Art Of Collecting
by Ryan Thomas
LNeil and June Barrymore-Ash looked down a
long, bare hallway in their home and decided they wanted to
cover it with art. They now have one of the largest collections
of California plein air paintings in the state. To visit their
home is to take a visual trip though California’s changing
“We wanted to focus on California plein
air painters,” says
Neil, “to do them justice. There’s something
special about a painting when you can look at it and know
been there. They all have stories.”
Neil and June’s collection is two-fold.
On the one hand, the amount of plein air specific to California
makes them top collectors and unofficial experts on the subject.
On the other, their desire to seek out the locations represented
in each painting has caught the attention of the local arts
community. They’ve taken art and extended it beyond
the walls of their home.
“We bought a painting of El Capitan
Dam. We got the painting on Thursday and on Sunday we drove
to the spot. I pointed
out the road in the painting, and there was the dam. I wanted to
see exactly where the painter was standing to have painted
it, and I discovered he was up in the mountain in the brush,” explains
To mention another name among art collectors – Strauss — brings
approving nods and murmurs of respect both locally and nationally.
Matthew and Iris Strauss’s impressive collection of
contemporary art outshines many small galleries and museums. “We
wanted to collect the art of our times,” says Iris, “because
it’s challenging mentally and conceptually. The beauty
of contemporary art is that you can look at the same piece
and always find something new in it.”
sculptures by Einar and Jamex de la Torre, to abstractions
by Joan Mitchell, the sheer scope and beauty
of the collection can be overwhelming to first-time viewers.
The Strausses are in an echelon of private collectors that
most only dream of reaching.
But it wasn’t born overnight;
a collection like theirs is a passion, and as such, a lifetime
“We’ve been collecting for over
16 years now,” explains
Iris, “and we don’t buy to sell. We’ll
search for an artist in mid-career who has a body of work,
to find the best piece we can afford. The search can go on
Although the idea of following in the collecting
footsteps of those like the Strausses and Ashes may, from
seem intimidating, it’s far from impossible. All it
takes is an interest, the finances (though not always as
you might think), and a willingness to acquire an expertise
in a genre of choice.
But if even the idea of narrowing down
a genre or artist has you stumped, if you’re unsure
of what to buy, when to buy it, or even from whom to buy,
the safest bet is probably
to start at a gallery or museum. After all, most tend to
be run by people with a background in art and the credentials
to back up their sales prices and choices for display. Of
among both galleries and museums there are differences in
prestige and reputation, and status of location will raise
the status of the art inside. For example, an artist who
is displayed at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s
Biennial is said to have made it.
If you don’t find
what you’re looking for in one
gallery, you can always head to the next one, and so on.
The underlying axiom is that talking to gallery owners and
curators is a necessary part of beginning an art collection.
At the core of their many functions is an ability to sift
through the artists and works available and identify pieces
target audience in mind.
“We are dependent on collectors and
vice versa,” says
Sheri Fox, owner of Trios gallery on Cedros. “We want
to work with people who love art, are inspired buy it, and
want to support that lifestyle.”
How do gallery owners
and museums go about selecting pieces from the plethora of
choices out there? Fox explains that
artists who vie for a spot in her gallery must not only appeal
own set of criteria, they must also pass a group jury process.
In this manner, the collector’s interest is kept in
mind, since jury agreements represent tastes of the general
to the greatest extent possible.
Surprisingly, sales potential
can be a weak motivating force when deciding on what a museum
or gallery shows.
“This is not a financially motivated
business,” says Fox. “You
don’t make a lot of money in our type of gallery. Our
goal is to get as much art into homes as possible. It’s
a fabulous thing to have in the home. It changes people’s
attitudes and lives.”
Once you’ve gotten your
collection started, museums and galleries can also be great
sources for keeping up on the latest
trends. It’s a good idea to routinely visit new exhibits
and displays and talk to the decision-makers involved.
“We focus on Latin American art, established
artists from Tijuana, and other parts of Mexico,” says
Stephanie Hanor, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art
La Jolla. “But we
also pay attention to trends, like video art and very large-scale
installations. These exhibits create experiences for the
Video art is difficult to collect privately, but it is emerging
in private collections.”
James Thorn, owner of Exclusive
Collections gallery in the Fashion Valley Mall, notes that
even specific genres go through
their own trends. “In the ’80s, paper prints
of paintings were huge, watercolors were huge, now the primary
focus is back to canvas and textured paintings.”
and museums also tend to be affiliated with, or can refer
visitors to, collectors groups. Joining these types
collectives provides invaluable access to experienced members
who have established a long collecting track record.
“With collectors groups and curatorial
Hanor, “collectors can take part in trips to studios
and galleries and even other museums. It’s a nice way
for all the members to talk to each other and exchange stories.”
relationships and excursions are important for anyone serious
about collecting, because often galleries and museums
will contact those they know are interested in certain types
of pieces. The Strausses belong to many groups and travel
extensively, sometimes with other collectors, in search of
“We go to the Whitney Biennial, every art biennial all over
Europe, South America, and elsewhere,” says Iris.
even travel with our local museum director, Hugh Davies [of
the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego], to New York and
go gallery looking.”
But when it comes to art collecting
there is one bottom-line that all experts – whether
gallery owner, museum curator, or avid collector — seem
to share. While the Whitney Biennial is the apex of an artist’s
fight for exposure — at
least in America — and collectors have come to trust
the Whitney’s judgment, ultimately art is subjective,
and collecting it is a passion — so decide for yourself
what’s right for your personal style and tastes.