You’re intrigued by the colorful canvases on a friend’s living room walls, and news items about an obscure painting bought at a garage sale turning out to be a rare treasure are interesting, too. So you’re considering starting an art collection of your own.
“A fine idea,” says Richard Gray, former mayor of Lancaster, who is known as a passionate collector and patron of the arts. “But collect for love, not investment. The art you buy may well increase in value over time, but what really matters is that looking at it gives you joy. So buy only what you truly love.”
Seventy-some paintings currently hang in the home of Gray and his wife, Gail, with more leaning against walls and temporarily stored away. Most of the paintings are by Lancaster artists, including Gail, who’s a fine artist of much renown and the owner of a Lancaster gallery. The Grays love their collection so much that they installed a special hanging system as well as gallery lights during a recent home renovation.
“This makes the most of our collection,” Gray says, “plus I can change the sequence of paintings easily. That’s important. It brings new perspectives to the art.”
Melinda Newmin, a Manheim Township writer with an impressive collection of oil paintings, agrees wholeheartedly that collecting should be a love affair.
“Don’t buy something simply because you think it will appreciate in value and then stuff it into a closet and wait for that to happen,” she says. “Pick something that will make you smile when you see it.”
Starting a collection
The first step to starting a collection is defining what you like, but this comes with a word of warning from expert collectors: Get used to the idea that there is no such thing as “good art.”
“There is only art that speaks to you and art that doesn’t,” Newmin says. “I think art is an agreement of sorts between the artist and the viewer. The artist provides his inspiration and work and the viewer should absorb and take pleasure from the viewing.”
The gallery wall has come home. Again. Or perhaps it never left. After all, memories are worth keeping and stories are worth telling. And the …
Gray and Newmin recommend visiting museums, galleries and art shows to explore a wide variety of art and styles. You’ll soon discover what your favorite medium is, they say. Is it oils, watercolors, pastels, ink drawings, photographs, sculptures? If permitted by the museum or gallery, take photos of items you like to help you sort it all out.
“Talk with curators and the artists,” Gray says. “Lancaster offers so many opportunities for anybody who is interested in art: museums and lots of galleries, art walks and, as I see it, First Fridays in Lancaster are a great way to explore the art scene. Much of the art in our collection was bought on First Fridays.”
He also recommends the student shows at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, where he is a member of the board, as a way to explore art and start a collection. Such a show is taking place at the college throughout May.
Eric Fowler, an instructor of illustrations at PCAD, adds that often teachers’ works of art are displayed and sold as well.
“Students’ art offers good opportunities to discover new talent,” he says, “and faculty shows obviously offer more accomplished works of art. Both are worth exploring.”
Becoming a buyer
The good news is that you needn’t have unlimited funds to become a collector of fine art. For example, Fowler collects original illustrative art and scours any venue that might turn up an addition to his collection. This includes flea markets, auctions and garage sales.
Just recently, he scored a find in an antique emporium. It was an illustration depicting a father and mother putting a child to bed. He thought it looked like an original illustration, a guess that has since been validated.
To keep his collection fresh, he often trades with other collectors and artists.
But Fowler thinks photography is a particularly interesting field for new collectors to explore. “It’s still on the rise," he says, “and you can find excellent items at reasonable prices.”
Whatever you decide to collect, Fowler recommends that you get involved with the local art community.
“This way you will hear of insider events and also learn of emerging artists,” he says.
Newmin likes to buy directly from artists. “It adds a personal connection,” she says, “plus I usually get a better price.
“I grew up loving the Salvador Dali ... and Marc Chagall works that my father collected way before they were names, and as soon as my income made it possible, I began my own collection. We won’t know for a few more decades if I have my father’s eye, but that’s OK. Those paintings are a daily joy.”
Final advice from the experts: Document your purchases. Galleries should include receipts, and if you’re buying online, save the receipt or any email correspondence. If you want to sell any of your treasures in the future, you need to authenticate the purchase and the work.
Exhibits, gallery openings and special art events throughout Lancaster County.