The Collector’s Eye: How Do We Decide What to Acquire?

by | 09.15.20
Montserrat Gudiol, “Mujer Sentada,” oil on panel, 24” x 20”, 1981


The Doc and I are frequently asked how we decide what to acquire. Why did we choose a given work? What was the thinking that went into the decision to acquire one work but not acquire something else? How does one work “get into” the Collection while something similar does not? These questions are good ones and provide endless opportunities to think about the acquisition process, the thinking that goes into acquiring a work of art and how collectors conceptualize their collection. These issues also swirl around one of the most neglected areas of art historical study: what it means to collect and how the aggregations we call “art collections” say something about history, culture and taste, both about and during the lives of the collectors and thereafter.

In taking what is a largely intuitive process and deconstructing it, I think it is possible to point to several “screens” that run in the back of Doc’s and my head when we acquire art.

  1. Does it fit our Collection? One of the beauties of having definitional limits that surround one’s collection is that they are both confining and liberating. On the one hand, definitions can operate to quickly eliminate inappropriate work, such as, for us, abstraction or sculpture while, on the other hand, immediately making clear what work is in the zone of acquirability. In our case, The Bennett Collection is limited to paintings that realistically depict women that are executed by women artists. We have written and spoken extensively about the origin and meaning of these limitations elsewhere, but the keys are these: a painting, in a realistic style, of a woman, done by a woman. If these criteria are met, then we look with a different eye. Call it “the Collector’s eye.”
  • Do we like it? For some collectors, particularly those whose collections are principally investment portfolios rather than aggregations based on personal taste, whether or not they actually like the work is irrelevant. Indeed, some collectors collect “names” rather than works of art per se, or they collect based on a graph that shows a given artist’s realized prices over time. This is fine if one is thinking principally about price appreciation, but that is not our gig. Emphatically, we do not collect this way. Although we might be attracted to a woman with an art historically recognizable name, that, in and of itself, will not drive an acquisition decision. Rather, a sine qua non for us is whether or not we like a work. Is a painting something we would enjoy looking at on a wall in our home for months or years to come? If we can’t check this box, then a given painting, no matter how good it is or how famous or important the artist is, has no chance of being acquired by us. No apologies here; we collect for ourselves first.
  • Does it help us illuminate the evolution of women as artists? As we have said many times, one of our goals, and one of the goals of our Collection, is to show what women artists have done and what they are capable of. While this criterion may be less demonstrated for contemporary works in the Collection, it is certainly at work in the selection of works by “historic” women painters. In this context, “historic” usually means that the artist is both important and dead (e.g. Elaine de Kooning) or, if living, has already secured a place in art history (e.g. Faith Ringgold). So, for us, the inclusion of some women is pivotal. Artemisia was the first woman admitted to the Accademia di Firenze and one of the first, if not the first, to author works of art in her own name. Similarly, Mary Cassatt was the first (some might say, the only) American woman Impressionist.
  • Does the work have a narrative or evocative quality? For some collectors (and, truthfully, for most modern art), this is simply not a basis on which a work is anointed as “important.” Much of current art as well as that of the last century is what the art historian Richard Brettell has called “anti-iconography” in which the artist intends to “avoid any literary or visual associations that would limit or determine” the meaning of the work. This might be appropriate for art history and it might perfectly well describe the works of some canonical painters working in the last hundred years, but it does not describe what gets into our Collection. We like art that “says something,” even if one could have a robust argument about what exactly that something might be. So, while we can appreciate the AbEx work of Lee Krasner or Helen Frankenthaler, it is not heading into our Collection. By contrast, the work of women, from any period, that invites a narrative interpretation or engenders an evocative response is fair game for us. So, we have happily welcomed work by Margaret Bowland, Katie O’Hagan, Andrea Kowch and Harmonia Rosales because these works say something.
  • Does the work extend or further complete the Collection? If work adds to the breadth, depth or reach of our Collection and it meets the other criteria, then we are interested. For example, we have felt that work by currently practicing women figurative realists in Australia has taken modern figurative realism in some new and exciting directions and we have sought to acquire this work. Similarly, among historic women painters, we have recently added works by Mary Cassatt, Elaine de Kooning and Loïs Mailou Jones to the Collection because they are not only canonical painters in their own rights but their works describe a particular place and time in the evolution of art history.

On any given day one or another of these criteria might influence us more given that the bases for our choices form a sort of undulating Venn Diagram, but the above list gives some idea of what goes into our thinking when we are acquiring work to build our Collection. Keep painting!!

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