Off the Cuff: Curating Your Personal Print Collection

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

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

For years, I’ve helped people find and buy art. I’m a shopper by nature, so it’s not exactly a burden to connect a friend with a piece that I’m confident they will enjoy. And there’s often a bonus to the effort: years later, when they upsize or downsize, that work of art often becomes a gift to the Museum. That actually happens more often than you might think, which tends to reinforce my natural inclination to take the long view in most situations.

Today, however, I want to both encourage and empower you, dear reader, to dip your feet in the curatorial waters and discover the radiant pleasure of chasing after and, then, pouncing on, a piece of art that you love and simply have to possess. The chase–and catch–I predict, will become addictive, and you will want to repeat the process as often as seems appropriate, given your budget and available wall space. For this particular post on collecting I’m focusing on prints because I feel that there are a great many, high quality, affordable prints out there in a wide array of categories. The key to your success in building a private collection that is truly satisfying lies in your discovering a category (or categories) that really interest you (see our “Treasures from Home” posts to check out what museum workers collect!). For example, a couple who volunteered as museum docents at my previous museum loved vintage popular music and had, over the years, amassed a collection of over two thousand pieces of sheet music that featured art print covers. Their collection started on a whim–these sheet music covers were aesthetically compelling and inexpensive–but collecting them became their passion. I have another friend with a military background who collects prints depicting scenes from the First and Second World Wars. His enthusiasm for (and skill at) chasing down prints by noteworthy artists featuring military subjects is remarkable. The collectors, in both these examples, had specific and somewhat narrow objectives for their collections. Your interests might be broader, works from a certain time period or culture or works by women artists, but by tying a pre-existing interest to the exercise of collecting art, you will exponentially increase your personal enjoyment as you curate a more personal collection. For my former cottage in Maine, for instance, I decided to focus on prints by emerging young Maine artists, and on every summer visit I had the dual pleasure of enjoying my growing collection and visiting the local galleries and studios to meet new artists and find new prints to acquire.

Before getting into the discussion of how and where to hunt for prints (or any other kind of art) that might address your self-identified collecting focus, let me strongly recommend that you identify a budget, of any size, with which to begin your collecting. An art collection is certainly not an essential need, so whatever money you decide to use for that purpose will likely come out of some other “bucket” in your financial life: your vacation fund, your fine dining fund, your monthly wine allowance, or your cash reserves. For my emerging Maine artist collection, I earmarked $1,000 of my summer vacation fund to buy new prints, and my goal was to use that $1,000 to acquire 2-6 new works of art. So each season, I knew my overall limit and I also knew in advance that I would generally be willing to spend between $100 – $250 for each new piece. That knowledge then spurred me to pursue buying directly from young artists right out of their studios (at wholesale price) instead of buying from the local galleries (at retail price, which is approximately 40% higher). So, developing a budget not only guaranteed that I could collect art, it also helped me develop my strategies of how and where to buy art.

That brings us to the reason for and the process of acquiring art. There are so many places to buy art that it may well seem, at the outset, overwhelming. Your reason for wanting to acquire art might involve adding to an already focused collection or to refresh or redirect the focus of a group of things you already own. Or maybe you’ve just moved or had a new home built and your objective is to simply furnish and decorate. Most people’s urge in those situations is to pick all the furnishings and then buy some art that matches. They re-purpose some pieces that they had in their old house, they look in local galleries, they ask for their decorator’s help–and all this has to be done on a shoestring because the house and furnishings have already cost a small fortune. A contractor friend once told me, quite correctly, that the first things that get cut in a new home or a renovation project are the art and the landscaping. What’s wrong with this? In some respects, nothing. It’s a question of priorities. But the point of my post today is that there’s a different way to approach this equation: if a person or a couple were to curate an art collection, large or small, that was entirely in line with their tastes and interests, then that might likely be the constant in a changed or changing environment. The conversation then might be “…given our collection of this or that art, what should the wall colors, the lighting, and the furniture look like?” While this could influence the reasoning behind acquiring more art, it doesn’t address the issue of how and where to pursue that art.

Again, since our focus today is on original prints, let’s consider a variety of sources for purchasing prints. Specifically, I’m talking about original prints created by an artist who is a trained printmaker and who prints their art in a numbered series (edition) on a printing press. I’m not talking about the popular marketplace item, the giclée print, that is not an original print but is actually simply a photograph of a work of art (generally a painting) that is reprinted in great quantity on a commercial press. I make that distinction to help you, the collector, avoid confusion that can arise as you seek out new works of art for your collection. No matter how lovely, a giclée is a commercial reproduction and not an original print. But, then, where to turn for an original print? A good starting point would be to visit the International Fine Print Dealers Association online, which is New York-based organization representing well-vetted dealers of original fine art prints of all types, subjects, and price points. If you already knew the name of an artist whose work interests you, you can select the IFPDA’s extensive, alphabetically-organized list of artists, find that artist’s name and click to see a list of the galleries/dealers that feature his or her work. If you don’t have a specific artist in mind, you can switch your search to their list of member dealers and follow the links to each to get a better sense of the artists they feature. That can be time consuming, but that browsing exercise can be both pleasurable and educational in and of itself. For the Museum’s collection, I’m often looking for really good, reasonably-priced prints from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. So a shortcut I often use on the IFPDA site, if I’m not sure which artist I’m after, is to go directly to the link to The Old Print Shop website and then search in their subject categories. I find a great many prints there that are a perfect fit for our collection and, because I’m working on a budget, I will often pluck a name from The Old Print Shop’s lists and run a separate search for that artist on the Live Auctioneers website just to see if any prints by that artist are about to come up at auction. I used this exact strategy several weeks ago to purchase a 1940 John McClellan lithograph entitled The Old Swimming Hole. I placed my bid and, a few days later, we won the piece at about one-third of the predicted value.

If you would like to curate a collection of local and regional artists, I recommend visiting galleries in your area to see what might be available. In Fort Wayne, I would start with a visit to the Museum’s Paradigm Gallery to talk with Gallery Director Abby Leon about your collecting interests to gain her insights. She can also help you shape and refine your collecting focus to make sure you are in the best position to pursue the art you are most drawn to and that you can acquire that art at a great price point.

I’ve tackled a complex and personal topic, your collection, in this short post, and you might have more questions now than when you first began reading. If so, I invite you to take yet another shortcut to beginning or expanding your personal collection of art: call me at the Museum and I will be more than happy to work with you one-on-one to clarify any questions you might have and to help you optimize your experience of curating your own collection.

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