Conversation with Collector Elisa Billings

June 6, 2003. Elinor Buxton spoke to Elisa Billings about starting an art collection and about bringing art into her price range, the topic of our first issue. Elisa is an active collector of emerging art who lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

Elinor Buxton (Conversations on Collecting): How did you begin collecting?

I used to work at a gallery, at ArtSPACE in New Haven. I wasn’t an artist at the time, but I was exposed to a lot of emerging art. I saw what was out there, how much it was going for. I got to meet the people who made it and understand why they created their work. I found that in order to appreciate art that’s relatively obscure, you have to know the artist. When you know the story of what the work is about and see all that went into it, it enables you to develop a sense of its real value.

Without a way to know this value, it’s just not as interesting. There are many contemporary artists who are not out there pursuing beauty; the work is not really for decorating. It’s about a connection to an idea. Likewise, when you collect you are not just buying the piece itself, you are buying into an idea. Whether you agree with that idea, or it inspires you, or does something for you…that is the motivating factor.

Anyway, that’s how I understand collecting. As I got to know artists on a personal level, I started to become interested in their ideas and interested in owning a part of that.

Many people who are interested in art balk at the affordability factor. How do you negotiate finding works within your price range?

Emerging art is not that expensive. There are many works available in the $100 to $500 price range. People spend that much on wedding gifts, on birthday presents. Some people pay that much to get a poster framed! This offers so much more.

The fact is artists need to sell their work. They try to sell it, but maybe they’re not always the best salespeople for their own work. I find artists to be generally kind of shy about the sales aspects, putting a price out there and saying it’s available. As a collector you have to know this. It may take awhile to even realize that a piece is for sale.

So art is definitely not out of reach. But as you look around you start to see things that are really interesting and...

How do you handle the need to stretch a bit sometimes?

Well, barters came about at first because I was friends with Karen [Dow]; we met through our work together at ArtSPACE. I saw her paintings and I really liked them. I wanted one but I knew how much they cost. Once you get to know an artist, you see how hard it is to make work and how much energy goes into it. It just didn’t feel appropriate to ask for any favors. At one point she was looking around for child care and struggling a bit with that issue. I offered to help her as a friend. Not thinking about bartering, just as a friend. Then she felt like she wanted to repay me in some way. I knew she needed to keep painting, to have more time in the studio. So we worked it out. I said why don’t you paint for me? Instead of making me a meal or something, put that time into your work. Our arrangement gave her a specific reason to produce.

Can you talk some more about how bartering has worked for you in practice?

Another time was when I traded my time as an SAT tutor. I happen to have that skill, so instead of charging an artist friend for working with her son – it felt awkward to do business with a friend – we’re calculating my hours in exchange for some of her art.

If you have a concrete skill – sheetrocking is another good example – and it’s something the artist really needs and would otherwise be paying money for, then bartering can be a really civilized way to collect. The important thing is that you have to have a relationship with the artists. You like their work, and they like that you like it, that you would like to own it.

Any other unusual ways you have acquired art?

I’ve been given a work of art as a farewell gift. When I left ArtSPACE I was allowed to choose one work, any piece I wanted from their collection. It was amazing to admire a work for so long and then be allowed to get it in such a nice way. I’ve found myself to be really lucky in that I never intended, really, to be a collector. But when you meet even one artist, you can become part of a community where art is valued and it
opens you up to all kinds of opportunities.

The personal relationships add an important dimension to your collecting.

It really is extra special to acquire something that that tells a story about a person or how you came upon it. In some ways bartering is like earning the art, you earn it when you give back some part of your life. You’re helping someone solve problems, contributing to their career. More than money, it’s time that you’ve spent. I’m sure that artists appreciate having the money, but some artists also appreciate it when someone puts out a real effort to acquire something of theirs. The work takes so much energy to make, and you’re matching that by investing in the artist as a person and also in their ideas. Investing in a person can be so much more appealing than giving money to a gallery or a museum.

What would you say to someone interested in collecting who’s just getting started?

People who know even a little bit about art already know what they like and don’t like. You just can’t be intimidated. The first thing is exposure. I would say go to lots and lots of openings and get to know what’s out there. Going to openings is the easiest way to meet artists.

And perhaps the most underrated?

Yes, because artists are often dying to talk to someone about their work. Don’t be afraid to meet them. Some people feel stupid going up and asking simple questions. But often the artist is from out-of-town and they’re just standing there in a room next to their work. They don’t know anyone, and they would be happy to have some attention. The artists I’ve met, with few exceptions, have been very open to meeting new people.

Their fear is that if no one is talking to them, it’s because they don’t like the work. Even if you don’t understand it, you can ask them simple things like ‘how did you make this?’ or ‘what were you thinking about when you made this?’ Just go up and approach them.

What about the question of buying art as an investment?

In the end, the buyer is the only person who can decide if a work is worth what they’re being asked to pay. With emerging art there’s no concern over fakes, so you know you’re always getting an original. You can’t worry about how it is going to affect your portfolio. If you really like it and there is any way at all you can afford it, then it’s a


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