art talk

Collecting Black Art

There is little question about the central place of art in our lives and of its importance to our well-being. Civilizations throughout the ages have venerated art whether for its form, its function or its spiritual significance.
Modern art movements have swept over the landscape, and the primary role of art in our lives has, in modern times, shifted away from being one of function. Yet the relevance of art and the richness that art brings to our existence is stronger today than it ever was. And so artists continue to create and the rest of us continue to seek out art.

Today we are faced with a breathtaking array of artistic expression - from literal, realistic renderings, to abstraction; from the legacies of early art movements to the highly personal and individualistic styles, subjects and techniques of contemporary and cutting edge artists. A feast, and also quite a job for the viewer. Knowing about art now seems to be a skill requiring specially gained expertise, or at least a great deal of exposure. And if we add to this diversity of artistic expression, the existence of an organized “art market”, and the complexities of the modern marketplace, we can see why buying and collecting art can often be a daunting task.

The idea that collecting art is an activity reserved for the wealthy is just not true today. Every one of us can participate in the pleasure, the beauty, the stimulation, the inspiration, and even the profit of viewing, buying and collecting art. And for many of us, there is so much more to gain from mining the rich depths of an artistic tradition that has for so long been overlooked and undervalued - the art of Black America and the African diaspora.

Starting a Collection

So, how does one become an art collector? And how does one develop the eye and the skills for collecting art? The process starts with an attitude and approach: collecting art requires first and foremost an open and curious mind, and a bit of an adventurous spirit. With that attitude, the journey can be very enjoyable, and even addictive.

Look at a lot of art. Visit galleries, museums, art fairs, artists’ studio and art auctions.
You are better able to get in touch with what you like or dislike by exposing yourself to a wide variety of styles and artistic traditions. It is the only way to truly train your eyes and to understand not only what you like, but why you like it.  

Learn from those who are experts on the subject – dealers, gallerists, art educators, artists, other collectors, books on art. You may not earn a degree in art history in the process but you will gain a deeper understanding of the art world and the marketplace.

While it is important to avoid costly mistakes and sidestep short-lived fads and trends, a strategy of seeking out works by younger, less well-known artists can be rewarding on many levels. For one, there is the noble satisfaction of giving crucial support to an artist at the stage of his or her career when they most need the patronage. A, perhaps, less altruistic, but glowing, feeling of satisfaction comes from discovering a future major work at a time when it is most affordable and represents the best value. Many of today’s important collections were built by ordinary collectors who bought works by artists who were their contemporaries, at a time when they were yet to be ‘discovered’. One of the most sensational stories is that of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, a postal clerk and a librarian, who filled their one-bedroom NYC apartment with 2,500 small works by then contemporaries who are now some of the 20th century biggest artists. The lessons here are that you can start small, and it is the passion and the eye that count. Their collection is now in the National Gallery of Art.

If your approach to collecting is primarily for investment, this strategy can be a risky one, though, and the ability to discern what is good and enduring art and what is not, becomes critical, since, generally speaking, the popularity of an artist has very little to do with current real value or future worth of work by that artist. Catchy, commercial and easily accessible works are generally not very collectible. Of greater importance in evaluating contemporary art is the originality, intelligence and the artist’s emphasis on communicating an idea. If your preconceptions or unfamiliarity with contemporary art are hard to get around, a well-informed art dealer or gallery can be useful as a filter and ally. Or just try to focus on what the artist is trying to communicate and how well he or she does it.

Conventional judgment of what constitutes a “collection” deems that the works should be related by some identifiable principle or parameter (for example, theme, region, medium). But for many beginning collectors, collecting is primarily based on aesthetic and emotional appeal and yields eclectic results. There are, however, discernible stages in the life cycle of a collector and as sophistication and personal taste grow, and as space and financial resources shrink, the process will usually takes on a more directed and disciplined approach.
The advice to the beginning collector here is to enjoy the experience and love the art that you buy. To avoid pitfalls, start conservative and make sure you do not overpay for a work that will not hold its value over time. Take risks on more expensive work only after you have gained the confidence and skills of a more seasoned collector, or with the guidance of an expert. 

Collecting Original Prints

Original prints can offer a relatively inexpensive way to get one’s feet wet and is the focus of many world-class collections. The following excerpt from the Print Council of America offers another perspective on collecting art.

(This section is reprinted from “A Guide to the Collecting and Care of Original Prints”, a publication of the Print Council of America.)

How should a beginner proceed to collect? It is a question often asked. The voice of experience would probably answer as follows: It is best to adopt an experimental attitude. Start with something that appeals to you for any reason whatever, as, for instance, because you have read about it or seen it at a friend’s house. Look at it, study it, and learn what you can about it and the artist who made it. Then go on to buy others in the same way. Have the courage of your own taste. You will make mistakes – everyone does at first – but mistakes are expendable. Only by daring to make mistakes will you learn from your collecting. You will find that some prints, like old friends, wear well, whereas in others the emotive potential is soon exhausted. The latter will become the mistake for you, and can be eliminated.
When confronted with something new, do not make a snap judgment; give it the benefit of the doubt. Try to find out what the artist intended. Remember, it may have taken the artist twenty years to arrive at a mode of expression: you cannot dispose of it in twenty seconds. On the other hand, you are not compelled to like it just because it is new or because some critic told you to. There are so many works of art in the world that you cannot possibly respond to them all. No one could.
It is fortunate that we do not all like the same thing! You are having a personal experience; you are cultivating your own taste; you are building up your own collection for pleasure and enlightenment. Some people combine business with pleasure. Do not collect art with an eye to profit. Rather, let your investment be in pure and disinterested enjoyment. It sometimes happens that art appreciate in monetary value. If you own such art, accept the fact gladly as unanticipated increment, but do not base your strategy of collecting on that factor. Art is literally priceless – that is to say, without price or beyond price.

- “A Guide to the Collecting and Care of Original Prints”

What to look for in a Work of Art

The emotional connection that you make with a work of art is the first signal you should heed. Although we are often influenced by notions of appreciation and status when we make our art buying decisions, the overriding factor should be because we like it.
However, there are other issues to consider if your ultimate aim is to build a collection that will hold its value over time.

REPUTATION OF THE ARTIST  An artist with an established career and who may be in major museums would, of course, be eminently collectible. Indeed there are many distinguished collections comprised of masterworks by important African American Artists. Some of the notable ones are the Hewitt Collection, The Paul R. Jones Collection, the Walter O. Evans Collection and the Harriet and Harmon Kelley Collection.
These historically important artists are inaccessible or out of the reach of most of us, though, and it would be very costly today to build a meaningful collection of African American masterworks.
We do, however, have access to future masterworks in the form of emerging artists. It is impossible to see into the future though, and it is difficult to assess the reputation of an artist who has not yet built a long track record. We can look, though, at the artist’s training,
résumé, career trajectory, and popularity. Among the questions we can ask are: has the artist shown in galleries? museums? is the artist being written about or getting critical attention? who collects the artist’s work?. But of equal or greater importance than where the artist was schooled or has exhibited, though, is evidence of a unique vision, original thinking, intelligence, and a deep sense of the human spirit and condition. In a young, emerging artist, for example, those are the very qualities that could make him or her a great artist.

AUTHENTICITY  No one wants to buy a fake. Know your source if you are buying original art from anyone other than the artist. A reputable dealer will know the work he or she sells, and often has the information to authenticate works by popular artists.

QUALITY  Generally buy the best you can afford. The most effective way to develop an eye for quality is to look at art. If you are not skilled at assessing the aesthetic value of a work of art, rely on an experienced dealer. After all, who looks at more art than an experienced dealer?

RARITY  Although there are exceptions, rarity tends to enhance value. Here again, you may have to rely for guidance on a professional art dealer who tracks the market and who has some knowledge of the availability of works on the market. This is a less relevant concern if the artist is younger and still producing work.

CONDITION  The condition of a work is important. As far as is practical, look for defects or damage that would detract from the value of a work. The errant splash of paint, occasional smudge of pastel, or certain other seeming flaws, deliberately or accidentally done by the artist, on an original work do not necessarily detract from the value. Remember artists are not unduly preoccupied with neatness when they are creating.

PROVENANCE  While this issue is not of great relevance to most beginning collectors, the issue of provenance (who has owned the work and where it has been) can influence the value of a work of art. If a work has been in prominent collections or has been included in significant exhibitions, it adds to the pedigree of the work. Bear in mind that most contemporary work will not have yet established a provenance.

VALUE  The idea of art as an investment is popularly held by some and even promoted by many dealers. This approach is not always a fruitful one. While some artists’ work has appreciated considerably over time, there is no safe way to predict future gains, and collectors should be wary of any such promises. Besides, collections built purely with profit in mind tend to be mediocre collections. It is collections formed with passion and intelligence that stand the test of time, both aesthetically and monetarily.

Acquiring the Skills for Collecting

  • Educate yourself about art. Read books on art, subscribe to art periodicals, newsletters, etc. When possible, purchase exhibition catalogs. Learn more about the areas or artists you like best.
  • Visit galleries, museums, art fairs and artists’ studios.
  • Make connections with other collectors.
  • Seek professional advice from someone trained in art and who has knowledge of the specific area of art that you are buying into, especially if you have a large budget.
  • If you are a beginner, it is critical that you deal with a reputable dealer who you find understanding and approachable. Ask a lot of questions.
  • Begin by collecting less expensive works like works on paper, drawings and original prints until you feel comfortable enough to buy a more expensive work.


Read more about collecting original prints and printmaking techniques

Collecting Original Prints

Related articles on Art Collecting, Art Collectors and Art Collections:

The Art of Collecting African-American Art, American Visions
Atypical Collectors with Art to Share, The New York Times
Reframing Black Art, Essence
Celebration and Vision: The Hewitt Collection of African American Art
Building a Visual Legacy - San Antonio collectors try to preserve African American Art
The Collectors: Personal Art Collection Becomes a National Treasure
Noted Collector Donates Prominent African American Art to SCAD
Collecting Priceless Art, Just for the Love of It

Find a comprehensive and invaluable list of  resources on African American Art and Artists at  Princeton Online

Links to information and websites on major African American Artists

Link to the web’s most comprehensive database of African American Visual Artists

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Avisca Fine Art Gallery African American Art Gallery

Avisca Fine Art Gallery African American Art Gallery