on collecting art
Thinking about art collecting should be like fact-finding between courtship and engagement. If the ensuing marriage is going to work, then you have to know what you're getting into long beforehand.
That is why experienced collectors, curators, gallery owners and art dealers--no matter their length of years in the business or the range of their artistic interest--concur on this one basic tenet of collecting art: Keep your wallet closed until you've opened a book, then another and then another. In addition, throw in some art magazines and gallery catalogs. Attend exhibits and cultivate learning relationships with contemporary artists, curators and collectors. Plan a vacation around an exhibit in another city. Whose work speaks to you? Whose leaves you cold?
Then, and only then, should you take the plunge. Like any lasting marriage, the effort put in before making a commitment will lead to a satisfying, enduring union--with artists whose work touches your heart.
Aspiring collectors looking to plow into the rich and fertile fields of work by African-American artists may have to search a little more diligently for the history books and the exhibits that will give them the information they need to make a start, especially if they do not live in a major urban center. But the historical texts do exist, and aspiring collectors will find the history of black artists in this country alternately maddening and inspiring.
A growing, committed and amiable network of collectors and reputable art dealers stands ready and eager to cultivate new peers and clients, and its members are as close as the telephone. Among them are the following people who, through their expertise and experience, have much to share.
Thurlow Tibbs is a dealer in and a historian of African-American art. "Dealer" becomes a rather skimpy description when Tibbs' other talents come into play. In addition to guiding private collectors as they assemble a body of work, he helps museums fill the gaps in their collections with African-American art, researches out-of-print publications for libraries, and conducts art appraisals. His gallery in Washington, D.C., houses a 19,000-item library that is open for academic research.
"With a new client, I will suggest a series of books," Tibbs says. Among the most comprehensive are American Negro Art, by Cedric Dover; Two Centuries of Black American Art, a catalog, by David C. Driskell, of a 1976 exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and Modern Negro Art, by James Porter.
Like many other experienced dealers, Tibbs sees art collecting as not solely the domain of the affluent, but rather as a worthwhile pursuit for anyone who recognizes the inherent value of having art enhance his or her life. His counsel? "Decide on an annual budget. If you want to spend $5,000, it would be stupid for me to show you something for $40,000. If you are open to contemporary art, you can do things for $500."
Contemporary art readily opens the field of African-American art to a wider range of enthusiasts. Works by the respected masters--the vibrant collages of Romare Bearden or lush landscapes of 19th-century painter Edward Bannister, for example--likely exceed by tens of thousands of dollars the average collector's ability to buy.
However, how about an Elizabeth Catlett lithograph or a limited-edition Jacob Lawrence print? Tibbs likes to recommend the lithographs of Grafton Tyler Brown, a 19th-century landscape artist who lived in California for most of his life.
Less expensive yet may be the work of an artist living, working and exhibiting in the region where you live. "Start out with contemporary artists who already have a craft," says Tibbs. "They have already proven something; there have been some exhibitions.
"Look long and hard for consistency and quality of execution," he adds, mentioning that he respects the work of emerging artists such as Louis Delsarte. "Most of all, you have to like it."
Collector Jim King, of Cincinnati, agrees. During the 10 years that he and his wife, Patricia, have been fleshing out their collection, he has learned how to discipline both his desires and his budget, while developing enduring relationships with local artists.
"I look for original pieces," says King, the executive director of Avondale Redevelopment. "I buy art from artists I like personally. It's like bringing someone into your house. A bad attitude stops it for me. Once, I met a guy after I had bought the piece. He was so bad that I sold it."
From his home base, King has cultivated relationships with a circle of artists from Lexington, Ky., to Cincinnati. "I see them regularly. I work directly with the artists. It's not about getting good prices. I'm trying to get to know them--where they are going with their work."
King repeats the mantra: "The other thing I do is buy a lot of books, trying to learn and understand African-American art." And his fervor for collecting soars. "Everywhere you go, you see good artwork," he continues. "You can go broke. You have to decide on criteria. I try to find a black gallery in any city that I visit. After a while, $500 doesn't seem to be that much.
"But if someone has a $3,500 piece, it's an insult to offer them $1,500. If you can't afford it, just walk away from it."
The Kings have made room on their walls and in their budget for the works of some of the more internationally known African-American masters, among them Hughie Lee-Smith, whose brooding paintings portray the stark isolation of urban America in the 1930s and '40s, and Claude Clark, of the Jacob Lawrence school.
The Kings have also gradually learned how to balance buying art for art's sake and buying art as an investment that may--or may not--appreciate in value. Despite Lee-Smith's and Clark's renown, for instance, King did not rush headlong into the purchases. "Those are pieces I spent more than $2,000 for. I spent a lot of time making the decision.
"When you get to $2,000 and under, it's really about whether you like it. Under $1,000, I go for it. But if I am spending $5,000 for a piece, I really have to know that person, the history. The artist has to have sold something, exhibited.
"A lot of new artists come out and say, `My work is worth $5,000 just because I did it.'" That attitude doesn't wash with King. Again, "it's reading, it's talking to dealers, going to a lot of museums, a lot of galleries," he says.
King sees no major problem in buying a print with an edition number and an established price. "But when it comes to an original," he says, "you have to make a decision by yourself. My friends can't make that decision for me. The worst thing is to find out you got taken. Get some help."
Turn to an art consultant. Based in Gary, Ind., Cheryl Sutton travels across the country with her artists' works and exhibits them for large gatherings in clients' homes. These more intimate settings offer a warm and focused atmosphere for prospective buyers who have questions. Collectors often turn to Sutton and other reputable dealers for a guiding hand and advice. Such relationships should be based on mutual trust and respect, and they must be carefully sought and cultivated.
"Make sure that the person takes the time to educate you," Sutton says. "Know their background. If a dealer really knows how to collect, then they do it themselves."
Make sure that you are dealing with an art professional. Sutton comes from programming and curatorial positions with the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American Art.
Beware of "salesmen," she warns. "If a dealer can't tell you how a piece of work was done, or anything about the artist, then it's more of a product line for them."
For many consumers, the street art show is a nonthreatening venue for viewing extensive bodies of work and talking to artists. But the artists themselves may be great or terrible spokespersons, and street fests can be a bewildering mix of trash and treasure, with originals and cheap, nonedition or huge-edition prints intermixed.
Prices for the same work may vary wildly from show to show. If you see something that you love and the price works for you, fine. But coherent, conscious collecting entails more than impulse buying. Moreover, price consistency is important to an artist's (and a dealer's) credibility. A "whatever I can get" attitude is no basis for a long-term, evolving price structure' that dealers, collectors, museums and galleries can all relate to.
"Of course," says Sutton, "some buyers are not interested in those issues. Some just want something inexpensive to go with the sofa."
This frame of mind peeves Sutton. "Art should speak to you in any setting at any time in a way that goes beyond the moment," she insists. "The truly good artists and those who are more established have a distinctive style, one that speaks to you again and again in a hundred different ways." This is where research and study turn into discernment.
When it comes to the truly good--indeed, the truly great--African-American artists, the collection of Harmon and Harriet Kelley of San Antonio is one of the more comprehensive in the country. The Kelleys have combined financial wherewithal (Harmon Kelley is an obstetrician and gynecologist) with time, good guidance and a thorough art and historical education to build a collection that has toured the country.
The Kelleys have not only chosen their acquisitions with care; they have also delved into the social imperatives that thwarted early black artists who were denied museum exhibition privileges or who abandoned their careers to support their families, only to start painting again late in their lives. This social study has enhanced their appreciation of the visual images.
When one of their daughters left home to attend Brown University in Providence, R.I., they delved into the life of Edward Bannister. He was a prominent member of the Providence community, and one of the founders of the Providence Art Club, out of which the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design evolved.
When the Kelleys began collecting artists of the Harlem Renaissance, they bought works by Palmer Hayden, who gained recognition when he was among the artists featured in the country's first all-black exhibit in 1928 in New York, and William H. Johnson, who spent much of his professional life in Denmark, Norway and France. Johnson returned to the United States as World War II loomed, and forsook his expressionistic form of painting for a "primitive" style.
There are also two works by Lois Mailou Jones in the Kelley collection, including one that Harriet Kelley stumbled upon in a junk shop. "In Dry Dock," shown at Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1941, still had its exhibition label attached. Decades later, the Kelleys met the 89-year-old artist at an opening at the Corcoran. "There is such value in knowing the artist. You gain a lot of insight, and they are eager to find someone who is interested," Harriet Kelley says. Indeed, whom you know, as these collectors and dealers aver, can be a tremendous boost when starting a collection of your own.
Through his friendship with the Kelleys, newcomer Leo Edwards has boosted his appreciation and know-how concerning African-American art considerably. When the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Collection of African-American Art opened its tour in 1993, Edwards was a tour guide.
"People shouldn't go to an exhibit, look at it for two seconds, and walk by," he says. "They won't understand what the guy was trying to communicate. I wanted to make [visitors] realize what they were doing as artists during their time period."
A beginning collector, Edwards, 44, is smartly putting into practice all of the advice and guidance that collectors and dealers agree is imperative: He has relied on the services of reputable dealers, among them Thurlow Tibbs; he has innumerable gallery and museum exhibit catalogs mailed to him to keep up with what is available; and he travels, because he can afford to, to view the work of African-American artists.
And the collection of this self-proclaimed neophyte is growing to include Henry O. Tanner, Lois Mailou Jones, James Van Der Zee (photographs), John Biggers (a Houston contemporary artist who has incorporated African symbols into his huge murals) and Palmer Hayden.
Aspiring collectors who cannot easily do the same as Edwards can still gain initial access to the world of African-American artists and the varied and inspiring range of their work. That world is just a telephone call, a postage stamp or a bookstore away.
Nancy E. Ancrum, an editorial board member of the Miami Herald, has edited a book of oral histories of old Miami.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Heritage Information Holdings, Inc.
Atypical Collectors With Art to Share
By ALAN RIDING
Published: February 21, 2006
GHENT, Belgium, Feb. 16 — When Anton and Annick Herbert began collecting art in this medieval Flemish city more than 30 years ago, he was a textile machinery salesman and she worked in the fashion business. Now, as the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art devotes two-thirds of its space to showing what they have acquired, the Herberts still hardly fit the conventional profile of collectors.
Reflecting the collection's standing in the contemporary art world, the show's opening this month in Barcelona, Spain, attracted leading European museum directors and gallery owners, as well as many artists whose works the Herberts have bought. Yet they have never sought public attention and have exhibited part of their collection only twice before, in 1984 and 2000.
Further, they are not rich. True, they are also not poor, but they neither inherited nor earned a fortune. Rather, they worked to buy art. And since they acquired works by experimental artists they befriended who had not yet gained fame, they were able to build up a collection tightly focused on artists of their own generation.
"I've always said it's very bad for a collector to be rich, because he can buy anything; he can buy badly," Mr. Herbert, 67, said in an interview in the loft of the converted factory here where he and his wife are usually surrounded by their collection. "I don't think you need to spend huge amounts of money. The challenge is to achieve high results with little spending."
In the case of the Herberts, that meant deciding what they did not want as much as what they wanted. For instance, they steered away from Pop Art, Neo-Expressionism and movements like Fluxus and Viennese Actionism. Instead, what drew them was Minimalism, Conceptual Art and Arte Povera.
The first work the Herberts bought was just a sentence, "As if It Could," by Lawrence Weiner. "Don't forget that when we started, we didn't understand anything," Mr. Herbert recalled with a laugh. "I mean, here was this crazy guy putting a sentence on a wall and saying, 'This is my artwork.' But we bought it because it was so different, so shocking, so against. We postponed buying our first television so we could buy the Weiner. We put it on our wall. No one who visited even looked at it."
Still, they said, even then what really interested them was not to possess art, but to participate in social and cultural change through an intellectual engagement with artists who were rebelling against the existing art world.
"It was like a family," Mr. Herbert recalled. "You went to an opening and there was nobody. There were the artists, the gallery and three or four crazy people. There was so much to say and to do with this art, but no one was listening. Today, the contemporary art world is blown to a level of stupid craziness and materialism. At that time, everyone was against it."
The resulting collection is made up of works by some 40 artists, including Donald Judd, Don Graham, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Richard Long, Daniel Buren, Gerhard Richter, Gilbert and George, Robert Ryman, Carl Andre and Martin Kippenberger. Most of the art was created during what Mr. Herbert considers the landmark years of 1968 to 1989, with a smaller number of works from the 1990's.
"It's a private collection created at the right time in the right place," said Manuel Borja-Villel, the Barcelona museum's director, who helped to organize the exhibition.
The works seem very much at home in the striking white Modernist museum, which Richard Meier designed in the mid-90's. Indeed, the white rectangular box of Mr. Graham's "Public Space/Two Audiences" from 1976 — the title also used for this exhibition, which runs through May 1 — almost merges with the museum's rectilinear atrium. Entered through two doors, the box's interior is divided by glass, with a mirror on one wall creating a disturbing perspective.
Also in the atrium are Judd's "Untitled" from 1984, a multicolored rectangular metal case, and LeWitt's "Incomplete Open Cubes" from 1974, both important Minimalist works. The museum's second floor is given over to art created from 1968, a year of youthful revolt in many Western countries, to 1989, the year the Berlin Wall crumbled. The art, though, is not political; if anything, it is antipolitical just as it is anti-"art."
Mr. Richter's "Four Panes of Glass" from 1967 is a metal structure sustaining four frames with transparent panes of glass. For Mr. Herbert, a crucial figure in this period was the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers, one of the first to paint words, and many works use language, from Robert Barry's "It Is ... It Isn't ..." to Mr. Nauman's "One Hundred Live and Die," which lists 50 words, each followed by "and live" and "and die."
In the early 1990's, the Herberts paused in their collecting, as if their generation's work was done. But then they resumed with a small number of artists who, they felt, spoke to a new era, prominently Kippenberger, who died in 1997, but also Mike Kelley, Franz West and the not-so-young John Baldessari, now 75. In fact, the Herberts had known Mr. Baldessari for years before deciding to include him in their collection.
"It's a slow process," Mr. Herbert said. "Every year, two or three times, we discuss what the collection should be and what it should not be. Finally, we decided that if we have Mike Kelley, we absolutely need Baldessari. We also make an imaginary collection, 10 or 15 artists who are not in our collection but in our head. Then you see Sigmar Polke in it."
Unsurprisingly, then, they also see collecting as an art. "That's what Duchamp said," Mr. Herbert said later over lunch, "You can 'paint a collection' together by choosing your works and bringing them into a context. We try to do that, and I think that in Barcelona you see a kind of vision of a whole."
In the current art market, though, they feel like loners. "We think that today the art world is too art-fair-minded, too money-minded, too market-minded," Mr. Herbert said.
Aware that the art market also has its eyes on their collection, the Herberts, who are childless, have begun making plans for the future. And as a step in that direction, they are testing a private collection's relationship with a public museum, both in Barcelona and at the Kunsthaus in Graz,Austria, where part of the collection will be shown from June 10 through Sept. 3.
A museum has an audience, it offers continuity of art, and it provides education, Mr. Herbert noted. "Private collectors are fast, they can act subjectively, and they have no responsibility," he added. "This is also a quality because, if you have no responsibility, you have complete freedom."
The Herberts have decided to create a foundation that will take over their collection. "Time is running so fast, and we have an obsession with the news of the new," Mr. Herbert said. "But in art, what has been done is necessary for what's going on. We don't want to create a mausoleum foundation. We want to use it as a way of insuring the continuity of art history."
Essence, July, 1997 by Khephra Burns
For three days, a line stretched down the block as Black folks -- from babies to baby boomers, hip-hoppers to oldtimers -- crowded into the mazelike exhibition space, hungry for some reflection of themselves. They feasted their eyes on fine art from a mdlange of artists' palettes. For some, it was the first taste of the works of twentieth -century masters -- romare Bearden's collages, Jacob Lawrence's historical narratives, Charles White's exquisitely drafted portraits, Augusta Savage's and Elizabeth Catlett's deeply expressive sculptures, William H. Johnson's dancing landscapes, Norman Lewis's lyrical abstracts, and Lois Mailou Jones's bright realism and African geometric forms. Others saw glimpses of greatness in emerging contemporary artists such as Arlene Case, Nanette Carter and Alison Saar.
All had come for the first annual National Black Fine Arts Show in New York (contact Wainwright/Smith Associates, Ltd.,  777-5218). But the occasion could just as easily have been the biennial National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, the annual Lake Meadows Art Fair in Chicago or any gallery or museum opening around the country showing the works of Black artists worldwide.
The works of art exhibited in these venues represent a window on America and, indeed, on the world. Visual, visceral distillations of the Black experience, they are witness to the beauty and depth of the souls of Black people. As such, they touch something deep in us and ignite a desire to collect them, communicate with them. Our artists are the mediums through whom the ancestors speak, and these works are word. For many of us, the objects of our desire can seem forever out of reach. But collecting the art of our culture need not be a dream deferred.
"You don't have to be a Reginald Lewis or an Oprah Winfrey to collect," says Paul Jones, a major collector and now board member of the High Museum in Atlanta. "Just buy within your means, and buy what you like."
The late Reginald Lewis, chairman and CEO of TLC Beatrice International Holdings, Inc., started out buying paintings by young Black contemporary artists such as Vincent Smith, Edward Clark, Betty Blayton Taylor and Benny Andrews for $2,000 to $4,000.
Isobel Neal, an art consultant to Chicago's G.R. N'Namdi Gailery, advises beginning collectors, If your pockets aren't that deep, then you ought to buy contemporary artists, because that's what the masters from the 1930's and 1940's were in their time -- contemporary artists supported by a small group of people who were buying their art at the right price."
Twenty years ago much of the work of these masters -- including Bearden, Lawrence, Norman Lewis, Beauford Delaney, Palmer Hayden and others -- could be had for a few thousand dollars; 30 years ago, it went for a few hundred. As late as 1986, Sherry Washington purchased a 9-by-12-inch Bearden watercolor for $500. She sold it for $8,000 in 1990 to finance her new business, the Sherry Washington Gallery in Detroit. The same watercolor today is valued at $17,000.
Loris Crawford, owner of Savacou Gallery in New York, notes that only a few years ago, paintings by nineteenth -century Black masters were auctioned off at Christie's and Sotheby's for a year's lunch money: A painting by Henry O. Tanner went for $2,000, an Edward M. Bannister for $3,000. "The average African-American collector doesn't even know that these works get auctioned off," Crawford says. "And a lot of the White collectors are not even aware of who these artists are." The smaller paintings by the artists named above can sell today for between $30,000 and $40,000. As an investment, African-American art has outperformed the stock market. Joscelyn Wainwright, the organizer of the National Black Fine Arts Show, is trying to pull some coats in the community: "Much of the art today is available at prices that next year may be referred to as historic bargains."
"It just takes a little courage," says Harriet Kelley of San Antonio, who, with her husband, Hammond, began collecting in 1987. "Even our CPA wondered why we were buying all this art. Now he admits it was one of the smartest things we ever did."
Washington says that while a $500 investment would have been sufficient in 1986, an outlay of $1,000 to $2,000 is a more reasonable expectation today and will give you some room to negotiate. "Our people spend more than that on Louis Vuitton bags, fur coats and new cars," she says. But while those things will depreciate to nothing in ten to 20 years, a comparably priced work of art by an African-American artist will more than likely double or triple in value.
Peg Alston, a 25-year veteran dealer in Black art, says, People often don't realize they can pay for the art in installments." There are definite advantages to this: "If you wait until you've saved enough money to pay for it all at once," she says, "you may find that the price has gone up or, worse, that someone else has bought it."
The best and most consistent advice collectors and dealers give is to buy work you love, but collect it, if you can, in a quality that will appreciate. A poster is just a reproduction, and it's unlikely that even a signed reproduction will ever be worth more than you paid for it.
But Halima M. Taha, art adviser and author of the forthcoming book Collecting African American Art: A Guide to Works on Paper and Canvas (Crown Publishing, November 1998), notes that "many collectors began collecting exhibition posters for the images and aesthetic education before they were able to afford original works or even limited-edition prints."
Alston, who founded the Peg Alston Fine Arts gallery in New York City in 1972, adds that "posters are still a reflection of our African-American artists and their creativity." Among those buying are the thousands who in time will graduate from collecting posters to limited-edition prints and even original works.
Mercer Redcross of the October Gallery in Philadelphia has observed younger brothers and sisters coming into the gallery. "They've bought the posters, the reproductions of works by such artists as Leroy Campbell and Charles Bibbs, and they're saying, 'I want to be a little more of a collector, but I can't afford the originals.' So they'll go to the serigraphs, the hand-pulled lithographs, the etchings [see sidebar for explanations]. Of course, buying the original is ideal, but in some cases the original is priced out of reach or is not available. So the only way you can get what you want is to go with a print. And that's good, because it keeps people from saying 'I can't participate in this unless I have $10,000 or $20,000.'"
Taha urges beginning collectors to consider limited-edition prints: "They're affordable, they can provide a great deal of pleasure, and most artists who work on canvas also work on paper."
Of course, when you start with a Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden lithograph, it's a considerable financial investment -- perhaps $2,000 to $4,000 or more. Shop around and get some good advice. Find dealers and galleries you can trust, and build relationships with them. Black gallery owners are generally eager to share their knowledge and experience and can help you identify and begin collecting the next generation of masters at affordable prices.
Prices are negotiable. Learn about the work. Artists, and often the dealers who represent them, want to see their work collected by people who understand and appreciate it, not just by those who buy as an investment, solely to make a quick profit "Go to the galleries," stresses Taha. "Admission is free -- no cover, no minimum -- and it's an education."
By looking at a lot of work, you will begin to develop an eye for what you like. Collector and dealer Irene Ericsson -Houston of Houston, Texas, sees many of our folk exclusively buying pieces that have "very definite Black images. Unfortunately, they're overlooking some very fine work by Black artists who are doing still lifes, landscapes or abstracts."
But Margaret Porter Troupe, who owns the Porter Troupe Gallery in San Diego, has met a lot of African -Americans who are buying abstract art. "I had a show of Scott Davis's work in 1992. Scott makes these incredibly interesting, pristine environments, and people like them: the way he handles his materials, the way he balances them inside these environments."
Fine-art photography, a medium also often overlooked, is gaining national recognition and is affordable. Exquisite work by Frank Stewart, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Eli Reed, Jules Allen, Chester Higgins, Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems can be acquired for less than $1,000. Photographs by such past masters as P.H. Polk and James Van der Zee are rarer.
"For the Hewitts, collecting this art over the course of their lifetimes was an exercise in community-building," said Ken Lewis, Bank of America Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. "The collection stands as a testament to the passion of Vivian and John Hewitt, their close interaction with many of the artists and their knowledge of the history of African-American art."
Collecting art by the country's best African-American artists was Vivian and John Hewitt's life-long passion. Although the Hewitts did not have an unlimited budget, they had an eye for fine art and for emerging artists who would grow to national prominence. Today, the Hewitt Collection is regarded as one of the most important and comprehensive collections of African-American art. Art & Antiques magazine listed the collection in its third annual compilation of Top 100 Treasures in its March 2000 issue.
"My husband and I both grew up with an appreciation for art and it has brought us great joy over the years to put this collection together," said Vivian Hewitt. "So many people, through the generosity of Bank of America now have the opportunity to learn about and appreciate the outstanding contributions of some of the greatest African-American artists, many of whom have become friends of ours."
The collection includes 55 two-dimensional works of art by 20 artists. Renowned works such as The Card Players by Hale Woodruff; Morning Ritual by Romare Bearden; Woman in a Blue Coat by Ernest Crichlow; Gate in Tangiers by Henry O. Tanner; Easter by Jonathan Green; and Head of a Woman by Elizabeth Catlett are included.
Essence, Feb, 2001 by Jorge Arango
A San Antonio couple preserves Black heritage in a great collection of African-American art
One night in 1987, Harriet and Harmon Kelley attended the opening of Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800 -1950, a survey exhibition of African-American art spanning nearly two centuries, at the San Antonio Museum of Art in Texas. Neither had ever been particularly interested in the visual arts. Harmon was a successful OB/GYN; Harriet assisted him and did community volunteer work. They lived a comfortable life in San Antonio with their two daughters, Margaret, then 15, and Jennifer, then 12.
There was no way for them to know that Hidden Heritage would completely change their lives. "We were just stunned," remembers Harriet. "Even now, you can take an art-history class and never hear mention of an African -American artist." It hadn't occurred to the Kelleys that African-American art was important enough to show in a fine-art institution or, indeed, that it was even considered a viable artistic genre.
Yet it became immediately clear to the Kelleys that the work on view represented nothing less than the visual legacy of their culture, and that that culture was larger, richer and more diverse than they'd ever imagined. "We decided we wanted to fill our home with paintings by African-American artists and educate our children about our art so they wouldn't be as ignorant about it as we had been," says Harriet.
Today the Kelleys live with one of the preeminent collections of African-American art in the country--from portraits by Joshua Johnson (sometimes spelled Johnston), a freed slave considered the first recognized African-American artist, to collages by popular icons like Romare Bearden to a modern graffiti-inspired painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat and abstract oils by Sam Gilliam. Portions of the collection have traveled to prominent institutions around the country, including the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building in Washington, D.C., as part of the institution's African-American Museum Project.
The collecting passion of the Kelleys has also profoundly affected their daughters. Though initially resentful about the time their parents devoted to collecting (Jennifer remembers fuming because an art-filled vacation her parents planned forced her to give up tickets to a Janet Jackson concert), Margaret and Jennifer have become almost as fervent as their parents about the art of their people.
True appreciation for African-American art blossomed for Jennifer when she went to Spelman College. It was in that environment, she realized, "I wanted to learn about artists who depicted my history. This wasn't something we'd been taught in school." Now a 25-year-old MBA candidate with another master's degree in social work already under her belt, she's begun to help manage the collection--cataloging it on computer, handling requests for loans and granting reproduction rights. Margaret, a 28-year-old third-year resident OB/GYN, has developed a particular fondness for the work of Charles White, while Jennifer loves the narrative style of Jacob Lawrence.
"My parents really instilled in us the importance of leaving your mark and passing on your history," says Jennifer. "I would like to continue that. We'll leave some sort of legacy. My piece in it is figuring out a way to preserve the collection so that it's a benefit to other African-American families and to every culture."
"No one is going to care about our culture like we do," adds Harriet. "We have a responsibility to protect that culture. Just find your niche and start collecting."
Harriet Kelley, who is working on a book about her collection and about collecting, offers these resources and some advice.
Books--"Building a collection, you also need to build a library," she says. Read everything. Indispensable for new collectors is Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas by Halima Taha (Crown, 1999).
Periodicals--The International Review of African American Art, published by Hampton University Museum, Hampton, VA; (757) 727-5308. American Visions, Washington, D.C.; (202) 347-3820.
The Web--A lot of art is available for viewing on the Internet. Kelley says that, while purchasing newer, less
expensive works on-line is fine (for example, signed posters and limited-edition prints), older art needs to be
inspected firsthand. Still, Web sites are a good educational source. Many museums have sites you can visit. Also,
artnet.com has made a concerted effort to feature African-American art; it has books, works for sale and links to hundreds of galleries.
BY FELICIA FEASTER
While other newlyweds feather their nests with toaster ovens and china, Vivian and John Hewitt did a highly unusual thing with the gifts of cash they received at their wedding in 1949. They bought art.
Honeymooning in Manhattan, John and Vivian purchased prints at New York's museums to decorate their faculty suite back in Atlanta where Vivian taught at Atlanta University and John at Morehouse College. For the first 10 years of their marriage, Vivian Hewitt recalls, "It was an eclectic collection" sprinkled with Picasso and Paul Klee prints.
But when the couple moved to New York City in 1952, their collecting took a dramatic turn. Suddenly surrounded by a pool of talented African-American artists, the Hewitts began devoting a portion of their modest educator salaries to purchasing works by Hale Woodruff, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and emerging African -American artists, many of whom became the Hewitts' friends.
"We absolutely never, ever went into buying art with the idea of it being an investment. Never ever," says Hewitt. "We bought it to live with, to enjoy, to enrich our lives. To put beauty into our home."
Decades later, those important purchases of African-American art have grown from a beloved avocation into a nationally recognized collection. In 1998, the Hewitts' collection was acquired by Bank of America. Celebration and Vision: The Hewitt Collection of African-American Art features 54 works and appears in Atlanta at the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech as part of the National Black Arts Festival.
Vivian, who is 85 and lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side, lost her husband in 2000. But the collection they built together, out of an almost uncanny shared taste, will outlast both of them.
The Hewitt Collection is a testament to the power of collectors to trumpet under-recognized artists. The Hewitts focused principally on collecting paintings, collages and prints. The collection reflects the Hewitts' personal taste in colorful, figurative, uplifting imagery, often centered on family life.
Though the Hewitt Collection has been called one of the nation's Top 100 Treasures by Art & Antiques magazine , Hewitt acknowledges the personal side of collecting.
"We are an excellent example that you do not have to be rich to love art, to collect art. "We mentored other people who were starting their collections. I can't begin to tell you how proud and pleased we are to have young people come up to me and say, 'Mrs. Hewitt, you've inspired me. I'm starting to collect.'
"And I tell them, 'Don't hesitate. Just do it. Just start.'"
Noted collector donates prominent African-American art to SCAD
The New York Times
February 11, 1992
Collecting Priceless Art, Just for the Love of It
By SARA RIMER
Now that the National Gallery of Art has liberated Herbert and Dorothy Vogel's one-bedroom Manhattan apartment from their collection of 2,500 sculptures, drawings and paintings, Mrs. Vogel can retrieve her clothes from the terrace and hang them in the closet, which was only one of the places the art had been stashed. Friends who happen to be tall, or on the heavy side, can venture from the living room to the bathroom without colliding with the galvanized steel rectangle by Donald Judd or the paintings by Robert Mangold.
Their rent-controlled apartment on the East Side has been transformed, but the retired postal clerk and the retired librarian are still doing what they have done for 30 years -- devoting their lives to contemporary art. Last Thursday night, at yet another opening, at the Marisa del Re Gallery on West 57th Street, they were greeted warmly by people like the art historian Barbara Rose, the SoHo art dealer Annina Nosei and the artist Paul Manes, whose paintings were on the walls.
The crowd was all abuzz over last month's announcement that Herbie and Dorothy, as they are known, had pledged their entire collection of Conceptual, Minimalist and post-1960's art to the National Gallery. The Vogels had ascended to the loftier precincts of the art world, joining benefactors named Mellon, Kress and Dale. Not bad for a 69-year-old tailor's son who, when he wasn't in museums or artists' studios, could be found at the post office sorting mail. Or for a 56-year-old stationer's daughter who worked as a reference librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library.
"I thought I was rich having good art," said Mr. Vogel, who delights in showing up at openings exuberantly "clashed," as he puts it, in plaid pants and a houndstooth overcoat. "We never bought anything because we thought it was important. We bought things we liked. It's not about price. It's about feeling."
Mrs. Vogel says: "How do you put a price on something, or someone, that is close to you?"
The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection -- he insisted that her name come first -- is more than just the sum of its objects. What is now in storage at the National Gallery is the record of one couple's life together in New York City and their relationships with the artists they sought out, often long before many other people were interested.
Nothing is missing because nothing had ever been sold, even though a few sales would have allowed the Vogels to afford more spacious quarters than an apartment that shrunk with each acquisition. Money certainly would have made it easier to acquire art. Money and space were the two things the Vogels lacked as patrons. An Eye for Art
But they had something better: what the sculptor Richard Tuttle calls an extraordinary ability to see. "Herb knows he has an eye," he said. "It's like the arm of a great pitcher. That's why when he walks into an artist's studio, the artist gives him his best drawing for nothing."
Jack Cowart, the curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery, personally excavated the Vogel apartment.
"They went to art that was very difficult for the general public to understand, to artists who had no money, who were on the front edge of the avant-garde," he said. "It was all done for love, at whatever price, at whatever cost, even if it displaced them from their own apartment."
Over the years, as prices skyrocketed and movie stars and investment bankers set out to build prestigious collections, the Vogels became famous for being neither rich nor status-conscious. As Robert Mangold says, "They don't have a house in the Hamptons."
Part of the Vogel legend was that while they had no children they lived with eight cats, 19 tropical fish and 20 exotic turtles. But there were exaggerations.
"We never kept art in our oven," Mrs. Vogel said. "We didn't set out to live bizarrely."
The legend had a way of obscuring who the Vogels really were.
"The story of the Vogels is like a fairy tale," said Mr. Tuttle, who is represented in their collection more than 350 times over. "Maybe people don't want to figure out the fairy tale."
In this fairy tale, he says, the so-called postal clerk happens to have "a pedigree that goes back to the Abstract Expressionists."
In the early 1950's, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and David Smith were all in New York City. Herbert Vogel, from Harlem, met them at galleries and at the Cedar Bar, the fabled artists' hangout in the Village.
"I was nothing -- a postal clerk," he said. "But I respected the artists, and they sort of respected me. They would talk until 3, 4 in the morning, and I would be one of the people who listened. I just remember it very vividly. I never spoke. I never even asked a question."
At the Institute of Fine Arts, he enrolled in art history seminars given by Irwin Panofsky and Max Friedlander. "I just fell into it without realizing it," he said. "I just did it because I enjoyed it."
Thirty years ago, he married Dorothy. They spent their honeymoon at the National Gallery. In New York, they were weekend painters. "I was a terrible painter," Mr. Vogel said.
They both quit, and took up collecting. For the next 30 years, one of their salaries went for living expenses, the other for art. They often bought on credit.
Sol LeWitt, who is a founder of the Conceptualist-Minimalist movement, recalled meeting Mr. Vogel 25 years ago at the Cedar Bar.
"We just started talking," Mr. LeWitt said. "Then he came over. I had never even shown my work. I had a studio in what is now SoHo, but was then Ratville. I always told them if they wanted something they could have it and pay me whatever they wanted."
Jack Cowart made his first visit to the Vogel apartment five years ago. The curator, who is 6-foot, 1-inch and was forever bumping his head on the Steve Keister sculptures overhead, says he found himself inside "a giant Christo." (Actual Christos, small ones, are in the collection).
"There was this mountain of wrapped art," he said. "Crates on top of crates, on top of boxes. The actual apartment had reduced itself to maybe 15 square feet. You had these tantalizing glimpses of things -- a Donald Judd sculpture or a Michael Lucera ceramic piece. Herb would say, 'Over there are the Joe Baer paintings,' and you would see the top edges of Joe Baer. You could feel the collection, but you couldn't see it."
There was just enough room to sit and talk. "Herb and I would have these roaring debates about how much he disliked large museums -- how they merchandise their work, and how frequently the art seems to be left out," Mr. Cowart said.
Eventually, Mr. Cowart convinced himself, and the Vogels, that their collection belonged in his large museum. But before the Board of Trustees could vote on acquiring it, the curator had to find out exactly what it included. There was nothing to do but move all the art to Washington, examine each piece -- and hope that the board said yes.
The board did, last December. The collection had filled five moving trucks. "The Vogels had no idea of the vastness of their acquisitions," Mr. Cowart said.
Some of the art will begin to be hung on the walls of the National Gallery this spring. Other works will travel to other museums.
The collection will be acquired over the Vogels' lifetime as a part gift, part purchase. The terms are secret , but Mr. Cowart says the gift far exceeds the purchase. "They're benefactors," he said. "That means they gave a lot."
The curator says it is impossible to estimate the monetary value of the collection. Some of the artists represented, like Mr. Tuttle, Mr. LeWitt and Mr. Mangold, now sell their work for tens of thousands of dollars.
The Vogels say they will use any extra money to acquire more art. Everything will be offered to the National Gallery.
Money did have something to do with the Vogels' choosing the National Gallery. "They've never sold a painting," Mr. Vogel said. "And admission is free."
After five years of above-average growth, the art market has retreated.
Prices sank at Sotheby's and Christie's in November--in the case of contemporary art, to 2006 levels or below. A few works brought record highs, but these were far outnumbered by others that sold below their low estimate or failed to sell at all. Christie's offered "Study for Self-Portrait" by Francis Bacon for a low estimate of $40 million.
It was a Bacon no one brought home.
Over the long term, however, art as an investment has performed quite well. We know this from data we collect for our several Mei Moses Art Indexes, which track the market's performance back to 1957. Our complete analysis is available to subscribers at www.artasanasset.com. Henceforth, portions of it will also be available quarterly on Forbes.com.
Unlike stocks and bonds, works of art are unique. They trade infrequently. Thus, an index based on average prices over time may say more about the mix of objects that come to market than changes in values.
Behind the Numbers
Marilyn Monroe: © Christie's
Comparing our All Art Index against the S&P 500 (with dividends reinvested) from 1958 through Oct. 31, 2008, shows that stocks have beaten art for the past quarter-century but have done worse than art for the past half -century. Also worth noting, if you think of art as pure investment rather than enjoyment, is that insurance, capital gains tax and transaction costs are much higher on art.
Two other facts of interest to investors: A diversified art portfolio would be less volatile than a stock index fund if you look at year-to-year returns but riskier if your holding period is decades. Also, the correlation between annual returns on art and those on stocks (or bonds) is close to zero. So art may play a positive role in wealth diversification.
What categories have fared best? During the first 10 months of 2008, the two top categories were Old Master and 19th century (with a gain of a little over 10%) and Impressionist and Modern (a little under 10%). Latin American also was one of the stronger performers.
The weakest category was American, with an initial loss of over 10% at mid-year and a current substantial loss of over 30%. Post War and Contemporary--hottest for the last 25 years--produced a lightly negative return for the first half of 2008 that has since become a loss of over 10%.
How much were unrealistic expectations to blame for November's poor results? Our data allow us to extrapolate the current value of a piece that hasn't sold in years. Take Mark Rothko's "No. 43 Mauve," which Christie's put up for sale in November with an estimate of $20 million to $30 million. The same work sold in 1988 for $1.5 million. If marked to market by our Postwar Index, its value would have been $7.6 million. No surprise it didn't sell.
We were curious to discover which artist has outperformed all others. To find out, we did the same thing Forbes does in evaluating new-issues underwriters: looking at all the price pairs we have for an artist, calculating an annualized performance and seeing how that stacks up against the All Art Index over the same time period.
Of the 25 most liquid artists--a group that includes Renoir, Picasso, Monet, Sargent and Hassam--Warhol wins, palette down. He averages 10.3 percentage points a year better than the Index. Of course, at any auction a lack of buyers or an inflated expectation by the owner may leave a work unsold. A Warhol portrait of Mao, supposed to fetch $4.5 million-plus failed to sell in a November auction.
Whether the art market's future will be like the last 10 years or the last 50 is, of course, impossible to predict. For persons wanting exposure to the broad market without having to buy art, a new instrument was created in November: futures contracts based on the 2008 closing value of our All Art Index.
Jianping Mei is a professor of finance at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing; Michael Moses is a retired NYU professor of business. They are co-founders of Beautiful Asset Advisors LLC and www.artasanasset.com
Avisca Fine Art Gallery African American Art Gallery