Off the Cuff: Collecting vs. Accumulating Art

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

Charles Shepard, President & CEO. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

This is a topic that I have touched on in several talks earlier this year when we were still getting together in person for programs and discussions, but let’s explore it in more depth here today. Our focus for this discussion is on art, as opposed to baseball cards, Star Wars memorabilia, or 19th century porcelain dolls, although I know a great number of people whose collecting tastes run to coveted objects such as these. I want to focus on art because art was, and continues to be, created specifically to be collected. An artist’s primary audience is buyers and collectors of art and, in a very real sense, it is the appetite of the buyer or collector that breathes life into the career and trajectory of the artist. I want to note something important at this point: while all collectors are buyers, not all buyers are collectors. What I mean by that is that many, perhaps most, art buyers are accumulating art because they want to decorate their home, because they need a present for someone, or because they just like to shop. The art collector, however, is buying art, first and foremost, to add an object to their well-considered group of related things that altogether makes a distinct statement on a category of those things. A collector’s group of objects might be broad, such as a collection of 20th century American prints, or narrow, such as a collection of Brown County prints created prior to 1950. A collector defines his or her scope of interest and pursues works of art that fit into that category. Collecting is a disciplined activity. Buying, on the other hand, is generally disciplined only by budget or impulse and results in an accumulation of things whose only relatedness is the appeal each had for the buyer. I, for example, like to buy shoes and have accumulated more pairs than I will ever need or use. Am I a shoe collector? No, I am simply a compulsive shopper who over the years has amassed more shoes than will fit comfortably under the bed in our guestroom. Years from now, will the Smithsonian ask me to donate all my shoes for posterity? Of course not. No logic went into their gathering; no statement is made by their grouping under the bed. All together they are nothing more than a random batch of footwear.

In a similar way, people who accumulate art like I accumulate shoes might be helping to support the economy of a variety of artists, but they are not, through their accumulation, making any larger statement about art. Over the years, I’ve met a number of people who truly love art to the point of filling their home(s) with art on every square inch of their walls. A common breathless remark from their visitors is: “What a statement!” That’s accurate in only one sense: it’s a statement about that individual or couple. In contrast, let me offer a related but altogether different example. In the early 1980s, I met a couple who loved and purchased art to excess. Art was hung floor to ceiling on every wall of their contemporary Massachusetts home. For sure, it was a remarkable accumulation of art but, given the logic that drove the accumulation, it was much more than a huge horde of art. Because of their strict focus on prints made between 1961 and 1990, the mass of things was, in fact, a definitive statement on printmaking in the second half of the 20th century. Every museum in the country with a print collection courted this couple for the possibility of a gift of all or part of their collection. Every printmaking artist working in that period of time longed for their work to be added to their collection because such inclusion immediately made their work more desirable and more valuable. Conversely, if a printmaker couldn’t seem to attract this couple’s interest, that fact was like a dark cloud over their head in the general marketplace.

On behalf of this museum, I’ve become ever more involved in the world of glass sculpture and I’ve witnessed this kind of scenario over and over again. The process of making glass pieces is considerably more expensive than making art in most any other medium. So the sculptors who work in glass continuously need buyers to keep their studios and furnaces going. That said, glass sculptors pay a great deal of attention to who is interested in buying their work. Each of the best artists in this medium has acquired a sharp sense of the most serious collectors of sculpture in glass and works diligently to get their work into those particular collections. That helps them establish their price point and is a virtual guarantee of their work’s future value. Being in those important collections also drives the judgement of museum curators and directors. I continuously am in contact with the most major collectors of glass sculpture to help guide my purchases for our museum as well as the gifts of art I pursue.

The hallway of contemporary glass at FWMoA. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In summary, I want to share my praise for both accumulators and collectors because both groups make the vitality of the art creators’ world much healthier and more robust. But I do want to urge everyone who buys art to consider thinking about a focus that relates the objects you purchase to one another. That relationship between objects will increase the meaning, and likely the value and interest, of the group. While accumulating art increases an artist’s cash flow, forming a well-reasoned pattern of collecting is an investment in an artist’s career – and in your own collection’s intrinsic and potential value.

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