Collecting Class

© The Barnes Foundation

My summer of 2013 US trip was very enjoyable, despite it being a "vacation" that included ripping out a plaster and lathe wall, sledgehammering a section of sidewalk, and a sprint triathlon undertaken with a bad cold which made my wetsuit feel like I was swimming while being hugged by a family of orangutans.

These "highlights" were offset by actual highlights including winning $57 dollars with two consecutive bingos at the American Legion of Baudette, Minnesota, meeting up in person with a number of you that I've had the good fortune to collaborate with over time on this site, and my first visit to the new location of The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

The Barnes, for those unfamiliar with it, has to be visited. I'm not really a fan of Renoir, but the $25 billion dollar collection includes the world's largest concentration of Reniors – 181 of them - as well as large numbers of works by painters I love - 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 21 Soutines, and 7 van Goghs (thank you Wikipedia).

The founder of the collection, Albert C. Barnes, is commonly described as an oddball and an ill-tempered messianic eccentric according to this article. He was a chemist and self-made man, never accepted by Philadelphia's blue bloods. He collected art after making millions selling off his company, which produced an early anti-gonorrhea drug he co-created, just before the development of antibiotics.

Aside from the lasting inspiration of the works in the collection and of the architectural masterpiece the paintings are now housed within, one other part of my visit to The Barnes stuck with me: discovering that Barnes was a visionary of art education. He hung some of his early purchases in his drug factory and orchestrated classes on art and aesthetics, as well as psychology and philosophy, for his employees with the goal of developing them as people as well as workers.

Fast-forwarding to the Midwest leg of my trip, I had a cup of coffee with the photographer Beth Dow in Minneapolis. She’s teaching a summer photography class at the University of Minnesota and told me one of her goals with those that aren’t planning to pursue photography as a career is to develop their appreciation and respect for the arts and for the work that it requires to be an artist. These, she pointed out, are people that will be voting on arts funding and arts classes as well as potentially forming an audience and becoming buyers of our work.

Dow’s points lead me to propose exploring how Barnes' vision of education can be resurrected to create a larger market for our work as photographers. Museums and foundations offer classes on photography and its history, and I would imagine they also provide seminars on collecting, although I'm having a hard time finding any via Google as I write this. Regardless, an article in the The Wall Street Journal on collecting tips for business people leads me to believe more can and should be done as a photography community to actively foster the development of our collectors.

The article tells new collectors to "do their homework" by visiting galleries and studying auctions. While some collectors either start with the money to hire consultants or get there, most collectors don't. The majority are doing the research themselves. Others would surely be interested in starting a collection if the process were streamlined and if they felt that they had the basic knowledge on how to begin a collection and felt confident about how to look at and speak about photography.

Can't this process be expedited and brought to them, as Barnes did with his employees? Can't we help busy people with money do their homework and facilitate their participation in the art buying market? If the majority of contemporary art buyers are lawyers and business people, why not recreate Barnes' idea with classes offered on their work site during lunch or after work for an hour once a week for a few weeks?

Museum curators, consultants, editors of major presses, owners of auction houses, and powerful gallerists - obviously the bulk of fototazo's reading audience - should work together to provide these in-house photography collecting classes at firms and businesses in major collecting markets. The classes, as with Barnes' classes, would ideally be subsidized by the employer, and a large part of the job of providing the classes would be to convince them to do so. If that's not able to be worked out, picking up clients and future buyers I hope would be a reason to consider subsidizing the classes yourselves. The goal would be to make the classes fun and free for potential collectors.

As for participation, the idea of aesthetic eduction and art buying classes crosses over with wine tasting classes and learning how to sail. Collecting is a natural interest for people looking to move forward in a sense of who they are given it's a cultural signifier of sophistication and success. Potential collectors don't need to be multi-millionaires. A saturated market of photographers offers an advantage in one sense - a few prints can be had for a thousand dollars, establishing a relatively low bar for collecting.

Photography can take a lesson from the markets of other industries, such as food. As the industry has developed education around taste and quality, the market has boomed for microbrews, CSAs, organic products, and wine in the last two decades through sales to people in a fairly wide economic range. A similar effort in the arts can help create appreciation around the ideas of variety, craft, and diversity as the food industry - as well as others - has done. If other industries can end the dominance of a few major, national players through education, so can the art world create a more decentralized market that includes more photographers.

All of us are struggling to make a way forward with our work and we frequently think about finding a way to promote and distribute our work. How about working on creating a stronger market for that work as well? I, for one, would certainly like to see a market develop to the point where I can pay people to rip out plaster and lathe and sledgehammer concrete for me.