Question & Answers: What does it mean to buy (and sell) art?

Question & Answers: What does it mean to buy (and sell) art?

Posted September 11th, 2019 by Russ White

As SooVAC opens their fourth Collect Call exhibit this weekend, we ask collectors and artists for their thoughts about buying and selling works of art

There's nothing quite like money, is there? It inspires greed, envy, shame, and resentment; it also enables charity, investment, success, and growth. It's made of pennies and paper and ones and zeros, tangible but fluid, and you can trade it for just about everything under the sun except true love and endless youth (though enough of it could get you close to both). 

Opening at SooVAC this Friday is an exhibition of what a select few have traded their money for: art. Adorning the walls of Collect Call 4 are private art collections, offering glimpses into how nearly two dozen collectors curate their own homes. The exhibition is a celebration of tastes and obsessions, featuring work ranging from emerging local artists to international heavyweights, traditional paintings to obscure crafts (previous Collect Call iterations have featured displays of helmets, embroidered maps, and antique rug-beaters, among other oddities). 

You get the sense that building an art collection is a very personal practice, and a very rewarding one at that, for both the patrons, the art, and the artists themselves. The show is a celebration of trading money for something even better, ranging from the wildly expensive down to the widely affordable. So I thought I'd put a simple question to some of the collectors in SooVAC's show:

What does it mean to buy a work of art?

I was curious how each collector makes their decisions, what draws them to purchase art, and what meaning they derive from the purchase and the purchasing... in effect, what makes them "Collectors."

The other side of that equation is the artist, the craftsperson, the maker. So I put a similar question to three local artists:

What does it mean to sell a work of art?

Their answers were personal, poetic, and vulnerable, actually finding great meaning and connection in the sale of a work. Transcendence in the transaction, you might say. Moral of the story: buy more art, make more art, and, as Brad Thomas notes below, always pay it forward.


Tom Arneson, Collector

What does it mean to buy a work of art?

"I like to be surrounded by things that I find beautiful and make an emotional connection with me. That has been a constant over the years, and I have consistently wanted to celebrate and promote local culture — which for me means Minnesota. But in some other ways the focus of my art purchasing has changed over time.

"Initially my interest was artisans — people who make functional, beautiful things. I bought pottery, household goods, and clothing I could use in daily life. I particularly enjoyed meeting the artisans as I traveled the state, and I bought partly with the intent of promoting purchase of their work. I created The North Country Artisan Directory and got a booth at the Minnesota State Fair to showcase the items and sell the directory.

"As my interests expanded to include visual art more generally, my initial focus was the history of art-making in the state. I dove into learning about Minnesota artists, galleries, groups, and schools – especially what was happening during the 1920s - 1960s. I pretty much purchased a piece by every artist I learned about as an example of their work and as a touchstone to their life. My hope was to get something that represents each artist at their best and really spoke to me in some way. But of course one can only purchase what is available, so occasionally I purchase what I consider a better piece by an artist and try to find a new home for something by that artist I already own. For artists I am particularly interested in who have major different styles or types of work, I acquire multiple pieces. Over time I developed a large collection by artists ranging from internationally known to those who are little remembered — even though they were quite good. Unfortunately, there are all too many in the latter category!

"As my collection of vintage art grew I became increasingly interested in contemporary Minnesota artists. The dynamic here is much different. You can get to know an artist and follow their work over time. I take particular pleasure in purchasing something I really like that marks a new direction or synthesis in an artist’s practice. I enjoy going to exhibitions, visiting studios, and occasionally buying things – and I hope it also provides support and encouragement to artists, galleries, and arts organizations. 

"I put more money into art than into living space, so I live in a relatively small condo! It is filled to overflowing. In recent years I have been offering things from my collection to local museums and donating money to museums to buy specific pieces of art or by certain artists. I have developed friendships with others through art collecting/celebrating/promoting interests, and I encourage others to follow this path. It is personally rewarding and good for the community and it is a possibility for many people. Great wealth is not required; passion and curiosity are the necessities!"

Justin Terlecki, Crosby, from the collection of Tom Arneson.


Mark Addicks & Tom​ Hoch, Collectors

What does it mean to buy a work of art?

“Buying art is, for us, choosing to have a life long relationship with an artist and a particular piece of work. This often happens impulsively, when we see a piece that pulls us in and has something about that encourages looking deeper and deeper at the piece. That tells us this particular expression from the artist will intrigue us and allow us to continue to explore its meaning over time. Great art has a way of leading you forward and growing with you as you discover something that you never noticed from the first viewing. Buying art is receiving a lifetime gift from the artist.

"Maybe one final thought that continually haunts me is how the artist feels about this process. Art is very personal and takes a lot of time, emotion, thought, etc. to produce, sometimes over weeks, months, and even, years, when an artist has worked slowly to develop a piece into its final form.  Given that, we have often wondered how the artist feels about this part of the equation. Does the artist ever want to go back and revisit the piece?”


Kathryn Hanna, Collector

What does it mean to buy a work of art?

“Growing up in a small town in Southern Minnesota, I didn’t have much exposure to art. On the walls of my parents’ home were a couple of prints of European city scenes and a painting on black velvet from Latin America. In college I had artist friends (I was in the sciences) who sparked my interest in some of their work. I became good friends with Jerry Ott (currently living in Duluth) who is well known for his photorealism-style paintings. My former husband and I had a darkroom, and we would develop and print negatives of Jerry’s photo sessions with his models. He was a pioneer in using the air brush technique to make exquisite paintings. I admired his creativity and talent, which led me to begin collecting Jerry’s work and that of his friends.  

"I like having a variety of interesting, witty, colorful artwork on my walls. I once moved into a small apartment and neglected to immediately hang my art collection. After a couple of weeks I couldn’t stand the empty walls and quickly hung many pieces. I really enjoy being surrounded by and looking at art in all its forms. 

"I have lived in Minnesota my entire life and have found there are many talented artists in our midst. I enjoy meeting artists and learning about their perspective and thought process in producing a work of art. As residents of Minnesota we’re lucky to have many opportunities to meet artist at events such as the St. Paul Art Crawl, St. Croix Pottery Tour, Art-A-Whirl, gallery openings, Art Along the Lake, etc. It was never my intention to create a 'collection.' I would just acquire what I liked and my walls and table tops started to fill up. 

"In the bigger picture (no pun intended) I believe it is important to support the arts, for it’s the arts that are a key aspect that separate us from other species. Supporting artists adds to the vitality of our local communities and to our quality of life."

Ningiukulu Teevee, Swimming Walrus, from the collection of Kathryn Hanna.


Terrence Payne, Artist

What does it mean to sell a work of art?

“I think about this often while I am creating new work, but basically it boils down to putting out the fires of my own anxieties that build up over the time it takes to conceptualize and create art in preparation for an exhibition. My main goal as I begin any new group of work is to challenge myself to push the work in new directions and try to leave my comfort zone, which is not always easy to do but is alway more fun for me than rehashing old ideas and serving up more of the same. I have a lot of fun and try to maintain an anything goes attitude as I move towards the deadline of an upcoming exhibit, making art for myself and the joy it brings me. Unfortunately, a switch gets flipped a shortly before my deadline draws near and my studio gets crowded with doubt. Everything I have created to that point becomes an uncomfortable stranger to me. I have gotten better at trusting my instincts over the years, but it is still hard to overcome the feeling that I may have misstepped, but at a certain point you have no choice but to move forward and hope for the best.

"When a piece of art sells as a result of this process, all of that doubt magically disappears, allowing me to put down my anxieties for a moment and giving me the confidence to get back on the wheel and start the whole thing over again."

Terrence Payne, I Don't Think It's Helping, oil pastel on paper, 42 x 53", 2018.


Brad ThomasArtist

What does it mean to sell a work of art?

"In 1993 — just a year out of undergraduate school — I made my first sale to a collector. In exchange for my art, I received a check for $300. Not bad considering I was employed at a cabinet shop making $5 an hour. If you do the math, it would have taken me 60 hours of skilled carpentry time to equal the remuneration for a small sculptural work that took maybe 12 hours to make with materials costing around $30. While it is important for an artist to be careful with their money, this initial sale represented much more than the numbers might convey.

"First, the work the collector bought from me that day was the result of several years of dedicated creative inquiry. Second, my work was going to be displayed in his home along with works by notable contemporary artists such as Lisa Milroy, Frank Stella, and Robert Graham. Finally, the work was going to have a life outside my studio and remain in the care of someone who thought enough of the work (and enough of me) to invest. 

"Sure, that income boost was nice, but it’s always fleeting as funds get reinvested into the practice or spent on basic necessities. What doesn’t go away is the confidence boost that your ideas and the aesthetic realization of those ideas are valued by someone other than your mother. Over the coming years, a few more works were acquired by the same collector and each studio visit was enriched with conversations about contemporary art, his days as an advertising executive in New York and London, and his other passion: Ragtime music and early American Jazz. He was a raconteur of the highest order and I learned a lot.

"Support for any artist comes in a wide variety of forms. Selling the fruits of one’s labor is but one facet. I remain ever grateful for every form of support I have received and the most important way to honor that is to pay it forward. While I have been fortunate to buy the work of other artists, I feel it’s of equal value to alert fellow artists to exhibition opportunities, job openings, or when appropriate, facilitate introductions with other arts professionals. 

"Being an artist will forever be about maintaining a healthy perspective within the big picture. The best way I have found to position myself within that picture it is to value every positive development because there will be setbacks aplenty. Infusing your daily life and practice with an ongoing sense of gratitude is absolutely essential. One practical way is to keep a running list of all those who have made a positive impact along your journey. Occasionally dropping those individuals a Thank You note out of the blue is not only for the benefit of the recipient but also for the grateful sender."

Brad Thomas, Buffo, Four-color print on sculpted Sintra with acrylic, ed. of 25, 26 x 37 x 3", 2018.


J. Wren Supak, Artist

What does it mean to sell a work of art?

"It means:

"Validation, i.e., encouragement, support, belief, 'keep at it.' 

"Material support—most vital within a capitalist society.

"Loss—I don’t want to live with most of the artwork that I make, but I do want to make it. Sometimes I want to finish it and destroy it, keep it, or give it as a gift. But most of the time, I want to send it out in the world to have a life of its own. However, unless it is a photo print, then when I sell it I know that I will, except for some exceptions, likely never see the piece again. I feel sad to see it go but gratified that when I am no longer around, my work will be. Sometimes I think of the artworks, out there, wondering how or what they are doing; are they holding up well?

"I will make the work (using my time, energy and spirit), preserve it with sealant and so forth, photographically document it (hire someone to do that), in some cases mount and frame it, enter the work into exhibitions, look at it, think about it, write about it to describe to people what it is about and why I make it. I will invite other artists and critics to look at the work and critique it. I will invite interested people, collectors, etc. to the studio or the show to see the art, and spend time with those people. That's a lot of life and energy to expend on a picture.

"Meeting a collector, or a possible collector, is exciting. It is not quite like a job interview, or a date. It is more like meeting a new client, or maybe a friend; it requires care. You think about the meeting in advance and ensure that you are prepared, maybe have some food handy for your guest, what do they like to eat? I try to look presentable. To prepare for meeting with a possible collector I think about the work they're interested in, and whatever I know about their taste, I imagine the kinds of questions that they will have for me about the materials, process, and meaning of the work. I speak to their interest. I spend time with the person getting to know them. The artwork manufactures these opportunities to get to know people that I may not otherwise meet, and the piece is what has brought us together.

"When someone wants to spend time with the work, I encourage conversation. It helps me to learn about how the buyer perceives the piece or my work in general. Sometimes the conversation rolls out to what abstraction is, the history of it, how my work fits in, which for me is a question of how do I fit into this world? Knowing someone wants to spend time with and maybe collect my artwork is a type of 'fitting in' that feels pretty great if you want the truth.

"Speaking of sales, I am represented by AS | Artist Projects NYC/Paris."

J. Wren Supak, Afterimage 6 (Where to?), oil on canvas, 48 x50”, 2017.


This is part of an ongoing series of articles, asking simple questions and getting complex answers from local artists, thinkers, and makers. You can read our other installments here and here.

Collect Call 4 opens Friday, September 13th from 6 - 9pm and will be on view through September 29th. Gallery hours are Wednesdays 11am-5pm, Thursdays & Fridays 11am-7pm, and Saturdays & Sundays 11am-4pm.

Banner image: Xavier Tavera, Unseen, from the collection of Dr. Herman Milligan, Jr. and Constance Osterbaan-Milligan.


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