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"Wien: Rooftops in Vienna," by Gage Mace. [With artist's permission; photo by Todd Leninger Fine Art Conservation Studio.]
Guest Writer

The hows and whys of collecting
Into art's rabbit hole
by Duane Snider

iscovering an interest in art is like Alice in Wonderland following the White Rabbit. The question is how far down the rabbit hole are you willing to go?

Whether you're new to collecting or just thinking about starting, choosing an appropriate mindset and attitude is essential. How far down the path of collecting you go depends on how you decide to approach the process.

Some people start with the idea of buying just a few pieces to install as decorative accents at home. Others catch a glimpse of something as they pass a gallery and connect with a piece so strongly that they buy it on impulse.

How or why a person starts collecting art matters little.

The keys to incorporating art successfully into your lifestyle are honesty, open-mindedness, willingness and patience. These are four simple virtues essential for building self-awareness and an understanding of personal connection to the world. That's what art offers you as an individual; the opportunity to learn about who you are in relation to the world in which you live.

Honesty in the context of collecting starts with a careful examination of the character and temperament of your personality – what you like and what you hope to gain from owning original art. Before my first purchase I had little understanding or awareness of these issues. I thought art was just about enjoying images in the form of cheap posters. My pre-collecting days were about ornamentation rather than personal identity. I gravitated toward images that gave me pleasure or inspiration, but I felt little connection.

Finding my first piece of art was about finding a quality that was hidden inside me until I felt the need for owning something that was beautiful, unique and very personal. I discovered the intense feelings of emotionally connecting with an object of individual beauty and distinction.

I was instantly taken in by the high level of craft required to create a work as I became completely absorbed in the idea there was no other object exactly like it in existence. When I bought the piece, I became the person who owned that painting by Kirk Lybecker.

The painting became a part of who I was and how I perceived myself. Bonding with the piece was like getting a powerful injection of passion. I finally got the work home and installed after five months of payments. I found I could easily summon that passion by simply looking it.

I intuitively understood the deep connection I found between the object and something inside me. A broader esthetic perspective was a natural byproduct of this newly ignited passion, along with a deeper sense of personal identity.

Open-mindedness is essential in growing a lifelong passion for collecting art. Building an intimate connection to art depends on keeping the mind open to the broadest range of images and ideas.

Many people start to collect when they stumble upon a particular image or style of art that draws them into a state of mind which seems new and wonderful. Many people linger at that spot and end up collecting work by a small group of artists or work with a limited range of content. Bruce Guenther, chief curator at the Portland Art Museum, refers to this type as a "deeply focused collector."

I follow the path of the other type of collector that Guenther refers to as "the stamp collector" and cultivate an eclectic approach to selecting new acquisitions. This collector likes to accumulate a "one of everything they like" kind of collection. The primary focus here is to acquire one or two of the best affordable pieces by every artist they like.

Either approach can result in excellent collections if the collector develops a discipline of open-mindedness.

The focused collector must be open to new directions an artist they collect may take at different points in their career. The collector also needs to be open to the possibility that the time has come to move on to a new focus or a new artist.

In contrast, the eclectic collector must develop a more rigorous process of selection, since the focus is on a much larger pool of material.

The eclectic approach works best when the collector keeps an open mind to focusing on artists and works with which they feel an intense connection. This collector can benefit from fighting the urge to move on to the next new thing.

The important point for both types of collectors is to look at a lot of art and look often.

This is where willingness enters the picture. Any serious approach to collecting requires a willingness to take the time and effort to learn as much as possible about the art that interests them and the process involved with making good choices.

The art of the deal: Linda Dies and Duane Snider at home.

Make a point of purchasing a membership to your local art museum and go to all the shows. Attend gallery openings and previews regularly. Talk to the artists. Get to know gallery owners and the people who direct their galleries. Read the visual-arts pages in your local newspaper even though some of the writing may not make much sense at first. Pay special attention to the arts calendars of openings and events. Look for blogs where people discuss art. On vacations, schedule trips to museums and galleries in the cities you visit.

Some people sidestep the self-education process by simply asking a gallery director or museum curator what they should buy. Unfortunately, the "experts" have their own personal agendas. Regardless of how good their intentions may be, their suggestions may not help you find the best work for your personality. You know who you are better than they ever will.

Patience may be the most important element. Patience can help you avoid all of the mistakes people fear when they first decide to start collecting. Developing expertise in art doesn't happen overnight; it requires commitment, discipline, time and especially patience.

Soon after I started collecting I became obsessed with finding those once-in-a-lifetime art purchase opportunities many people dream about stumbling into. I mentioned this fixation to a friend who was the director of a gallery where my wife, Linda, and I had bought a couple of paintings.

"In Portland," he said, "there's so much great art, you can find a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity every day if you're really looking."

That statement proved very enlightening and became an invaluable lesson in understanding the need and value of patient collecting. The idea of buying every great piece of art I came across was both impractical and unnecessary. My prime directive changed from "find great affordable art" to "find great affordable art that is right for us."

Regardless of how many great pieces I've taken a pass on, more wonderful opportunities always followed.

We made a recent art purchase that illustrates how these four virtues can bring great results in buying art. On a recent Saturday afternoon we stopped by the Laura Russo Gallery to see a show of emerging artists. We weren't looking to buy, but just looking at the current show.

I went up to the reception counter to say hello to the gallery director and one of the assistants and noticed a small painting (5" x 7") on the file cabinet behind them. From 10 feet away I could see from the style and subject matter it was by Sherrie Wolf. We had bought a simple still life by her 10 years ago and I've been following her work for about 15 years.

This small painting was part of a body of work she's been building on for only about six years, most of which is much larger than the piece we have – and well beyond our price range. I've always wanted more but didn't think I could ever afford another. The price of her work has climbed dramatically over the last 10 years. But I knew this piece was probably affordable.

As I pointed out the work to Linda, I noticed that it lay on top of what looked like a sales sheet.

"One Pear With Angelica Kauffman," by Sherrie Wolf. [With permission of Laura Russo Gallery; photo by Todd Leninger Fine Art Conservation Studio.]

"Linda," I said, "isn't that a great little Sherrie Wolf? Too bad it's probably already sold."

Martha, the gallery owner, picked up the piece and showed it up close to Linda, who simply said, "Wow."

Then Martha said, "It may soon be available. It's a return and if they do decide to put it on consignment, we will be offering it at the original price of $450. This was from her last show, but all the small ones were sold before the show even opened. This is one of the best from that group."

"We should have this, shouldn't we?" Linda said.

"Yes," I said, "we'll probably never get another shot at one of these."

Now this wonderful little piece that we both love fits our collection perfectly and hangs by our hearth. The painting is surrounded by many other pieces that came with special stories of how and why they were acquired.

We saw the White Rabbit and followed him into that hole, all the way to Wonderland.

E-mail Duane at sniderdies@msn.com and find more of his writing in our archives.

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