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The Art of Art Collecting

The Art of Art Collecting

Christy Tennant Krispin's show "Close to Home" aimed to take the elitism out of arts patronage.

Christy Tennant Krispin wears many hats as an actress, nonprofit administrator, journalist, arts advocate, leadership consultant—and, full disclosure, the director of engagement for This Is Our City. But in the past few years, she's also put on another hat: that of art collector.

Last month, in the heart of the White Center area of Seattle, the paintings that normally hang in the small house Christy shares with her husband, Karl, appeared on the walls of a local coffee shop and gallery. Calling the show "Close to Home," Christy shared the art she loves and her vision of patronage as something people of modest means can do to enhance their communities—and their own lives and homes.

The site of the month-long exhibition was Dubsea Coffee, whose name is a riff on the popular nickname of the area (from its initials WC). Art openings there are nothing new—the shop's tagline is "Where good neighbors and thoughtful art live side by side." Shop owner Sibelle Nguyen has featured a monthly rotation of local artists for several years, dispensing with the usual commission that galleries take from the price of works that sell, and keeping the shop open past its afternoon closing time for receptions at the beginning of each exhibit. There has been an implicit belief, in other words, that art, hospitality, and neighborliness belong together.

Still, White Center itself—an old streetcar suburb of Seattle now known for its diverse immigrant population and for being a little rough around the edges—seems an unlikely location to be talking about arts patronage. The term "art collector" conjures visions of well-heeled buyers perusing the tony galleries of Manhattan or Los Angeles, guided through the mysteries of contemporary art by equally sophisticated curators. Similarly, we expect "private collections" to appear in mansions whose expansive white walls and perfect lighting mimic the aesthetics of the museums where much of the art will eventually appear.

White Center, on the other hand, is neither centrally located (even in Seattle) nor filled with large houses. And even at Dubsea Coffee, the art hangs on a few large walls, but mostly fits into small spaces between windows and over tables—integrated into a relaxed scene that includes a prominent message-board about local events. The art shares space with the other activities at Dubsea, reminding visitors that artists (and hence art) exist in the middle of every community, and the vast majority of paintings and prints end up on the walls of ordinary houses in cities far from centers of contemporary art culture.

Sensing that they shared a vision, Christy, a Dubsea regular, proposed to Nguyen that they take the "living side by side" concept more literally, with a public show of the art that adorns the walls of her house nearby. Christy would give a short gallery talk about the project and her thoughts on collecting, and provide a full-color "gallery guide" outlining the history of each work in the show—how each came to have a place in the Krispins' home. Though none of the works would be for sale, Christy would include contact information for the artists in a small booklet she produced and online at her website. All in all, the aim would be to show that collecting art need not be about prestige and high price tags. Instead, it can and should be about the ordinary spaces where we live our lives and the relationships we nurture there.

The Krispin Collection

Opening night, the small crowd consisted of Dubsea regulars and Christy's friends who had come to hear her talk about the work they had seen at her house. Christy began by telling the story of how she acquired her first piece of art: a canvas by an anonymous artist, tossed onto a pile of trash in Brooklyn. After checking to make sure local dogs hadn't "anointed" the unexpected offering, Krispin took it back to her sparse apartment in East Harlem and hung it on the wall. Later, that painting became a central part of what made a few hundred square feet of space a home, and she began to wonder about the artist. More than that, she lamented that the unknown painter would never know how much that work had come to mean to her. Ironically, that total lack of relationship with an artist helped define how she now thinks about patronage: as a process of connecting more than collecting.

Christy outlined how she came to know more and more artists personally (especially through working with the International Arts Movement), and the various ways in which she acquired the paintings and other works that fill Karl's and her home. In addition to that first piece of "found art," some have been gifts from friends or inherited from relatives, others came through benefit art auctions to which she contributed $50 or $75, and several were purchased from artists in cities she was visiting. Today the Krispins are in the process of buying one large painting via a long-term, almost incremental installment plan. In most cases, though, if she didn't already have a relationship with the artist whose work she loved, the piece became the impetus to begin one.

Christy stressed that the primary benefit of starting an art collection—for both artist and buyer—is the ensuing friendship between artists and those who value their work. Artists, like the rest of us, want to be woven into a broader community (beyond other artists), and art collecting is as much about friendship as it is an economic transaction, not limited to (sometimes) arranging creative financing for paintings or other works. In a culture that stresses the commodity value of nearly everything, connecting with artists as human beings first and foremost is, itself, a refreshing and countercultural act—one that artists deeply appreciate.

Living with art

In the illustrated catalogue of the Close to Home show, each image carries a description of how the work came to the Krispins' home, and how it continues to memorialize various moments and seasons. Indeed, as Christy gave a tour of the pieces in her house before they left for Dubsea, the story of each work was woven together into Christy's own story, from growing up in Virginia to the dozen years she spent in New York to the latest chapter in Seattle. Each artist's story is linked with the Krispins in the ordinary and concrete spaces of living room, home office, and entry hall, and a painter's "self-expression" actually helps express who the residents are, too.

Contextualized like this, one of the most individualistic forms of culture—art-making—can also suggest the way that our "individual" human identity is always also a social one. Put another way, the Krispin home shows that a house filled with even small pieces of art speaks not only about what we like (or about what specific artists like to make), but about who we are as people made for connection and community, as well as for beauty. As Christy puts it, that social identity is every bit as important for people of modest means as it is for the wealthy.

As least one Seattle resident, Enrique Garcia, found a new way to experience art, and community, at "Close to Home." Along with introducing Garcia to local artists and their bodies of work, the show also helped him understand the art more deeply. "I found it made the art appreciation a more shared experience. I am used to internalizing art in quiet settings, and mostly as an individual," says Garcia. "At Christy's show, the internalizing was a shared experience, as thoughts echoed back and forth between myself and other attendees, in some cases complete strangers. My understanding of the art seemed more complete."

Of course, we might also note that Enrique's understanding of his fellow attendees was more complete after the show, too—one more piece of evidence that whether experienced in public coffee shops or private living rooms, art and art collecting can be a way to love our neighbors.

Mark Sprinkle is an artist and writer based in Richmond, Virginia. He has written for This Is Our City about Richmond-based nonprofit Blue Sky Fund. To see all the artworks in the show and read Christy's essays on each of them, click here for the exhibition catalogue.

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