Collecting ¿ Where to put it all?

July 15, 2011|Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

Special to The Herald-Mail


Almost everyone collects something. As a famous book collector once said: "After love, book collecting is the most exhilarating sport of all."

Few of us collect books, but many enjoy the exhilaration of finding other things that we collect: snow globes, old posters of a favorite music group, unusual refrigerator magnets, baseball caps. They may be souvenirs of trips, finds at flea markets, bargains at an antique store. Sometimes the only problem is where to put them.

When I taught art history at the University of Pennsylvania, we always had a lecture and discussion session on art collectors — people like J. P. Morgan, whose beautiful drawings, gems and books are at the Morgan Library in New York; Andrew Mellon, who bequeathed our nation his entire art collection as well as funds to build the National Gallery of Art; and Bertha Palmer (Mrs. Potter Palmer) of Chicago, who donated most of her collection of Impressionist paintings (including those by Mary Cassatt and Pierre-Auguste Renoir) to the Art Institute of Chicago.

In discussion sessions, our students at Penn revealed that they, too, were collectors — not of Impressionist or Old Master paintings, but of tin lunch boxes, bottle caps, stamps, Beanie Babies, ticket stubs, kaleidoscopes, swords, Russian nesting dolls, lighters and music boxes. Some of these went on display shelves, others in closets.

But if you like to look at pictures, and you have walls with empty spaces you might consider collecting paintings or drawings — not works by Renaissance masters or artists in New York galleries, but by regional artists, right here.

What is the best process to start?

First, don't be intimated by collecting fine art. You don't have to be a millionaire. You don't have to be an art historian. You don't have to have "exquisite" taste.

Second, do a lot of looking to decide what you like. Opportunities for looking abound in Hagerstown: the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts (where works not owned by the museum are often for sale), the Mansion House Art Center in City Park (where artists exhibit works for sale), the Washington County Arts Council, galleries in Hagerstown such as the Just Lookin' Gallery, the Contemporary School for the Arts, and others; and galleries in Smithsburg, Williamsport and Shepherdstown, W.Va.

Museums and galleries are happy to have you look. Museums expect you to stroll around, looking and talking with someone who came with you about what you're seeing. Sometimes there are works on exhibition that can be purchased.

At the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, for example, a sales gallery of the work of R. Benjamin Jones is included in the exhibition through Sunday, Sept. 18. Many works in the Cumberland Valley Artists Association exhibition at the museum through Sunday, Sept. 4, can be bought as well. Other opportunities to purchase at the museum arise from time to time.

Galleries (where works are always for sale) will be happy to have you take your time looking at art. Tell them you're training your eye.

Third, take note of what you keep coming back to look at. Perhaps it's a landscape, or a farm scene or a seascape. You might be attracted to pictures of people, or flowers or animals. Or you might fall in love with work by one particular artist.

Fourth, buy a work, make a record of it (perhaps on an index card or in a journal), and hang the art on a wall where you can enjoy it each day. You have started your collection.

Fine artists abound in Maryland. Check Maryland State Arts Council on the Internet for other counties to visit and look.

Lastly, don't buy art to sell it as an investment. Just enjoy it and broaden your world.

Elizabeth Johns, Ph.D., of Hagerstown, is professor emerita of art history from the University of Pennsylvania.

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