Thursday, October 31, 2013

Laying the Foundation, Thoughts for the New Collector of Canadian Folk Art

I recently received an email from an individual who is a relatively new collector of folk art. In the email he mentioned a few of the artists already represented in his collection and asked for my recommendations on how he should proceed in terms of new acquisitions.  He asked about where to find folk art, suggestions on affordable options for buying folk art and raised the question of buying contemporary versus traditional folk art.  While I replied to the collector with a fairly brief email message, I thought it might be useful to expand on my thoughts in this blog post. So, let me take a run at answering these important questions in more detail.
I guess the over arching concern I have about contemporary folk artists is that some of them are almost too commercialized. There can be almost a "production line" feel to their creations. That's not to say, a new collector shouldn't collect them but I would exercise caution in terms of how many contemporary pieces I have in the collection. The price of folk art from artists who are commercially successful will be higher than the works of an unknown artist and therefore more expensive.
Skating on the Mill Pond, S. B. Armstrong 1944. Found in an Ottawa antique store.
A few other questions come to my mind. If one defines a folk artist as "untrained" should there come a point in their career where they don't fit that definition any longer but are seen more as conventional artists?  Does their commercial success and repetition of popular works make them less of a folk artist? Maud Lewis and Joe Sleep, to name two folk artists, frequently created the same subject in their paintings. In fact, they used stencils to speed up the process. It certainly didn't hurt their popularity in doing so.
While in the main still affordable, many contemporary folk artists command prices of $500 and up for some of their works. In my budget, that's still a significant "spend" requiring fairly careful thought before pulling the trigger.
Contemporary folk carvings are fine but I would go slow because they are for the most part quite plentiful in supply and your collection can grow too quickly. It's fine to have one or possibly two carvings by the same contemporary carver but I would also look for traditional folk art pieces. Items with some age that are harder to find and of limited supply. In some cases they'll be unique items by unknown artists which is exciting. Not to be mercenary, but the latter works will have more value now and in the future. It's nice when you decide to remove an item from your collection and in the process make a profit on the transaction. 
Personally, I like to find artists that haven't been discovered beyond their immediate family and friends. And, surprisingly, there are many folk artists out there who fit that category.  I would estimate that I have discovered at least ten to fifteen folk artists over the years that were unknown in folk art circles.  Assuming you can buy their work from them, and I have discovered that isn't always the case, their work will be very reasonably priced. More importantly, by purchasing their work, you are giving them a vote of confidence and acknowledgement that their work is important to you personally.
The Blueberry Picker, Gerald Chamberlin c. 1965. Picked in west Quebec.

Define collecting boundaries. By that I mean, establish a personal set of standards for the kinds of folk art you're going to buy and collect. For example, I stop short of work that is too crude or rough in its execution. There is a point for me where naivety becomes just too primitive. I stay away from folk paintings unless they include people and or animals.
Set your sights on owning a painting by a folk artist that is higher up the food chain from where you're currently buying. For example, paintings by the great Nova Scotia folk artist Joe Norris  currently change hands in the $3,000 to $8,000 range.  They are not inexpensive but still within reach of most collectors.  
Cove Scene by Joe Norris, 1981. The owner was given my business card by his mother.
Begin by doing your due diligence. Research the artist, view his or her works as often as possible, become familiar with the market prices. What is the difference in the work between the lower end and the higher end of the price range?  Not to be crass, but you can compare prices on the basis of dollars per square inch of canvass. If a painting has a decorated frame, what impact does that have on price versus one without a decorated frame?
You can and will find folk art just about anywhere so make sure you widen your search.  Most antique dealers handle traditional folk art so that gives you another reason to attend shows and visit their shops.
Don't hesitate to let people know you are searching for folk art. Have a business card made up that says "folk art collector" on it with your phone number and email address.  One of the most amazing folk art purchases I made came directly from someone simply picking up my business card. Run a classified ad in your local newspaper. Traditional forms of communications and marketing still work well despite the apparent dominance of the Internet. Of course, always check the local auctions for folk art that slips into a general sale.

Small hooked rug in frame c. 1960. One of two found in the trash.

Last year I bought three wonderful, small hooked rugs in a local auction. They were inexpensive because they're simply aren't a lot of folk art collectors out there. And those that were there apparently didn't know what these rugs were or weren't prepared to part with the $200 that bought all of them.  Frequently a dealer who picks up a piece of folk art, even though they don't specialize in the category, will bring it along to a show in which they are participating. It usually follows that they will price it below market value.  A friend of mine bought a terrific piece of folk art at a "nostalgia" show a few weeks ago. A dealer in Coca Cola items had it in his booth!  Many dealers of other merchandise also don't know how to price a piece of folk art. I bought at super folk art painting at a flea market a few weeks back for $40. It's worth many times that amount.
Make a point of searching for folk art paintings.  Quite simply, you have more "wall" area than "floor" or "shelf" space and because art is displayed on a vertical plane it has a strong visual impact.  Above all, be patient. With preparation, you will find great pieces of folk art at affordable prices.  Continue to train your eye and educate yourself about Canadian folk art. You want to reach a point where you can assess the merits of a work based on your knowledge and experience.  Yes, it's fine to obtain a second opinion but sooner rather than later you want to operate on your own; confident in your abilities to assess the pieces you discover.  So, don't rush it. Presumably you have years to build your collection.  Purchasing a piece of folk art for your collection should be an exciting and rewarding experience. And it will be. 

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