Center on Contemporary Art
65 Cedar St, 728-1980.
Through Oct 28.
I BOUGHT MY first painting last summer, at Box Populi, an auction at the now-defunct ArtSpace. The painting is by Sean Vale, a friend of mine, and consists of six modules, mostly white with numbers and parts of numbers floating through it, variously visible. I hung it over the stereo in my living room, so that when I flop onto the couch after work, it's the first thing I see. If I'm reading and I look up to think about some knotty idea--there it is. I've looked right at it, and right through it. Looking at it has made bad days better--sometimes because of the stripped-down aesthetic that makes it a receptacle for whatever I project there, sometimes because it makes me think of my good friend. Over the past year, I've developed a relationship with the painting, and part of that relationship is the fact of its permanence. It's not going anywhere; I own it.
Since that first purchase, I've bought a few more paintings, a couple of drawings, a photograph. Obviously, I'm small potatoes as far as collecting is concerned. I'm the gleam in a potato seed's eye. But the fact of my relationship with the work I own is something that all collectors share, to different degrees.
Linda Farris knows this quite well. News of Farris' Contemporary ArtProject (CAP), a new model for art collecting, has been buzzing around Seattle for the past few months, and the first fruit of the project is currently being shown in an exhibition at CoCA called Emotional Rescue. The project works something like an investing group, something like a football pool: Members pony up $15,000 a year for three years, and Farris uses this money to buy art. The art cycles through members' homes every six months or so, and eventually the collection will either be donated to a museum or administered by a foundation that will loan it out to museums. The tax benefit of the donation--based on the value of the works at the time of the donation--will be divided among the members.
It's not a democratic organization; more like a gentle dictatorship. Farris herself chooses and buys the work, and the kind of collection she's building is quite specific: current work, from the '90s through now, mostly (but not exclusively) by women, which forcefully takes on ideas of sexuality and identity. We're talking about the hottest work in New York right now: Lisa Yuskavage's improbably busty blondes, Justine Kurland's idyllic girls-only tribes, Deborah Mesa-Pelly's eloquent dream worlds, Ghada Amer's graphic, sometimes shocking, sexual images embroidered onto canvas. Much of the work is emotionally confrontational, some of it is difficult to look at, and none of it has been shown in Seattle before. The members I spoke to, however, didn't seemed bothered by Farris buying work on their behalf; rather, they all seemed happy to let her lead them where none had ventured before. "There's a vocabulary coming out of this work by artists only eight or 10 years out of university," said Koryn Rolstad, a CAP member who has been collecting art since she was 14. "Being a collector requires lifelong research--there's no end. Linda has a very strong view and understanding of this art, and I'm buying an education in it. It's brilliant."
The idea for this project has been brewing since Farris went to Europe in 1996 and '97, after her own gallery closed. "I wanted to curate a collection," she said. "I'd seen this work, and I love this work, and that was the way I wanted to be involved with it, was buying it. I started with my own collection, but I'm not wealthy enough to do that continuously." The obvious next step was to buy it for others. She flirted with the idea of setting up a foundation, the way software giant Peter Norton has, buying art and then giving it away. But a nonprofit foundation seemed somehow wrong to Farris: "It's a bunch of wealthy people buying art and then donating it," she said, "and it seems to [be] self-serving to have it be a nonprofit, competitive with other nonprofits."
And so the blueprint for CAP evolved. There are currently 13 members, both single and couples (who have a kind of joint membership). It took Farris four or five months to rally enough people to make the project possible. She talked to (she says) hundreds of people, calling on friends, former clients, young entrepreneurs, and some established collectors as well. The reasons for not joining, she said, were various--but I found that they really boiled down to one. "If I was going to spend that kind of money, I'd want to do it myself," said Jodi Green, whom Farris asked to join CAP, but who declined. "I love Linda's personal collection, and I was intrigued by the project," Green said, "but I don't know if that's the direction I would take."
This sentiment was echoed by Bill and Ruth True, who are among Seattle's serious art collectors. "We like to do it ourselves," Ruth told me when I asked her why they didn't sign on with Farris. The Trues have an amazing collection that is built, for the most part, around the idea of portraiture and self-portraiture, and their evident delight in the works they live with--from a Gary Hill installation in the living room to Nicholas Nixon's The Brown Sisters series above the dining room table--made me wonder why anyone would buy art and then give it away.
According to Farris, this hasn't been an issue for her group, although many of the members I talked to spoke of growing so attached to the works in their homes that it was difficult to give them up. In general, though, this kind of collecting provides an opportunity for members to develop a feeling for a new kind of work. "They liked the challenge of it," she told me. "The challenge of living with work that you wouldn't normally pick for yourself. Not everybody wants that in their lives. A lot of people would only want to live with something they picked out and love. What these [CAP members] figured is, they're surrounded by things they love; on one wall they'd get something that was pretty extraordinary that they would not have normally bought for themselves. You have a different relationship with something, a lot more tolerance for something, if you know it's not staying forever."
And then there is the issue of access to the work. Bill True chases down the work he's interested in himself, which you can do if your collection is established and you know the dealers. But some of Farris' artists' shows sell out before they open, and there are waiting lists for future work. Farris has developed relationships with many of these dealers and with some of the artists themselves, which may help CAP members in the future if they decide to acquire similar works.
This is where art collecting begins to seem like a strange beast indeed: people lining up to spend enormous amounts on work that isn't created yet. When you get into the circles of people for whom money isn't an issue, the whole process seems quite crazy. Dollar amounts become relative. You find that there are collectors who won't buy art under a certain amount, because it means the artist hasn't arrived yet.
Certainly this isn't true for all collectors. I met Ben and Aileen Krohn, who not only buy art through dealers but also go to alternative spaces, CoCA auctions, and right to artists' studios in search of work they like. And what they like determines the collection; it's not seen as speculative, or specifically as an investment. They've built quite a nice collection of work from mostly local artists, from the better known (Mark Takamichi Miller, Blake Haygood, the Los Angeles artist Michelle Fierro) to artists involved in Seattle's alternative scene (Mandy Greer, Stefan Knorr) to Brian Smith, an artist they recently discovered at the Cornish BFA show. The Krohns came to art about six years ago through the work they would find at garage sales. Their growing interest led them to form relationships with dealers, and both Billy Howard and James Harris (who arguably show the most cutting-edge work in Seattle) speak with admiration about how the Krohns have developed a deep appreciation for some quite difficult work.
The Trues have even more difficult work in their home. They don't shy away from video installation, for example, or work that is more conceptual than aesthetic. Their five children inhabit a home that contains an Alfredo Jaar installation showing images of two Rwandan boys watching an execution, and Sam Taylor Wood's Hysteria, a short video of a woman alternately laughing and crying hysterically. (This, I think, would be a wonderful way to grow up, with a John Chamberlain couch to sleep on and a Dan Flavin neon work as a night-light.)
Farris' project brings to light an interesting lacuna in the culture of Seattle's visual arts. The kind of art star that is featured in the CAP collection doesn't exist here--why? In the recent Art News list of the 200 top collectors in the country, there were seven entries from the Seattle area (and this, strangely enough, did not include Virginia and Bagley Wright, the grand high Poo-Bahs of local collecting). There is a general perception that Seattle is a town that loves art; Farris says so herself. So why is it that so few of our contemporary artists--not counting those who work in glass--are nationally known? Why is there a disjoint between the presence of all our top collectors (the Wrights, the Hedreens, the Shirleys) and other vigorous collectors (the Trues, the Krohns, Peter Lewis, Zandy and Rebecca Stewart) and the fact that some galleries close and others barely stay afloat? Why is there another general perception, this time among my artist friends, that people in Seattle don't buy art?
I think what lies in the disjoint is this: Many of the great collectors don't buy art here. Certainly Farris has been the target of some grumbling about raising all that money for art, and then spending it on the other coast. Part of the fun, it seems, of collecting is going to New York and participating in the feeding frenzy there. This was one reason that Richard Heinz closed his Fifth Avenue gallery in 1983 and became a private dealer. "People want to be wined and dined and have their ego gratified," he said. In the late '70s Heinz's gallery was showing work that no other gallery at the time was showing--Ed Ruscha, Michael Heizer, Joan Mitchell--but the art-buying public wasn't supporting it. "Maybe only five collectors were interested in the things we were doing," Heinz said.
James Harris compares Seattle now to San Francisco 15 years ago. In the early '80s, he says, San Francisco art collecting was focused on local movements such as the Bay Area figurative artists, until the museums started more rigorously showing cutting-edge shows, which created a collector base for contemporary art. This is something sorely missing here--the opportunity for collectors and potential collectors to educate their eyes in terms of work that's difficult and unusual. The Seattle Art Museum certainly doesn't show it, and this makes it hard for galleries to carry it. And without people willing to buy work that's of the moment, even by artists in New York and Los Angeles, local artists don't stand a chance.
But Harris and others think that Seattle could develop into a serious art town. There's a lot of money here, but it will take time for it to trickle down into the art community. Many people who earn a lot of money quickly take care of other things first: They buy a home, a car, another home, and then they start thinking about art. Of course, there are people who want to buy art to decorate their new homes, but these collections--acquired all at once without developing any kind of connoisseurship, rather than slowly and thoughtfully--tend to be more decorative, less cutting-edge.
This may be the most meaningful legacy of the CAP collection--that it brought such work to Seattle at all. The benefits are manifold: The public sees it, the artists see it, and the work that the world is swooning over becomes part of the cultural vocabulary of the city. And now the big question is, which lucky institution will get the collection? According to Farris, there's a chance that none of our local museums will want it, in which case she'll start looking outside the Northwest. To which I say to the Seattle Art Museum, the Henry, the Tacoma Art Museum: For God's sake, if it's offered to you, take it.