Express Yourself Through Collecting: How to create an art collection that reflects your own identity

At some point in life, many of us want to express ourselves, but we aren't artists, musicians, writers, etc. with any kind of formal training. Well, expressing yourself can come in all kinds of forms, and doing it through art collecting is just one of them! Here's a little tutorial to get you going. Remember, your collecting will not look like anyone else's, so it's a valid and creative way for you to let people know about you and how you think about life.

1. Goals of collecting - the sky's the limit. But even if you just choose one point from the list below, it will get you started on your adventure.

  • You create value for yourself and the artist

  • You can make an effective display for home or business

  • You give people a chance to see art they won't see in museums.

  • You think of it as your avocation

  • You long for a learning experience, and you want to understand art better and in considerable emotional and intellectual depth

  • The collection is to be about a subject or theme that is very important to you

  • You found an artist you want to promote and be attached to the progress of their career

  • You want to create a collection that is coherent and valued by museums, which you may then donate to them or other nonprofit

  • You collect because the art you have impacts your sense of your own identity

  • Your collection got started because of a fraternal relationship you had with an artist or a group of artists

  • You are taken with a style of art that is ongoing and want to stick to that so you have more complete experience with that style

  • You are involved with another form of expression (such as music) and you want a collection that ties into that

2. Do you have the means to collect? Ask yourself:

  • Is there an immediate short term budget that you will use for collecting over the long term?

  • What sources will you use to find the artwork that fits your collecting goals?

  • How will you handle the space requirements? You could either collect what will fit on your walls, or see the collection as rotating. Some people collect a lot and store quite a lot of it in a warehouse, then lend it to institutions or rotate it in their businesses or home.

  • How will you acquire the art you choose? Commercial galleries, direct contact with the artist, through an art advisor, art auction house, online galleries?

3. Hanging the artwork. Less obvious than people may think, hanging involves a number of critical details:

  • The size and placement of the artwork relative to other artworks and other objects on walls, or in relationship to furnishings in a room.

  • Will artworks that have a substantial relationship to each other be kept in groups?

  • Do you prefer a lot of white space (aka empty space) on the walls between art and other objects?

  • Or, maybe you like the idea of multiple artworks close together and the amount of white space is less important to you.

  • What is the wall made of, wood, solid plaster, concrete, brick, plasterboard or other material? How solid will the wall be for the attachment hanger for the artwork? What is the weight of the artwork and will the wall and the hanger support it safely? Is the artwork covered with glass, and if a large panel, the weight matters. If it should fall for any reason, it cannot be any place where people would be nearby.

  • Another critical decision is about lighting. Most people depend upon the light in the room in addition to natural daylight. If you want the collection to show off well, you need to use supplementary lights that wash the wall with an even light. And if the artwork is in color (as opposed to black and white) then the color of the light itself will impact the colors on the artwork. So the chosen form of light fittings needs to use light sources of the proper color, which is measured in degrees Kelvin (usually listed on the lighting package). Most artwork looks best and the colors most accurate under light that measures 4800 to 5600 (5600K is a typical daylight measurement) degrees Kelvin (see illustration below).

  • Also, very important is the angle of the light relative to the artwork, especially if the artwork has acrylic or glass on top of it. With the latter, the angle of the light to the glass will determine where the reflections go. Certainly, you don't want those beams going into people's eyes.

4. Deciding the first artworks for the collection

Of course, you want to buy a work of art that you find satisfying, but we can break those satisfactions down that help us distinguish between our top choices.

For example, maybe you are planning to buy three artworks and have narrowed down your choices to nine so far. Asking yourself a series of questions will help you define which artwork of several is your priority.

First question, what is the overall feeling you believe the artwork is trying to convey to you? Maybe it is hope, pessimism, enthusiasm, mystery, clarity or any of a myriad of feelings. If you decide what the overall feeling is, survey the artwork carefully, not only in the middle but around the edges and corners, trying to decide which elements contribute to that feeling. Ask yourself if there is a second feeling, and again, navigate through the artwork, trying to understand where the second feeling is coming from.

With one or two feelings in mind, ask yourself: how much is the artwork allowing you to feel the soul of the artist who made it?

Is there any narrative or storytelling in the artwork, and what might that be? What visual symbols and relationships exist in the artwork to give this away?

Does there seem to be an overall concept? Sometimes there is an intellectual intention on the part of the artist, or in the example of my project, the concept about urban changes.

Does the artwork seem to be derivative of other artworks you have seen, or does it seem as if the artist's voice is very individual and strong?

How interesting are the elements of design, which include things like how paint strokes are worked, colors are blended, blocks of dark and light arranged, lines and edges varied, prospective effects used, how tensions and repose are played against each other, and many more such things we refer to as the formal aspects of the artwork.

Does the artwork look to be very complete, or does it feel as if the artist had not really finished it? How professionally does it come across? Are things left sloppy, and if so, is that deliberately part of the expression? And if not, how much does it detract from the intention of the artist?

5. A case history: a black and white photography project called Urban Inversions

This was my very first organized project, and started with several ventures to make photographs of industrial areas of the city I lived in at the time, Milwaukee. After a few days of exploration, it occurred to me that I was seeing the beginning of a lot of deterioration of these areas, a result of the reduction of business and work in the upper Midwest smokestack industries. My concept evolved into wanting to express the feeling of these places and my own feeling about the loss of manufacturing.

For a few years these images, often printed in very large size, were quite popular with the local public, which gave me an early start on my career development.

I continue to make images to fit that project, for a total of 25 years. But after the first two years, I never showed the work again, or any of the work that happened in the latter bulk of those 25 years. So, while I liked making those images, I was also going through a period of trying to find a different way to express photography, and that did not come to fruition for years to come. So my next efforts into public exhibiting began just as the 25 year first project came to its end.

Some 50 years after the first of the Urban Inversion series was created, a Milwaukee company called me to ask about acquiring a large quantity of these images to create its own collection. They wanted the images very large; their wall spaces were large and there was a lot of it. Most importantly, they wanted only this project on their walls. Clearly, they liked the work and wanted to send a message to their clients coming into their building.

The message they wanted seemed to be centered on the idea of history, industry, transportation, and other details that in some ways define a great metropolitan city.

Starting with 500 original images, I worked it down to those I thought most fit their needs and looked good by my estimation, so that they had about 150 to choose from.

Ultimately, they chose 36, from moderate sized prints to very large ones. For their collection, they wanted to control the consistency and look of the presentation. As an artist, that was fine with me, so the company bought the bare prints from me, and went to a framing company to prepare the work for hanging.

What I thought was also important for them was that, over the years, photographers had gone from not having any limit on how many prints of a certain image we would make to a different system. An unlimited number of prints is referred to as an open edition. Fairly early in my career, I decided I didn't like that idea so much, and began to make my work into limited editions. Currently, it’s common for artists in photography to make the limited edition in numbers of 6, 9 or 12. Almost all of my works are editions of that size, except for the smallest prints. (I offer these as an open edition at a very low price, in order to encourage new collectors and those who may be young and on a very small budget.)

The company involved in the urban inversions project wanted the smaller limited editions, which certainly would keep the prestige of the work and at the same time subtly imply that these were true works of fine art, and not just illustrations taken from stock photographs usually sold for advertising.

Since the company was buying all this work, the documentation provided with it was also important. Each print was to be numbered, titled, and signed by me. This is referred to as the provenance of the artwork. To a degree, the provenance protects the art owner’s financial interest in the artwork.

Eventually, the company was able to decide on the 36 images they preferred. When one looks at those that they chose, as compared to those they did not, there are some strong revelations. And those revelations tell you a lot about the collecting strategy of the decision makers in the company. They tended to like the earlier work in the project more than the later work, even though together the whole project itself is quite historical.

It was also noticeable that the work chosen tended to be the ones in which I was emotionally closer to the subject. As an artist in photography, I do put a lot of emphasis on that, but some of the time I make photographs because I think they're important to round out the portfolios and coverage, even though I may feel less strongly about that particular subject, and for the circumstances in which it exists.

The company worked with an interior decorator to choose the furniture that fills the building, and decide which artwork would go where, how high, how much light on it, and how much white space was around it. Essentially, it is an uncluttered look, and each work stands out on its own. By doing this, they effectively created icons out of these subjects, an important message from history that these achievements of mankind are much of what defines the human species.

By using a very cohesive group of artworks from the same project by the same artist, another goal was achieved. Together the artwork sent a conceptual message subliminally intended by the company officials, that is, this iconic evi