ART: Black and Collecting, Part I

All photos by frank talk.

This post is the first in a two-part series of interviews with some of the District’s flyest Black art collectors and curators A special thanks are in order to frank talk, Fred Joiner and Thomas Sayers Ellis, without whom this series of creative conversations would not be possible. It is my hope that these interviews will illuminate for CS readers some of the forces of the DMV arts scene, people of color in particular, who deserve major props. Let’s spark a dialogue about our place, #brownfolksimeanyou, in the arts. It’s time we really engage and represent, ya’ll. Time to make ’em envy.

It began like this: My good friend, Thomas Sayers Ellis, a genius, lover of go-go, photographer and writer, invited me to the book launch for his latest poetry collection, Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems, at the home of Darryl Atwell. It turns out Darryl is an anesthesiologist, a hip-hop head, and an art collector. Besides that, he’s an amazingly generous man who opened up his home to me and shared a little bit about his group CAS51, Obama’s presidential collection and Kanye’s influence on collectors (or not?).

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m a scientist by trade, but that doesn’t really define who I am.

Tell me about CAS51 and what your role is.

When I first came to DC, I was going to a lot of exhibits and I didn’t see a lot of my peers really out. I consistently saw the same one or two persons and it was… I wouldn’t use the word lonely. Everyone says they like art, and they like to go to galleries, but you really don’t see ‘em out on a consistent basis. So, I just thought it’d be a good idea to get collectors together who were younger. There’s a very well-established [collector’s] group in DC already, and I thought it’d be good to get young people in the conversation. So, myself and four other persons started this group in the District called CAS51 about a year ago.

What’s the purpose of CAS51?

The purpose is to get persons who have similar feelings about art, and who are serious about collecting art, together. The purpose of a collector’s group is ultimately to collect art. We are still trying to figure out our common goals. If it were up to me, I’d like to purchase art as a group. That way you can defer some of the costs of collecting art and the group could own the art. But our other goal is to bring more persons, young persons, into the art scene, whether it be going to exhibitions, galleries, auctions, etc. to get more information so they know the importance of art in our community and so they know it’s a valuable asset. Not just a monetary asset, but also to the community. We also want to expand the dialogue about collecting.

Do you think other collectors of color are out there? Is there not also an economic barrier preventing people with an interest from collecting?

I don’t think economics is the main thing. DC is supposed to be a very affluent city, not just in the Black community. I think it has to do with [lack of] information and a little bit of education. I don’t think that DC is quite up to areas like New York in terms of appreciation for the arts on that level where people are really, really excited about it. I don’t think that money is the great limiting step. I think that’s one factor, but it’s more [about] getting people more interested and eager to participate in the arts period.

What makes you go from buying your first piece of art to collecting to calling yourself a collector, then feeling so strongly that you want to share it. What makes you want to share it? Why not just collect art, put it on your walls and show it off?

The [Thomas Sayers Ellis book launch] was the first event I had in my house. I’m gregarious, I know my share of people, but I’m not really a showy person. So I’d be less apt to have people come over to my house just to see my art collection. I think that’s a bit narcissistic. When you talk about art, that’s one portion of it I haven’t quite gotten a grasp of that a lot of people of color don’t get: you have to donate your art at some point because that’s the way many institutions get art and therefore, the artists become known. For me, right now I’m just getting to buy these pieces. It’s hard for me (and I think hard for other people) to separate from ‘em. You get attached. For me to just give [my art] to a museum [is difficult]. You saved your money, you paid down on it and now it’s yours. To then just give it away I think takes a lot. For me, the progression from just buying pieces to really calling myself a collector happened pretty rapidly. I was kind of reticent about saying ‘hey I’m a collector’ and I still feel funny saying that, but I started out just reading a lot of books and I bought a piece and now I’m just gonna continue on. Everyday I’m looking on the Internet, hearing about pieces…

What’s the first piece you bought?

Actually, you know the very first pieces I bought were in Ohio. A friend of mine’s father had muscular dystrophy and he started painting as therapy to help his coordination. He’s right-handed and he was painting with his left hand. I bought this painting of his of John Carlos and Tommy Smith in the Olympics with their fists in the air. I still have it upstairs and I still love it. He’s never gonna be famous as an artist or anything, but I just thought the story was so great. I was still very much learning [about collecting art].

What’s the most recent piece you bought?

Well, I have pieces out there that I’m paying on. People don’t understand that you can put art on ‘layaway.’ No one goes out and just plops $5,000 on a piece of art. You put down say $1,000 and you just pay it off in installments. There’s no interest. People don’t charge you interest to do that, so it’s a way to get art. The most recent piece was the Shinique Smith piece over there. The other two pieces are by Xaviera Simmons and Radcliffe Bailey and Titus Kaphar who all are very young, African-American artists.

How would you describe your aesthetic? What attracts you to a piece of work?

I think it’s important to decide why you’re buying art. If you’re just buying it for decoration and you just like it, you should buy whatever touches your fancy. But, I think if you’re spending a significant amount of money and that’s individualized (you can determine what’s significant to you), then you should be looking at art with a more serious eye and consider the long-term ramifications of your purchases. So for myself, I try to get artists who have a ‘pedigree’ at this point. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t buy a piece of art from an unknown artist, but I like artists that have studied their craft. More often than not, they probably have a degree in art and I think artists like that are more likely to have longevity in the field. They’re gonna stick to it meaning it’s not something that they are doing whimsically because they’ve invested their time into studying it. I don’t really have a style. I like to try to get a lot of abstract stuff now because I think it’s a little under-appreciated as opposed to figuratives. I think traditionally our community has always been drawn to figurative work and if you go to a lot of art fairs, you kind of see that, you know, I don’t want to call it stereotypical, but in a way it is. You see the man playing the jazz trumpet, or somebody walking, holding a basket on top of their head. There’s nothing wrong with those images, but you see them repeated over and over again. For me, I want someone thinking outside of that realm who is a little more creative.

Did you feel like a certain degree of pretension was necessary to be at the table with these other collectors?

When I was reading these [art] books, because African American artists still haven’t been documented as well, most of the books are still about masters. There’s not a lot of books about younger artists. So when you read about Tanner, Edmondson, Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden, and then you go to the Schomburg and you see it…it’s so overwhelming. These dudes were just giants. Or you see an Aaron Douglas piece, it’s ridiculous. So then when you see that and then you go see the image in the art fair with the dude holding up the baby, you just have to say, ‘That image is just nonsense.’ It almost happens automatically. You realize that there is a distinct difference between the level of craftsmanship and ability between those two persons. So it came from that notion. I was reading about the greatest artists in our history, so I guess that’s where those proverbial airs came from. And I fully admit it.

What brought you back out of your pretension?

I used to go to a lot of open mics. The same thing can be said about that; you hear a lot of bad poetry I think. But at one point I was like, even though it’s bad and kind of tilted, it’s still something they’re expressing. So it’s okay. You know, it really is. It’s a positive attempt to put something out there they want to share with people, and somehow it just clicked in my head that that’s okay.

OK. Three favorite pieces in your collection right now?

Elizabeth’s piece, “Nappy Roots,” the one with the woman with the afro. This whole issue with our relationships in our community and the perceptions of beauty, the issues with our hair, our skin color and all that stuff, it just bothers me so much. I don’t know how else to say it. That image of this person, this lady in this picture is so beautiful to me with the mask surrounding it. It really, really is one of my favorite pieces for sure. Then, if I had to choose another one, this piece by Glenn Ligon, it’s called “Invisible Man.” Glenn Ligon takes print words from either books or sayings and does these tremendously beautiful pieces with it. The one I have is a lithograph. The President added one of Glenn Ligon’s [pieces] when he was making his collection. He only actually has three African Americans in that collection, which I find interesting, and I’m sure someone suggested that Glenn Ligon to him ‘cause he’s kind of a controversial artist. Well, I don’t know. I don’t know the President that well. I really love that Ligon piece because of what the invisible man stands for. Third, these iron scorches by Willie Cole are very small representations of his work. But, they remind me of his larger pieces, which are just so spectacular that just knowing that I have those small ones makes them really significant. I really love his work that much. When we talk about being subjective, someone might say, ‘What’s so special about that? The dude just took an iron and burnt it on a piece of paper. Big deal’ But number one, did you think about doing that and how it could be artistic? And when you see the other images and how he makes them look like sunflowers or someone’s face, it’s just really amazing.

Your three favorite places to see art in DC?

I gotta plug International Visions Gallery, Tim Davis, because I think Tim is so open. His gallery is not a place you feel intimidated going into and he’ll talk to you very easily, very casually. I love the Portrait Gallery, specifically that space that connects the two buildings. It’s just so serene in there. I love the Portrait Gallery because they actually have a very large representation of artists of color on display all the time in their permanent collection. The third, I would have to say … [long pause] The Driskell Center [at the University of Maryland]. They don’t have a lot of exhibitions, but I do love their lecture series given by a professor, Jefferson Pinder. He’s an artist. I’ve been to several lectures there of like Sanford Biggers, Chakaia Booker, Kori Newkirk, it’s an excellent series to expose you to young artists.

Three artists to watch? In your collection or not…

Not in my collection: Theaster Gates I think is definitely an artist to watch. I’m really awe-struck by his work. He takes huge porcelain sinks that are relatively big, 30 by 40, and they just look phenomenal. He did a series of shoe shine stands that he built that are absolutely regal. Then he does abstract paintings with just board, pieces of wood, that are really, really beautiful. Who else? Rashid Johnson I like. I do have one small piece by him. He started off as a photographer and now he’s doing these black wax sculptures, which are phenomenal to me. Third artist? I’d say look out for [long pause again] I like Shinique Smith’s stuff. I have a piece of Shinique’s work. I actually have to of them.

I was just gonna give you a hard time for not shouting out the ladies.

Sorry. Definitely the ladies are tough. Xaviera Simmons is one that’s coming that I have in my collection. We even said Elizabeth Kat for the ladies. But, that’s a whole ‘nother topic. Irrespective of race, to the point that you have to have a National Women’s Museum here in DC because again, women, except when they’ve been exposed…Even in my collection, I have images of women with their clothes off…But, let it be known that there is gonna be a matching image of a man. There’s been a lot of controversy about women having to be exposed in their representation and how they’re displayed in art and I understand that. I don’t take that for granted or take it lightly.

Have you ever considered making collecting and consulting about art your career?

I have. My brother especially has been imploring me, ‘Dude, you need to do something with this! I’ll be your first client.’ Telling people how to buy art for decorating or collecting purposes. My job during the day affords me a certain lifestyle, which is good, I’ve never complained about it. But, on the other hand, I kind of got caught in the American trap. You buy this house, you gotta pay for it, so I have to balance my living style with doing something that would be less lucrative. I have thought about it on a professional level. If I could own an art gallery, ultimately that’s what I would like to do. But, it’s extremely difficult, especially in DC. You go to a show in New York, the show’s sold out before it opens. That’s the kind of excitement and dedication we need amongst collectors here in DC for art spaces to really work, particularly to have a fledgling art space. Someone like me who’s not really well known, you’d have to have that kind of excitement.

frank talk and I have been having the conversation about when you used to wait for an album, cassette or record to come out. Now, there is no excitement.

Oh yea! I remember waitin’ for that Mobb Deep to come out. I remember what that was like. Oh, it’s comin’ out on Monday or Tuesday. We’d go down to the CD store and buy it and there was excitement.

I just read an article on Philippa Hughes’ blog and she said one of the things that keeps her doing what she does is that she’s still excited about life. I love that you use the word ‘excitement’ because that’s it! That is what’s missing from DC, there’s not that same excitement here that there is in other cities.

Part of what I want to create with my group is to be as creative as possible when we have these events. That’s why I give Philippa a lot of credit that she has brought a new dialogue to the arts scene. She thinks about her events and brings an element that wouldn’t normally be added, so I really think that’s a good thing. To really get people out the house, it’s really gotta be unique instead of the same ole sippin’ on some wine or whatever the case may be.

[FRANK TALK] What effect, if any, do you feel like someone like–I don’t know if you frequent his blog or not–Kanye West can or does or will have on serious art collecting?

I don’t know about his collection. I don’t know how serious of a collector he is. I do think that–I haven’t read his blog, so I don’t know–but I do think that stars can have an effect, but they have to be serious about it. You can’t just say I got my wall painted by Murakami. Unlike Elliot Perry, who’s on the prowl, who’s pumpin’ these artists, who’s goin’ to visit their studios, who knows their work, what they’ve put out over the years. That’s what you need. To just have a star buy a few pieces here and there and call themselves a collector, I don’t know much that is really gonna influence people. I kind of feel funny about that, actually, because I look at a cat like Elliot and I know, you talk to any of these young artists and all of them know him. Why? Because he’s been to their studios. So, if Kanye’s doin’ that, if he’s goin’ to Theaster Gates’ studio, or he’s going to Wardell Milan’s studio and lookin’ at his work, then I’m givin’ him props. If he’s just buyin’ stuff because it’s hot, like he wants to get Murakami to make the next LV purse for him or somethin’, I gotta give him a whatever with that. But, I hope! It’d be nice if cats like that collect. That’s what I like about Elliot. He’s turned on a lot of the other NBA cats like Rashid Wallace. Darryl Walker actually turned Elliot on [to art collecting]. So you know, these cats who do have a huge disposable income to spend, they might get one less of something else… and buy a piece of art.

2011, this time. I’m gonna come and sit with you. Where’s CAS51 in your dream space?

In my dream space, number one what I would really hope is that we’ve established a series of events that people are aware of and know what CAS51 stands for in terms of promoting art collection and the appreciation of art. I would like us to have a say in the arts scene in the District. You know, people would look to our group as kind of a leader in knowing about what’s going on in the arts scene, who’s out there, where to go for art. I think that’s not too unreasonable, but maybe in a year to be a leader might be a little unreasonable? But, it’s my dream space! Again, I’d just like to say that for me, I never need to be out front. If no one ever knew who I was and it was just CAS51 out there doin’ stuff, I’d be completely fine. I really would just like to see artists and the whole art community just get bigged up. That’s what I wanna see. So like when Ellington calls and says, ‘Some cats came to your house and saw my work and they wanna come to the show tomorrow’–he’s in the Inter-Visions show–that’s really what I want. I want him to get his due. And if I can be part of that, then that’s what I’d like to do.

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Want to know more about Black art and artists? The David C. Driskell 2010 Symposium takes place in DC this September 15-16. The topic is “Performing Race in African American Visual Culture.” All symposium information can be found here.