Someone recently commented that our art collection is like a really good cocktail. Whether it was a compliment or an affront, I took it as praise. Aren’t the best parties informative and inspiring, moving and sinful and somewhat surprising? The guests come together in unexpected combinations vaguely linked by a common sensibility that has more to do with a joie de vivre than with the cause of the day. Nothing too overtly deliberate or contrived. If what my husband, Steven, and I have amassed over the past 25 years sounds like a lively cocktail, I’ll drink this.
Whatever the subject matter of the so-called collection, it is, for the most part, not driven by mission or scholarship. If we wanted the backdrop of our world to be an essay or a manifesto, the aesthetic would be far more linear, far less eclectic, and infinitely more focused. Beyond purchasing artwork by living artists purchased from their primary dealers, the driving force has always been a deep desire to live a life filled with colorful characters and original thinkers. Defending new ideas and humanistic studies, even if they have little commercial appeal, also appeals to us. And oscillating between conceptual and commercial, creative and creator, patron and producer, that’s kind of my thing.
I would be lying if I said that we pay no attention to the market. We never buy to sell, but we absolutely listen to the ecosystem of the art world. I find the valuation of art in a monetary sense both fascinating and nauseating. The market never guides our thinking, because it is the most soulless way to engage in art. We prefer to be guided above all by an indescribable mix of passion, ideas and aesthetics. Will a new piece dialogue well with what we already have? Will this add another layer? Will we love him forever? It’s a bit like the criteria. I think too much about many things in life but rarely about art. I prefer my approach to be less prescriptive and more welcoming.
Shortly after our marriage in 1994, Steven and I moved to Hong Kong and saw a nation take off and an art market take shape. While working around the clock in finance, I spent endless hours exploring. My best friend was artist Janis Provisor, who had left the New York art scene to start a wild silk carpet business called Fort Street Studio. We talked nonstop about design, colors, materials, and all the art, and she taught me a lot about the realities of being an artist and a fiercely independent thinker. She also has a magical way of blending art and design that felt substantial and timeless yet inviting and cool. I wanted to create our version of that.
Returning to New York in 1999, I was introduced to Carol Goldberg, a visionary collector and advisor, who became my artistic mentor. “We drive into the future using only our rear view mirror,” wrote Canadian philosopher and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan. Artists look ahead and see things before all of us. That was Carol’s mantra: visit galleries, museums and fairs and train your eye to see connections and find meaning. Go to conferences. Read books. Courses. Immerse yourself in it all. She encouraged me to get involved in arts education, where I hope to be able to have an impact and watch ideas take shape. I worked with Carol for a few years formally and then we became good friends. Its imprint on me has been immeasurable, as art has become the prism through which I view the world. I have been extensively involved in MFA programs at universities, K-12 arts education, museum acquisition committees, and various arts organizations. Although my taste has evolved over the years, the desire to support and engage with contemporary artists has been unwavering.
Observations along the way? The art world can seem particularly murky because value is not measured per square inch and can change in the blink of an eye. A bad auction, a critical review, or an inexplicable change in trend can knock an artist off the cliff. Most rules are unwritten, and there are a lot of them. If you’re selling an artwork, which Steven and I almost never do, be careful about who sold it to you, because relationships and transparency are important. Don’t be afraid to enter the galleries. Most people don’t buy anything, and many merchants are happy to talk about art. Transactions usually take place in backrooms or over the phone. A gallery is sort of a cross between a museum and a high-end retail space. Although some things are for sale, they are not necessarily available for purchase. Access typically requires investing both time and money in dealer relationships. If you are lucky enough to purchase a coveted work, be prepared to lend it to exhibits and support those exhibits as well. Art should be shared.
As happens in other industries, what is usually hyped in the art world is the extremes of the market and the most extreme characters in the scene. The craftsmanship and references are obscured by a lot of fluff, and sifting through it all takes effort. If you are legitimately interested in art collecting, invest time before money. Advisors can help you navigate the landscape – some can even ease entry, and the best can guide you to your personal sensibilities – but usually great collections are built by great collectors. Although these days we mostly buy from established galleries, my husband and I buy from fairs featuring emerging artists and also from Masters thesis exhibitions, although we don’t necessarily get the best work. . Artists usually take a while to develop, but karma is essential and it’s important to support artists when they need it most. I follow auctions religiously, but I haven’t bought anything all of a sudden. I can count on one hand the number of things we have sold over the years and on one finger those sold at auction. Auctions aren’t necessarily bad, but they represent a very different kind of party where trading potential is the doorway.
While our journey continues largely without an itinerary, lately I’ve been focused on developing relationships. I move things around frequently, as it’s essential to keep things up to date. And I often do this with my own blue tape, hammer, and hanger hooks while I torment myself for placement. I want to encourage intergenerational conversations, unexpected relationships and dynamic groupings. Of course, the overall environment should be visually engaging but not overwhelming. The chemistry of it all matters, but what matters most is managing the guest list so that everyone who attends wants to stay a while and move around a bit too.
Debi Wisch is an award-winning filmmaker based in New York whose productions include two films about the art world. She co-directs Hunter College’s Art Advisory Board and sits on the boards of Young Arts, Stanford University’s Cantor Museum, and Film at Lincoln Center.