Monday, February 3, 2014

Starting from Scratch - Building The Successful Folk Art Collection

When I started this blog, I jumped in with posts based on themes that occurred to me at the time. It wasn't exactly a strategic approach!  Now, some 22 posts later, I was thinking that perhaps it might be a good idea to go back to the basics.
I thought to devote this post to a closer look at some of the considerations involved in actually starting and expanding a folk art collection. (I'm assuming of course if you're reading this blog that you actually want to start a collection.)
First of all let's quickly table a definition of folk art so that we are all reasonably clear about what it is we're discussing. Here's a definition from the Chicago Art Institute as contained in a most impressive book titled: For Kith and Kin, The Folk Art Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (Published by The Institute and Yale University Press, 2012, Judith A. Barter and Monica Obniski).
"Usually  from the vernacular and rural traditions, folk art at its best implies work produced by those with a singular vision, often highly skilled craftsmen, perhaps unsophisticated by academic standards, but with a sense of composition, decoration and design that is superb."
Hooked Rug by Aurore Benoit c. 1965
Define Success
What is the definition of a successful folk art collection? Well, that depends on the objectives of the collector. If your objective is to search out and acquire a limited number of Canadian folk art items but of the highest quality, you might accomplish that objective with as little as half a dozen to ten pieces.  And, it might take you several years to find those items.
In my consulting business, especially with longer term projects, I make a habit of sitting down with a client to review our "success" every few months. I want to know that they feel that the work has been successful.  This keeps both of us on track and their is no misunderstanding, over time, about what constitutes progress and success.  As a collector, you should review your items and collection over time. Make sure that you are fulfilling the original objectives you set for yourself.
Making Choices
Folk art is created in a variety of mediums such as paintings, drawings, sculpture and textiles. Early on you might decide to focus on a particular medium like textiles or paintings.  Or, as most collectors do, you might decide to include all of those mediums in your search.  Collecting across the board, so to speak, expands the potential for possible discoveries but it also increases the frequency of the "finds" which can be difficult on your cheque book and on your available display space.
Setting parameters on your collection helps define and clarify your search.  With guidelines in place, you can confidently sift through and dismiss literally mountains of material because it all falls outside your area of collecting. And, believe me, there is an Everest like volume of material out there! There is something quite liberating about strolling through an antique store or a market and confidently rejecting everything therein. That's not to say, many of the objects are of inferior quality. They are. They simply don't meet your collecting criteria.
You may, as many collectors do, succumb to the temptation of adding more examples of a particular type of folk art to the collection, needle point samplers, for example.  As a result, you may arrive at a point where you have a "collection within the collection". There's nothing wrong with that as long as you realize the shift in direction. Or, you may decide that vintage samplers are going to be the heart and soul of your collection from there on in. That's fine too. Just make sure it's a conscious decision and not something that just happens.
Enduring long periods of time in between acquisitions is a difficult for a collector. Often that's the reason for an acquisition of a second or third or fourth item in a category. You can't find that carving from Quebec but you do find a terrific painting and you opt to buy that instead.
By John William Waterhouse c. 1900
I recall a story from a few years ago about a Canadian collector who focused on Pre-Raphaelite drawings.  (The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of British artists who objected to the art of their time,1848, and banded together in an effort to advance their type of painting which they felt was more sincere.) Not surprisingly, oil paintings from that same period were beyond this collectors' budget, hence the concentration on drawings which were somewhat less desirable and more affordable. He also knew, and this rule is so true, that a drawing by a great artist is most often still a great work.  It may lack colour, it may be small in size but it is still by the same hand, by the same artist. Some of his finds were truly spectacular. Over time, he put together one of the most impressive collections in the world and I am sure he thoroughly enjoyed doing so. The collection as a whole was unique. That's the beauty of "focused collecting". Because you are so targeted in your search, you can take it deeper and deeper and find objects, sometimes, that no one even knew existed; objects that had been forgotten, neglected, buried in the back of a store or a flea market. Now that's when collecting is at its spine-tingling best! When he was finished, this collector donated the bulk of his collection to the National Gallery of Canada who, I am sure, were more than happy to receive it. So, not only did he have the joy and the satisfaction of building his collection, now he knows that it will remain together in a safe place where the public, researchers and scholars can have access to it in perpetuity. And, his name will always be associated with it. That's a pretty nice way to wrap up a collecting career. I relate this story because it is a perfect example of a collector that was sharply focused and never wavered.* 
Detail from folk art painting. c. 1960
Let's briefly touch on budget. Like most collectors, I never identified a budget or specific amounts to spend on antiques and folk art. When I bought an affordable item, I simply found the required amount in our account to make the purchase. An alternative would have been to set aside a specific amount of money from each salary cheque and tag it for antiques and folk art purchases. So, with that arrangement in place, I could have bought items on a monthly basis or held off for several months and made a larger purchase.  Taking the time to understand what it is you want in your collection and the criteria that defines quality in those items brings some discipline and important background research to your collecting. Putting some time between purchases heightens the enjoyment of the acquisition when it does occur. It's easy to talk about budgeting but very difficult for some of us to put it into action. For the majority of collectors, all thoughts about budget, restraint and fiscal prudence can go out the window when they find is a unique item that would be perfect for the collection.
Physical Space
Display space is not a factor when you begin to collect but it can become an issue fairly quickly. Most collectors I know fall into two groups. One group is careful about the way they display their collection, always making sure that they don't overdo it. Their antiques and folk art items are given pride of place and displayed in a well thought out manner. The other group is not overly concerned about the display only about discovery and acquisition. I know many collectors who when they ran out of room in their homes simply started filling barns and sheds on their properties. I know other collectors who rent storage space for their collections.  I've read about American collectors who rent industrial warehouses just to display their collections of modern art. You may have a very small space but that does not mean you can't collect. Recognize the limitation and adjust your search accordingly. Often the best examples of folk art, of any antique for that matter, are the smallest ones! A collection of miniature portraits, for example, takes up very little space on a wall or in a showcase but will give you years of enjoyment searching them out.
Painted relief carving on wood panel. 1995.
As I noted in the introduction, with this blog post I wanted to return to basics in an effort to record what I think are important factors about collecting. I hope these observations and opinions have been helpful.
Hope you find something great this weekend!
*(Strictly speaking,Waterhouse was not a pre-Raphaelite artist, rather he painted in that style and did so many years afterwards. However, I thought the above drawing of a young woman was so exquisite, I wanted to use it herein.)

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