A Big Collector in a Small Pond

I’ve met only one real art collector in my life and that was more than two decades ago when I was in my twenties.  My mother and I had the good fortune of being invited out to dinner by this woman after we met at a ritzy spa in southern California.  I had no idea she was a collector until I stepped into her house.

She had made a silly comment at dinner, “If you’re good, I’ll invite you over to my home to see my art.”  Apparently we were good, because she invited us over.  I never realized how meeting her shaped my view of art and collecting until this year.

Last spring, my husband and I were asked to put our home on a local house tour to raise money for charity.  It would begin with a presentation by HG-TV’s celebrity designer, Frank Fontana, and followed by the tour.  We were flattered that our house had been chosen.  We knew it would be a lot of work and expense but it was for a good cause.  The added bonus was that I felt okay sprucing up my home in these tough times.

I hadn’t given much thought as to why we had been approached.  Although I had used an abundance of colors, I had not used a decorator and had sewn my own curtains.  Our house was by no means a showplace.

I found out the reason a week later, when I was asked to proof the information that would go into the house tour brochure.  It read “The owners enjoy collecting art and are able to display their pieces beautifully in this French country style home.”

With one sentence we had become art collectors. I called my husband in a panic at worked and told him, “We are now art collectors.  I’ve got to go out and buy some more pieces!  I can’t have people paying to come to our home and not have a load of art!”  His only response was “We’re in a recession, you can’t spend much money on this house tour.” “Yeah, right,” I thought to myself.  Nothing was going to stop me from turning my house into a reasonable facsimile of an art collector’s home.

The woman I had met twenty years ago had millions of dollars of art adorning her walls, floors, tables and grounds.  Maybe I had $10,000 worth of art in my entire house!  I’d always thought of collectors as people who bought famous works of art, not someone like me, who just loved to look at and make art.

I could not get comfortable with the idea of myself as a collector.   My husband and I have picked up paintings and sculptures over the years but we’ve never spent more than $500.  We own some more valuable pieces, which were given to me by my parents. I also happen to be in art school and about half the art in our home was made by me.

But collectors we had become.  It was there in black and white, in the brochures all over town.  I frantically finished my house and purchased more art at local shows.

The day of the house tour came and the feedback was good.  Apparently Frank Fontana was crawling on the floor taking photos.  The visitors loved all of the art in the house.  But still, a collector, come on!

Then it all gelled for me when I walked into the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago a couple of weeks ago.  I stepped into one of the galleries and saw a massive portrait of the woman who’s home I’d been in more than 20 years ago.  There, in a painting by David Hockney, was Marcia Weisman, and her husband, in the yard of their house, the house that I had been to.  The painting had brought back memories of that long ago visit to her home.

I had never seen piles of art from famous artists in one house.  Pieces I could pick up and touch.  A museum would never cram so much stuff into one space.  In a bedroom there was a Marilyn Monroe-type screen print by Andy Warhol, but of Marcia.  When I went to use the powder room, I was startled by a life-size George Segal sculpture looking in a mirror.  There was a de Kooning over the fireplace. The collections of paintings and sculptures were mind-boggling.

I don’t remember everything about that visit but I do remember Marcia telling me that she didn’t start out collecting big. She told me she used to go to Woolworth’s and buy cheap prints of famous paintings and then put varnish over them to make them look real.  She would put them in frames and hang them up.  She started small.  Like me.

Originally Published in The Doings Newspaper in Hinsdale, IL

Leave a Reply