroll in an art appreciation course at a local college; make it a family affair by getting your spouse and/or kids involved. Subscribe to Art in America, Art News and the International Review of African American Art.
There is no need to try to become an "expert" overnight. Generally, it takes two years or more for novice collectors to master the market. Your main objective in the initial learning process should be to begin focusing on the types of pictures that interest you most, learn to look at art, and get a feeling for local dealers and the types of works they handle.
(2) Familiarize yourself with art terms, media and techniques. You should know, for example, there are two types of original art: the single, one-of-a-kind original and the multiple original. Oils, pastels, tempera, drawings, watercolors, gouaches, and mono-prints are single one-of-a-kind originals. Handmade prints like etchings, engravings, aquatints, drypoints, woodcuts, lithographs are multiple originals.
(3) Specialization is an important consideration. The art market at large is vast. It encompasses hundreds of different sub-markets: WPA prints, 19th century landscapes, American folk art, Abstract Expressionist paintings, daguerrotypes to name just a few. The primary objective of steps 2, and 3 should be to: to reach the point where you feel comfortable about investing money into art; to focus on a medium or period of specialization; to get to know two or three good local dealers.
One of the ironies of the art market is that many people do not want to buy until they become experts, yet they cannot possibly become experts until they buy. The easiest way to avoid this self-defeating cycle after you have comfortably completed step 1 is to try the market on for size by purchasing one or two pieces of art that you like. This could be $300 limited edition prints or photography or a $2,500 painting on paper. The point is to buy something that appeals to your taste. Some collectors begin by setting an absolute top limit on what they will spend and then try to find a work by a fairly well-known or emerging artist that they admire. Keep in mind that most artists work in a variety of mediums, so if you can't afford a canvas by your favorite artist, you might be able to afford a work on paper.
It is also possible to come on strong right from the start. Usually these collectors have enjoyed and taken their time with step 1, so they are confident and informed. In this instance, you can find a reputable dealer, explain what you want to buy and let the dealer make the recommendation for you. If you go this route, you must be extremely careful to look into the dealer's reputation and background. Request a biography, ask to speak to other collectors served by the dealer, ask other dealers or museum curators about the dealer.
If the dealer objects to your bringing an independent "expert," your red warning flag should go up. Be encouraged if a dealer recommends specific books to which to refer in researching your prospective purchase. If your research supports all the claims the dealer has made about the piece, that's another plus. And if the dealer provides upon request, a written guarantee of authenticity, that is also positive.
It is also very important to do a little comparison shopping. Dealers occasionally charge vastly different prices for comparable works. If they do, ask the dealer about this-maybe you will discover something distinct about the provenance of a specific work or learn that certain dealers are consistently trying to get away with excessive prices.
The primary advantage of starting with inexpensive pieces is that what you perceive as "mistakes" as you mature as a collector will be far less costly. Bearden once told me that, "A lesson well-learned is worth whatever the price." You may discover that a work does not hold your interest as much as when you first purchased it. Most collectors have experienced this at least once. But be patient with yourself and others as your understanding combines with experience to produce an infallible aesthetic sensibility. You may even discern masters very early in the making!
Your natural activity and interests will enlarge your journey to include meaningful relationships with dealers, artists and other art enthusiasts. These encounters will contribute unique, personal stories that will enrich the pleasure of collecting.
Author of Collecting African American Art: A Guide to Works on Paper and Canvas (Random House 1998), Halima Taha also lectures in conjunction with the Absolut Expressions tour.