“What is a ‘Real’ Art Collector? Are You One?” by Debra Hand

by Debra Hand

When a Black art collector says to me, “I’m not really a ‘collector.’ I just buy what I like,” I try to shift their mindset before our conversation ends. The power of the collector is great, but none of us can use a power to its maximum effect if we don’t know it exists. 

So this article is for the collectors who aren’t sure they are collectors yet, or are wondering what a “real” collector is— especially if you are buying Black art, since Black artists need the power of collectors more than ever now. 

If you are purchasing original art by Black artists, that alone makes you a collector.  It makes you a collector just as valid as those collecting antiquities from the Ming Dynasty. Your story, and that of your cultural group, should be just as important to you as that of any other cultural group.  After all, your story is the one story where you are the lead character, and where your existence is being carried out in real time. And if the way you assemble and reflect that story is through Black art, then you are archiving an important narrative. So, make no mistake, when you begin to purchase multiple pieces of original art, you have become a collector. Now what you choose to do with that archive is another topic. 

You can keep your art at home where only you can enjoy it, or you can build on your collection with the intention of one day sharing it publicly, or even creating a museum. Naturally, it’s up to you. But if you plan to share your collection publicly, then you will probably have to concern yourself with what might excite public interests. 

For example, it could be the case that your story, or your family’s story alone—along with the art you’ve chosen to reflect it—already intrigues the public. If Oprah were ever to exhibit her collection of Black art, people would surely line up to see it, just because it’s hers. They know she champions Black history, so they’d know to look forward to an informative experience.  Having been a collector of Stringfellow’s work, if she still owns it, they would be able to see beautiful collages with Black dignity as the theme (or similar subjects).

In fact, many celebrities and television shows are associated with increasing interest in Black art. In the past, I’ve written about Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys, as well as Jay-Z as collectors, to name a few, but television plays its part as well.  Throughout the run of Empire, African-American art was a silent character in most scenes, the producers taking an even more aggressive approach to showcasing Black artists.

“Recession Girl” by Zoya Taylor | 36″ x 29″ oil on linen canvas — unframed | ShopBAIA.com

But, to become a “real” collector, a person doesn’t have to be widely known or own 100 works of art. Consider someone who has purchased three pieces of original art by Black artists and still doesn’t think of themselves as a “real” collector. Here’s something to consider:

If you own a work of art by three different artists, that is three stories and legacies that you have now intersected with your own. 

And whether you choose to or not, you have gathered together the materials for the potential narrating of four lives: the lives of three artists plus your own. You have the power and potential to look into how these four lives might be cross-indexed to depict an even larger story. Let’s say you’re that collector, and you own three pieces that reflect three very different themes. One painting you own is of a gospel singer, one is of a man picking cotton, and one is an abstract painting dominated by the color indigo. These pieces touched your heart when you first saw them exhibited because your grandmother sang in church, her parents were sharecroppers, and your favorite color is indigo because that was the color of your great-grandparent’s home. These things appear to have no relation to each other, and you could live happily ever after enjoying your three pieces of art without thinking of them as anything more than just paintings you enjoy.

But, if you choose to do so, you could also investigate further, starting with your own story. You could ask your grandmother about singing in the choir and learn her family history with the church. What led her family there? Who else sang in your family, and how did music become so important in their household? Going back through the generations, as these stories tend to do quickly, you will likely be led back to and through the days of Black sharecroppers and reveal more about your grandfather and his parents—stories of how his parents transitioned your family from slavery through the piecemeal survival mechanisms of sharecropping, or other forms of labor. Suddenly, you know even more about the activities that eventually led to your life’s circumstances, and even led indirectly to the degree now hanging on your wall.

Maybe it was your great-grandfather who first pushed the concept of higher education in your family so that your generation would never know the hard labor of a cotton field. Your painting with indigo dominating seems unrelated to any of these stories, however, maybe it first attracted you because it was the color of the house your grandparents lived in. Looking deeper, you may learn the history of indigo dye and its connection to slavery, along with its dual mythological history and function as a protective force in the Gullah Geechee culture. Now you learn that the artist’s grandparents were of this culture and migrated North during the Great Migration. 

The point is: The artists who painted these pictures also have their own stories and histories that may, or may not, tie directly into yours but will likely contain parallels to yours, especially since their families had to also make their ways through the turmoil of being Black in America. 

“Led by God” by Wendy Kendrick | 24″ x 67,” fabric, machine and hand stitched quilt — unframed | ShopBAIA.com

I encourage everyone who buys original art, especially multiple pieces, to think of themselves as collectors and as the keepers of the stories that accompany those pieces, particularly their own. Even if the artist says, “I created the work because I felt like it and nothing more,” there still is a reason why you bought those works; that story has value. Most artists, however, will indeed have a story to tell about how they became artists, even if not a story about the art itself. Those stories will always involve other people—people who believed in them and encouraged them; people who didn’t believe in them and thought they were wasting their time; or even stories about why they think it’s important to create art, especially as it relates to participating in culture. 

Most artists I know create first and foremost to help nourish others in some way; whether it is through sharing stories, relaying information, taking a stand, or sharing beauty—all of which are noble reasons to create. When I first became an artist, a surgeon purchased my work at a black-tie auction. They were determined to win the bid, and they did. It pleased me to know that someone tasked throughout the day with saving lives might find refuge in my work when they relaxed in their home. Surgeons need mental health balancing activities to help relieve the trauma they face daily. I like knowing that one of my sculptures is serving someone in this way. Most artists I know want to know that their work is loved and appreciated by those who acquire it, regardless of the subject matter.     

So the next time you’re at an exhibit, rather than to ask the artist, “How long did it take you to make that?” (a question which many artists find mundane) ask the artists things like:

  • “What events in your life helped you decide to become a professional artist?”
  • “What would you like to achieve through your work?”
  • “Does creating art with this subject-matter bring about a sense of cultural pride for you?”
  • “What are your payment options?” 

Ask that last question without embarrassment. Most artists are pleased to know that you are willing to do what you can to acquire their work. Asking about paying through a plan is a much more dignified approach than trying to lowball the artists in order to make the art easier to attain. The most dignified approach is to ask the artists: 1) what kind of payment arrangements they offer and, 2) is there any kind of discount associated with paying in a lump sum or in fewer payments, as opposed to a longer payment plan. You will likely get both benefits and, at the same time, you reap the emotional reward of knowing you are supporting culture.

Once you take those pieces home, please know that you are in possession of something that can help to tell a story, should you choose to do so. Knowing this, hopefully, you will be even more thoughtful about how you collect. With those three pieces, or even two, or one, you are now in a position to help to promote the stories that you find value in. And, hopefully, the one you find the greatest value in is your own.

You don’t need anyone else’s validation to tell it proudly.    

As a Black collector, you are part of the ecosystem that maintains Black culture. You are part of the equation that equals the continued telling of our stories. This is not “nothing” and your acquisitions of artwork are not menial, by any means. They can become important devices for sharing culture with your family, community, and beyond. All of our stories form the tributaries to larger stories. 

When the Smithsonian African American Museum of History and Culture was being created, their staff reached out to the African-American community for stories, for a grandmother’s quilt, or old photos, etc. As the Barack Obama Presidential Library forms, its staff reaches out to the community for items of importance in the telling of his story. Perhaps you had a campaign flyer or a photo that could be used to help narrate his history.

“Young Kamala” by Najee Dorsey | 20″ x 14,” photomontage print on archival paper, signed by the artist (2020) — unframed | ShopBAIA.com

We all have a story to tell. If your artwork helps to tell that story, or you can help to tell the story of the artists whose works you own, perhaps it’s something you might consider, especially knowing that you are, indeed, a “real” collector. Some collectors even become as famous as the artists they collect because they use their collections to share narratives that others would surely not know without the collector devoting themselves to assuring that story was told. 

So enjoy your art, be proud of your participation in sustaining culture, but, most of all, know that you have emerged from a creative culture where great artists exist and you have the power to make sure others are exposed to that greatness. You are the collector, the keeper, and caretaker of the artists’ stories. 

Happy collecting!

And as always, we appreciate seeing your comments in the comments section below.

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DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer.  She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park.  Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma;  Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University.  She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.


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