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,
Elinor Buxton (Conversations on Collecting): How
did you begin collecting?
I used to work at a gallery, at ArtSPACE in New Haven. I wasnt
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 thats 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, its just not as interesting.
There are many contemporary artists who are not out there pursuing
beauty; the work is not really for decorating. Its 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
that is the motivating factor.
Anyway, thats 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 theyre 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 its 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
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 didnt 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 dont 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
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 were calculating my hours in exchange for
some of her art.
If you have a concrete skill sheetrocking is another good
example and its 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
Ive 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. Ive 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. Youre helping someone solve problems, contributing
to their career. More than money, its time that youve
spent. Im 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 youre 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 whos just getting started?
People who know even a little bit about art already know what they
like and dont like. You just cant be intimidated. The
first thing is exposure. I would say go to lots and lots of openings
and get to know whats 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. Dont 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 theyre just standing there in a room
next to their work. They dont know anyone, and they would
be happy to have some attention. The artists Ive met, with
few exceptions, have been very open to meeting new people.
Their fear is that if no one is talking to them, its because
they dont like the work. Even if you dont 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
In the end, the buyer is the only person who can decide if
a work is worth what theyre being asked to pay. With emerging
art theres no concern over fakes, so you know youre
always getting an original. You cant 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 its a