Gallery Beat

By F. Lennox Campello

I am often asked, usually by friends outside the art cabal, and by people who become interested in collecting art, but have never collected artwork, what they should “collect.”

“What should I buy Lenster?” “How do I start?”

And thus, I would like to answer this question in this month’s column.

Many years ago, I formed an educated opinion on this subject based on empirical observations. And in my opinion, for most of us (not the Rubells, Saatchis and the de la Cruzes), there are really only two basic rules to start an art collection:

  1. Collect what you like, and…

2…..Whenever possible, buy the original.

That’s clear, right? Buy and collect only what you like, what attracts your eyes, brain, guts… and what interests you personally, and is within your economic means. If you like the work of a particular artist, or a specific kind of prints (like Japanese woodcuts), or drawings (such as figurative drawings), then focus your collection in those areas. This also comes with a caveat, as a lot of excessive attention is often placed on a “focused” collection. A diverse collection may make less sense to some than a focused one, but it only has to make sense to you! After all, it is your collection.

It has also been my experience, that the more affluent a “beginning collector” is, the higher the probability that he/she will get swindled into spending a lot of money for wall décor and fancy frames. Since most of us are not affluent, the high end of the commoditized art market is not where I’m focusing this post.

For those affluent folks: if the “gallery” has large realistic paintings of cigars resting on wine glasses, or the artwork comes with an “option” for a rococo frame, run for your lives!

If you live around here, the DMV offers an immense variety, and multiple, loads of, tons, mucho, a lot, beaucoup, diverse sources to begin an art collection.

The key to most of that statement is the number of art schools, art leagues, art centers, and reputable commercial art galleries that exist in our area. Add to that the number of independent artists’ studios, and you have the perfect mix for starting an art collection.

Let us start with the schools; nearly all art schools and universities put together student shows. Usually these are Master of Fine Arts (MFA) shows – the graduation show for MFA program students. American, Catholic, George Mason, George Washington, Maryland, Montgomery Community College, Northern Virginia, and others are but a sampling of some excellent places to troll for student artwork. No matter where you live around the DMV, there’s a student art show somewhere nearby.

Buying student artwork generally equals buying an artist early on his/her career.

Buying an artist early in his/her career is the “golden nugget” of most art collectors’ hopes. That puppy has crossed my road a few times in my life.

In 1989 I stood in front of an original oil painting by Scottish painter Jack Vettriano at the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow… I loved it!

I think that it was Vettriano’s first ever show (it was a group show; actually a painting competition or was it the Royal Scottish Academy annual show?), and there were two of his early paintings (all done as I recall, at his first – and only – art class).

It was on sale for 300 British pounds, which at the time for me might as well have been 300 million pounds, since my US Navy Lieutenant’s salary barely covered expenses in Scotland, which is where I was stationed at the time. That painting sold for 300 pounds… 300 pounds at the time was around $500 dollars.

Today, although he is despised by the art critics and the British arts establishment, he is adored by the public and by some very important collectors, and his works, if you are lucky enough to get on the waiting list for one, ranges in the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

And that early one that I passed on? Sold at Sotheby’s a few years ago for a lot more… a LOT more pounds.

Beginning art collectors can possibly find their own early Vettrianos at art competitions, MFA shows, outdoor art festivals, local art groups (such as the Art League in Alexandria), regional art centers (such as GRACE in Reston or the Arlington Arts Center in Arlington), open studios, etc.

I will discuss open studios in our region in another article.

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