Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Questions for Art Collectors

Recently I posed several questions to art collectors Ellen and Bill Hamilton. Hopefully, their responses will provide you some insight into the collectors mind. Enjoy!

Questions for art collectors: Ellen & Bill Hamilton

1. Was there something specific that helped germinate your interest in fine art?

He says: We went to New York City for our first vacation as a married couple. We visited a lot of the museums and bought some prints for our home. Soon thereafter, Ellen took some classes at the University of Toledo and that prompted visits to more museums. I worked at Owens Corning that had a contemporary art collection. The Toledo Museum of Art is a tremendous community asset and we lived in the Old West End for a time and met many of the young people who worked there. We found the Toledo Modern Art Group (no longer in existence) and got involved. And on and on; one thing led to another. An experienced described below was also pivotal.

She says: Our trip to NYC got us started buying things for our walls, and then my classes at UT and subsequent trips to the National Gallery in DC kept us hooked and interested. The Modern Art Group provided trips to galleries and collections in other cities which also kept us involved in the process of “collecting”.

2. As your purchases grew, how were you able to define your areas of interest?

He says: We could (almost) afford prints. Later we added a few drawings. My job in public relations involved the production of brochures, magazines and newsletters, so I had experience with ink on paper. I loved the smell. You can find really good prints that are affordable. It is almost impossible to find really good paintings that are affordable. We looked at everything – paintings, sculpture, installations, works on paper, glass, etc. – but we bought prints.

She says:
What we couldn’t sleep over in combination with what we could afford. Works on paper met those criteria more often than other possibilities.

3. How does the opportunity to meet and get to know an artist affect your collecting?

He says: That’s a good question. I don’t know for sure but it must have some impact. We have some things by artists we have never met so, obviously, knowing the artist is not a prerequisite for purchase. And we have never knowingly bought something just because we like the artist. It is a happy situation when we love both the work and the artist. I can say we have certainly learned a lot – about art and about life – from some of the artists we have met. Carol Summers in particular was very patient and helpful to us when we were young collectors just getting started. We will never forget the night we spent in his loft when he lived in New York City, or at his place on Fire Island.

She says: The works by artists that we have met and know “feel” more special because we know the person who created it, but that doesn’t mean we like them more than the other things we own.


4. What was the first work you purchased that made you feel like a “collector”?

He says: A lithograph by Lynn Chadwick, which we no longer own. We bought it at a gallery in New York City and about a year or so later the Toledo Museum had a show by an avid collector from Ann Arbor (the late Marvin Feldheim) and we saw a very similar print by the same artist. That was when we realized that we could own things that were good enough to hang in a museum. We went to hear Marvin Feldheim speak and learned how crazy collectors can become. That’s when we learned that buying art was not about d├ęcor or how much space you have; Feldheim claimed he had unframed prints under his bed and we believe it because we did, too, later on.

She says:
When we got addicted to work by Carol Summers and thought we needed to own nearly everything new that he did. We recovered from that and sold a lot of them over the years as we got interested in other artists and were running out of wall space.

5. What qualities in a work of art attract you; motivate you to make a purchase?

He says: That’s probably impossible to answer in words but I will try. In a nutshell, we respond to the work. It has a presence that is more than the sum of its parts (marks on paper). It resonates with us. Our collection is really eclectic, which is to say it’s not focused on anything other than our own tastes. Even though we have focused mostly on prints and drawings, we have added a couple of small paintings in the past couple of years (plein air) and a lot of glass.

She says: I don’t know. I either like it or I don’t. I’m not so interested in talking about art (or writing in blogs like this). Art either is or isn’t interesting to me, but strictly on a visual level – not a verbal one; I just look at it and enjoy.

6. Tell us about, “the one that go away.”

He says: Where do we begin? We always loved Jim Dine’s A Girl and Her Dog II. We had several opportunities and admired it very much but could never pull the trigger and buy it because it always seemed just out of our price range. We sold a few others to pay bills that we wish we had back (Frank Stella, Inaccessible Island Rail; Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, Harvest with Orange Stripe and a third one I can see in my mind by not recall by name).

She says: I miss Dark Cake by Wayne Thiebaud and wish we hadn’t needed to sell it when we did.

7. Why do you continue to add to your collection?

He says: Is there an alternative? Why do addicts continue to use drugs? We have a vicious habit. We only buy things we believe we can’t live without. We are afraid they will haunt us if we don’t buy them. We just can’t stop thinking about them. And we really don’t go to galleries to buy things; it just happens.

She says: Because I can’t sleep if we find something we love and don’t buy it right away.

8. What’s it like to live with your collection?

He says: Wonderful. It feels like we are living in a really enriching environment with lots of fun things to look at as we move around in our home. We notice the difference when we come home from trips after staying in hotels or with non-collecting relatives or friends. Everyone tends to feel good about getting home and our art is one of the things that makes it extra special for us.

She says: A lot of work (but worth it), especially trying to keep the glass and the glass cabinets clean. It’s great to get home to it after a trip.

9. Has there been an artist you added to your collection that hasn’t lived up to expectations?

He says: Nothing comes to mind that has been disappointing. I believe we have learned from all of our purchases and enjoyed them a great deal, especially in the first few years after we acquired them.

She says: Not that I can think of.

They say: Looking at and learning about art, meeting artists and gallery owners, traveling to see exhibitions and museum collections have all been wonderful shared experiences for us. We both have very strong interests in art so it is not a case where one of us is dragging the other along, and we believe our relationship has grown stronger in the past 40-plus years as a result of this shared interest. We have had some unbelievable experiences along the way and look forward to more of the same.