Collectors are born, not made. Curators are made, not born. I’m lucky enough to be equal parts collector and curator. The first part was a gift from my parents. The second was courtesy of a strong education and a voracious appetite for reading.
Collecting is about the hunt and the display of “treasures” — the found objects. I have discovered that it is impossible for me to enter a gallery or antiques shop without either coveting at least something or eschewing everything in sight. Yes, I’ll admit I’m a terrible snob when it comes to collecting. I like the best of the best and am able to block out the rest, the clutter, the prosaic.
What I’m after is the unique and the ineffable; that object which is possessed of verve, dash and originality. This has nothing to do with price or actual value — for me it’s about the object itself. I fall in love with $50 lacquer boxes as easily as l do with million dollar paintings. The difference is that I can’t afford the painting, just the box.
However, I like to play a little game with myself that actually works wonders. When confronted with something wonderful that isn’t within my budget, I give myself an imaginary million dollars to shop with and to “curate” a collection for an imagined client or institution. Sometimes I don’t even spend the “money” and this exercise in fiscal restraint is amazingly liberating as the true collector knows that there is elegance in refusal. Added benefit: When the game is over, I can always put the “money” back into the bank for another day.
When it comes to actually making a purchase, I always negotiate prices and terms with dealers or gallery owners. The only way I’ll buy anything costing remotely more than $1000 is to pay for the piece over a stipulated period. It’s a win-win for me and the gallery; they make the sale and I get to slowly pay off the cost, even if it means foregoing a few dinners out or, in the case of one major purchase of a portrait by John Graham, no vacation for two years.
This was a small sacrifice for a work of art that gives me such pleasure and visual stimulation whenever I look at it. It’s a cubist painting from 1939 of a great Mexican beauty. The colors are luminous in their dissonance and the jolie-laid face of the lady in question has inspired me to stretch myself in my own use of color, proportion and line.
My advice to other collectors, or curators, is to not be afraid to take the plunge if you really love something and don’t fall into that trap of having to find a painting that matches the sofa.
Mix it up. Group a series of works together to create a greater whole. Or paint a wall an iconoclastic color — try a bright orange — and then paint a large blue square in the center of the orange field. You’ll have an instant homage to abstract artist Josef Albers for the price of two cans of paint. If budget allows, then hang a yellow and white Albers print in the center of the blue square on the orange wall. The effect is pure alchemy.
My collection runs the gamut from photocopied drawings crisply framed and mounted on corrugated cardboard to a Picasso in a period Spanish frame that was my grandmother’s. This brings me to another point: Collectors are merely custodians for future generations. The curator inside us will make sure that the objects are well cared for and that they one day make their way to other collectors.
I already have a game plan for the future — to gift my collection of art and photography, books and ephemera to my college to form the nucleus of a small museum in the art history department. If my passion for collecting, for making the past prologue, inspires even one student to follow a career in the arts or to curate his or her inner fire for collecting then it will have all been worth the effort, time and sacrifice.
It’s not about ego, rather it’s about weaving a narrative through past, present and future through my own eyes and life’s journey; a journey that only the collector in me could have taken in partnership with the curator.
About Our Expert: Eric Cohler is a highly acclaimed interior designer who runs his eponymous design firm in New York. Dubbed “The Mixmaster” by industry editors, Cohler injects his passion for unusual texture and color in every residential and commercial project as well as product designs. His work has been featured in Elle Décor, Town & Country, and The New York Times.