|GREAT FACILITATOR: Barry Whistler owns and operates Barry Whistler Gallery, where he works hard to make art accessible to everyone. He’s shown here with a new series by local artist Ted Kincaid.|
But even though the gallery is filled with an eclectic mix of art lovers—from museum curators to drummers, fashionistas to academics—you still feel as though you don’t belong. At your house, the only thing in a frame is the Monet poster you bought in college, which doesn’t count. You’re an outsider to the art world, and you want in.
Good news: it’s easy. Better news: we’re here to help. Yes, galleries—and unfamiliar art—can be intimidating. But you shouldn’t feel afraid to venture into one, even if you aren’t looking to buy, and you shouldn’t feel ashamed to ask a question as you look at art, learn about art, and start your own collection.
WHY BUY? WHY NOT?
Ask different collectors why they started buying art, and you might get different answers.
"We had just bought a nice house, and there was nothing on the walls," says George Morton, a local collector whose first purchase, with his art-savvy wife Karol Howard, was a work by Texas luminary Vernon Fisher. Twelve years later, Fisher’s work is still on their wall, and they still love it.
Considering the cost of most other major expenses—clothes, cars, even homes—the price of feeding your soul is relatively cheap, especially when art lasts much longer and is more enriching than other big-ticket items. Displaying artwork is one of the most efficient yet powerful ways to claim and define your surroundings.
"Man, from the beginning of time, has been altering his environment—first for comfort, second, for stimulation," says John Reoch, a longtime collector who’ll spend thousands of dollars on a single piece but more often buys less expensive works by emerging local artists. "Art is not only nourishing, it says something about us."
So take a look around your place. That Thomas Kinkade print was a gift; you wouldn’t have chosen it yourself. And the framed family photos, while meaningful to you, hardly qualify as thought-provoking. You could do better. But first, you’ve got to figure out what you like.
WORK THOSE EYE MUSCLES
Like curators, dealers, and critics, you, too, are armed with an opinion and the personal experience to shape it. You just have to expose yourself to the artwork. Given our area’s array of world-class museums and excellent galleries (see p. 86), in a matter of weeks you can get a clearer sense of what turns you on and off. Museums have permanent collections and special exhibitions; graduate thesis shows at local universities are another good place to start. Galleries launch new shows every month or so—in fact, on February 21, the Dallas Art Dealers Association holds its annual Winter Gallery Walk, with 29 galleries participating. For more details, go to www.dallasartdealers.org.
"One of the best ways to start out is by going to group shows," Reoch says. "The more art you absorb and can compare to other art—emerging and established—the more quickly you’ll figure out your aesthetic and visceral leanings."
In the meantime, do your homework. Periodicals like Artforum, ARTnews, and Art in America are sold at most bookstores. "You can even buy a coffee table book," says Talley Dunn, co-owner of Dunn and Brown Contemporary. "They’re full of good reproductions, and you can cover a lot of ground." Robert Hughes’ American Visions and The Shock of the New are highly readable references. As for digestible criticism, Peter Schjeldahl’s The Seven Days Art Columns and Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar confirm that just thinking about art can be as accessible and stimulating as a favorite film or song.
Don’t just read up; listen up. "Go to artist talks," Morton says. "When you hear an artist speak, the more interested you’ll be in [his work]. When an artist talks about his points of reference, you start thinking about the art that came before and how things connect, and you’ll start looking at earlier art differently." Emerging artists (read: ones you can afford) regularly speak at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, and seasoned artists often speak at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Dallas Museum of Art. It’s like taking a spontaneous, fascinating course in art appreciation.
Soon, you’ll know what you lean toward: abstract painting or black-and-white photography or conceptual installations. "Just don’t narrow it down too much," says Nancy Whitenack, owner of the Conduit Gallery. "Keep an open mind. Sometimes the work you find the most difficult is ultimately the art that you most resonate with."
In two words, she sums up a fundamental truth about a viewer’s relationship with quality work: "Art ripens."
GO GO GALLERY
Once you’ve determined what kind of art you like, you’re ready to shop. But you don’t have to buy. "The majority of people who come through our doors just want to look," Dunn says. "We’re thrilled to have them."
Barry Whistler of the Barry Whistler Gallery even keeps a box of toys in the back of his Deep Ellum space, in case parents are nervous about bringing in their kids. "And I’ll usually leave out copies of the artists’ résumés and press releases," he says. "People should feel free to sit and think about what they see." (By the way, if what you see is a red dot next to a work’s title, that means it’s sold. But it doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions about the piece or the artist.)
"My job is to help people get to know artists, how they work, why they do the work they do," Whitenack says. "People are fearful about what language they use. Any dialogue is good." For starters, ask where the artist went to college, if his work is part of any museum collection, whether it stems from residencies or fellowships. A very young artist won’t have much history, but that shouldn’t dissuade you if you like the work.
Keep in mind that what you see on the walls of a gallery is only a fraction of what the space has to offer. Most galleries represent a dozen or more artists. Once a dealer has a better idea of what you respond to, he’ll have a better idea of what to pull out to show you.
In Dallas, your first purchase could cost you less than your monthly electric bill or as much as your entire house. Heck, even a single artist’s work can vary as much. Most collectors and dealers recommend you start small: it helps allay buyer’s remorse. You can get a quality artwork, such as a drawing or a ceramic, by an emerging artist for as little as $250. "Most people start out thinking they want a painting on canvas," Dunn says. "But it’s difficult to find a really good one, and they cost more. The various kinds of prints are a great way to go for a new or seasoned collector."
"The one thing that intimidates people is price," Dunn adds. "They feel humiliated when they have to ask for it or think, ’Maybe if I ask a question it means I want to buy something.’" To battle the intimidation factor, most galleries leave a copy of the price list near the entrance.
Galleries, which typically split the sale of pieces with the artists 50-50, usually accept payment installments, and most will let you take a work home and live with it for a bit. "In the bigger gallery space, often a work doesn’t look as large as it may be," Whitenack says. "And when you get it home, it’s so much more wonderful." Most dealers will come to your house to suss out your style and needs, almost like a personal curator.
The only way you’ll get "bumped" by a dealer on a purchase is if a museum—the most preferred home for an artwork—or a longtime responsible collector has dibs on it. And if you buy a piece, it’s possible that the dealer or a museum will ask to borrow it for a later exhibition—high praise for your taste.
"One of the best ways to approach a first purchase is to tell the dealer your price range and let them show you what they have for that," Whitenack says.
But it’s not all about the money. "Please don’t think of it as investment [for financial return]," Dunn says. "It’s investment in the quality of your life, and the encouragement of a young artist and the art community. If you spend $1,200 on a piece when the artist is 24 years old, and if he’s selling real estate by the time he’s 30, does it really matter? As long as the artist is alive, anything could happen to him or the value of his art. Why speculate?"
The main argument for buying works by local artists is about convenience and focus. It’s easier to track an artist’s development and progress when you don’t have to hop on a plane to do so. There’s the prospect of the aforementioned artist talks. There’s an intrinsic connection with regional talent, especially if you’re from that region. And there’s always the chance that you’ll run into the artist at the next opening. Friendships can develop between artist and art collector.
Take George Morton and Vernon Fisher, for instance. A dozen years ago, Morton was visiting the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where he took in a mid-career retrospective of Vernon’s work. "I liked that he was from Texas. His work was smart and funny," Morton says.
Morton watched a filmed interview with Fisher in a screening room at the museum, his first real opportunity to stop and listen to what an artist had to say about making art. A short while later, Morton bought a piece that was in that museum show, and he’s watched Fisher’s profile grow bigger ever since. The two have even become friends. They recently had dinner together.
By the time you’ve purchased an artwork, you’ve probably figured out that defining art as "good" or "bad" is a treacherous game. The reaction you’ve developed when viewing art zeroes in on ideas that are crucial to you: is the work culturally or historically relevant, a leading edge in a movement, a prime example of a genre, or simply something that you connect with in an unexpected way?
"No critic has a right to say your clown painting is bad or that it doesn’t compare to a Matthew Barney," Reoch says, referring to an art-world favorite. The subjectivity of art is your inalienable right—it gives you license to like and dislike whatever you wish.
"You shouldn’t have to explain it," Whitenack says. "Just say what’s true for you: it keeps me mentally stimulated, it’s got an emotional hook for me, a memory hook. It’s personal."
YOUR NEW EYE FOR ART
When developing an eye for art, here are some aspects of the work to consider:
CONTEXT: Was the artist’s motive for creating the work genuine, and does the work fall into any movement? If so, was the artist a leader of the movement or simply inspired by it?
RELEVANCE: Was the artist creating a work that illuminates the time and place—personal, political, environmental—in which it was made?
AUTHENTICITY: What do you know about the artist and how he or she went about creating the work? Was it part of a body of work, or a one-off? Is the piece a prime example of the artist’s work?
Here are two similar works: one by a late leading abstract expressionist, one by an emerging artist.
Robert Motherwell (1915-1991)
Untitled (Black Gesture) 1982
Acrylic on rag board
28 7/8 x 23 inches
Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth
Robert Motherwell was a leading figure in mid-century abstract expressionism, along with Jackson Pollack and Willam deKooning. Known primarily for his large oil-on-canvas paintings (check out Elegy to the Spanish Republic 108 at the DMA), he created many sought-after works on paper throughout his career. This piece displays Motherwell’s usual strong movement, balance, and presence, and subtly alludes to a figure. A work very much like this one recently sold at auction for more than $20,000.
Varnish and graphite on paper
35 x 23 inches
Jody Lee, a graduate of SMU, is an emerging talent shown by Barry Whistler Gallery. She’s clearly influenced by the stark imagery of Robert Motherwell; the influence of earlier artists is almost unavoidable in contemporary artwork—it’s up to you to decide if you think the work seems relevant, authentic, or desirable. Lee’s work also has movement, although heavier and more deliberate than the Motherwell—with notable sexual overtones—and boasts plenty of presence. As of press time, the price of this work is estimated at $1,000.
Though most of the spaces have web sites with artist links, net surfing isn’t the best means of art appreciation. Visit in person.
500X Gallery. Alternative space for emerging artists and young group shows. 500 Exposition Ave. 214-828-1111. www.500x.org.
Angstrom. Progressive international and regional art. 3609 Parry Ave. 214-823-6456. www.angstromgallery.com.
Barry Whistler Gallery. Approachable mix of established regional artists. 2909 Canton St., Ste. B. 214-939-0242. www.barrywhistlergallery.com.
Conduit Gallery. Established and emerging Texas artists. 1626 Hi Line Dr., Ste. C. 214-939-0064. www.conduitgallery.com.
The Contemporary. Spotlights smart art by emerging Texas artists. 2801 Swiss Ave. 214-821-2522. www.thecontemporary.net.
Dunn and Brown Contemporary. Eclectic mix of established artists. 5020 Tracy St. 214-521-4322. www.dunnandbrown.com.
Gray Matters Gallery. Friendly, offbeat space specializing in edgy regional artists. 113 N. Haskell Ave. 214-824-7108. www.graymattersgallery.com.
McKinney Avenue Contemporary (MAC). Dallas’ prime alternative space for well-organized local and traveling shows. 3120 McKinney Ave. 214-953-1622. www.the-mac.org.
Mulcahy Modern. Solid stable of emerging Texas artists. 408 W. Eighth St., Ste. 101. 214-948-9595.
Photographs Do Not Bend. Friendly and professional photograph gallery with wide range of artists. 3115 Routh St. 214-969-1852. www.photographsdonotbend.com.
Valley House Gallery & Sculpture Garden. Early American and European art and contemporary works in a lovely, relaxed setting. 6616 Spring Valley Rd. 972-239-2441. www.valleyhouse.com.