by Louise E. Wright
Painter and printmaker Bill Scott sees it as a means of “creating family.” Bill Valerio, director of the Woodmere Art Museum, calls it a “disease” while Pam Birmingham, the museum’s curator of education, describes it as a “love affair.”
“It” refers to the collecting of fine art, the subject of a new lecture series running this month at the Woodmere.
Appropriately titled “The Art of Collecting,” the series aims “to cultivate new collectors,” according to Birmingham, who believes “people would be interested in collecting if they knew how.” In addition to tempting audience members who have yet to purchase a drawing or watercolor, the series will appeal to those already bitten by the collecting bug.
Birmingham views the lecture series as a way to “test the waters,” to determine interest in the subject. The 50 or so listeners present for Scott’s “The Artist as Collector,” the first in the series, clearly indicated that interest runs high.
Ultimately Birmingham would like to see the Woodmere “develop a collectors’ group” that would meet regularly to “talk about the ‘new babies’ they’ve purchased.” In addition, members would visit one another’s homes to view collections as well as lend and share their treasures.
Such a group would undoubtedly win the approval of Woodmere founder, Charles Knox Smith, a collector himself. Birmingham relates that Knox added rooms onto his Chestnut Hill mansion when his collection exceeded his wall space. Furthermore, she points out, the lecture series dovetails nicely with “The Philip Jamison Collection,” a current exhibition of more than 100 works amassed by the watercolorist.
Jamison collected the works of his fellow Chester County artists, his teachers and his friends. “It’s a personal collection for him,” Birmingham says, “which is the way it should be.” Scott made the same point in his lecture, emphasizing that many of the pictures he has acquired have come from friends who are artists or artists who have become friends. Telling the stories behind his pictures, Scott offered listeners glimpses into his own life as well.
David DeAngelo, who traveled from the Bethlehem area to attend Scott’s talk, offered another perspective on the same idea. While he purchases paintings for the sake of enjoyment, he also derives pleasure from “getting to know the artist and his view of the world.”
Personal relationships aside, why do people collect? Dorothy J. del Bueno explores their motivations in “The Psychology of Collecting.” She intends “to raise some questions” and engage in a dialogue with her audience. “I don’t know the answers, but it’s important for people to think about why they do what they do.”
Collecting, del Bueno theorizes, “rarely has anything to do with utilitarianism.” She mentions that Jay Leno collects automobiles “he’s never going to drive” and wonders, “Why would somebody need those kinds of objects?”
Del Bueno began her own collection about 15 years ago, specializing in Pennsylvania artists, primarily women, from the late 1800s through the 1940s. Recently she has developed an interest in young Philadelphia artists. She collects in order to surround herself with beauty. “I like to live with my art,” she says. “Everything I have is visible.”
In addition to collecting for aesthetic reasons, del Bueno intends to share her works “with the public at some point in time.” To this end, she has made bequests to the Woodmere as well as to the Reading Public Museum.
What about art as an investment? Birmingham dismisses the idea. “I don’t think of it as an investment,” she says. “When you see it that way, when you take the ‘love affair’ out of it, then it’s best left to the brokers. I don’t think our speakers think of art as an investment. It’s a passion.”
While collectors may not regard art as an investment, financial considerations do come into play. Birmingham, however, doesn’t see the current economic crisis as an obstacle to collecting. “You don’t have to spend $200,” she says. “You could start by buying inexpensive small pieces.”
That’s how Scott got started. As a boy, he bought postcard reproductions, what he referred to as “baseball cards for artists” in his lecture. “I still buy postcards,” he quipped, “but I’d rather have paintings.”
Birmingham encourages those new to the game to visit artists’ studios and to patronize student shows at schools like the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts or the Moore College of Art. In this way, the neophyte collector would get in on the ground floor, help out an artist in need of money and access works priced less expensively than those of established artists.
In addition, she suggests going to auctions even though she herself feels intimidated. “I don’t know how they run or when to raise the paddle,” she admits. David Weiss, senior specialist at Freeman’s Auction House and a frequent appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow,” has the answers to those questions. In “Approaching the Auction House,” the final lecture in the series, Weiss shares an insider’s knowledge and offers tips for successful bidding.
The series runs on Saturday afternoons throughout February. For more information, visit woodmereartmuseum.org