More Art Collectors With More Access to Art

by ekramer on March 26, 2009

Passion takes many forms and colleting art is one of them. Throughout history, most collectors have been considerably wealthy. But today, a collector doesn’t have to be Rockefeller. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

In one part of the Speed Art Museum, chief curator Ruth Cloudman shows me some paintings in its permanent collection. They’re by famed Impressionist artists, including Claude Monet and American Mary Cassatt. Cloudman describes how a wealthy Louisvillian, Minnie Marvin Wheeler, very quietly collected these pieces before her death in 1964.

“She would get these things; they would come to the museum for say a month on loan anonymously,” Cloudman says. “And then when she passed away, this bequest came and it was this joyous shock to the community that these treasures had been given to the Speed Museum.”

Since then many local and wealthy collectors have donated works to the museum. But this month, the museum has received 50 pieces from Dorothy and Herbert Vogel of Brooklyn New York — a couple art aficionados have called the world’s most famous living collectors. He’s now 85 and she is 73, but before they retired, they lived off her salary as a reference librarian and used his, from his job with the United States Postal Service, to purchase art. Their collection included minimal and conceptual art that they bought from artists before many attained critical fame.   The Vogels kept thousands of pieces in their rent-controlled apartment. Last year, they announced they would donate 2,500 of their works to museums in 50 states through the National Gallery of Art.

At the time of her death, Louisville’s Minnie Marvin Wheeler was a fairly traditional collector: She was wealthy. But the Vogels’ means and approach to collecting marked a sea change in the profile of a collector. So says Suzanne Weaver, the museum’s curator of contemporary art.

“They spent their whole life going to openings, galleries and artists’ studios,” Weaver says. “They lived and breathed art. And they became friends with the dealers. They became friends with the artists. So, they really knew the work.”

While people of means still collect, many of today’s collectors aren’t rich.

“Today there are more people on all walks of life and at all socio-economic levels collecting, which is really exciting,” says Paige West. She’s a curator and founder of a New York gallery. She also wrote “The Art of Buying Art: An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Contemporary Art.”

West says another phenomenon has fed the upsurge in collecting.

“The access to art has just exploded in a way that’s created all new audiences and collector groups,” she says.

That access is evident in Louisville. The Speed Museum has several collectors groups and the city has dozens of galleries — from those at the 21C Museum Hotel to those featuring glass and craft work. One of the city’s oldest is Zephyr Gallery.

Artist Chris Radtke is a member of this artists’ collective. She says even purchases of a few hundred dollars affect the local visual art scene.

“When somebody does buy a piece of work, you have no idea how that resonates in the art community,” Radtke says. “Because not only does that help the artist; the artists will tell another artist that and it gives everybody huge hope. It’s like a validation that what they’re doing is valuable, is worth it.”

Radtke says the recent economic downturn has slowed sales somewhat, but collectors are still buying. She also tells me of one nontraditional collector — Leslie Millar. She’s 43 and married to an artist.

In the Highlands neighborhood, Millar gives me a tour of their home. Throughout the house are paintings, photographs and prints. There are also ceramics and textile-based art. Most are by local artists, including Steve Irwin and Michael O’Bannon. Millar doesn’t liken herself to the Vogels, but, like the Vogels, she says relationships influence her purchases.

“I think really it often is a personal connection, a human connection with the person who made it and their story,” Millar says.

And even in this economic recession, Millar’s not giving up her penchant for collecting. She says the economy reinforces her commitment to support local artists through her purchases. And she finds much of the art she sees reminds her of human values like compassion. The Vogels just might agree with her.

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