By Cameron J. Anderson
Soon after our son learned to walk, my wife began to take him on “explores” in Putnam Park, a nature trail two blocks from our home. If moving efficiently from point A to point B had been their objective, it was a failed project. Our son’s young eyes were fixed on the natural world, a place inviting close examination. A fresh stick or two in hand, he quickly filled his pockets with acorns, rocks, and other small treasures. Bugs and fossils came later. For a season, there were stamps and models trains. Like for so many children, collecting was, for our son, a means to sort and organize the curiosities that met him at every turn.
This issue of SEEN Journal is themed “Collect,” and if you take a few moments to dip into its content, I think you will be surprised. Here’s why. It’s tempting to believe that collecting, serious connoisseurship, is a practice reserved for a wealthy few. Consider, for instance, the May 2016 sale of Untitled, a large canvas by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat. Executed during a trip to Modena, Italy in 1982, Basquiat’s work fetched a stunning $57.3 million at Christie’s in New York. Record prices for art at auction generate striking headlines and especially for those of us who make art our business. But once the news breaks, these transactions may seem no more relevant to our lives than, say, the signing of a new contract for basketball super-star LeBron James or a year-end stock transfer to a Fortune 500 CEO.
In turns out that the contributors to this issue of SEEN understand collecting to be something quite different. In the essays that follow, terms like stewardship, caretaking, conservation, community, and story appear again and again.
Sandra Bowden, guest editor for this issue, looks back on a lifetime of collecting—a passion for acquisition but always measured against long-term impact. Early on, she and her husband, Bob, determined that their collection would major on art that relates to “the Bible and faith.” In the essay that follows, Bobby Gross explains how it was that art and the artists who it make became important to him in his early thirties. It was friendship that led to his first purchase and, as he explains, the art on display in his home soon became a rich addition to his love of literature, travel, poetry, and theology. The emergence of Steve Pattie’s passion for collecting Outsider Art, described in the third essay, reinforces the need for research, networking, and—like Bowden and Gross—the deep satisfaction of connecting with artists, whenever possible.
Collecting is hardly limited to enterprising individuals. Indeed, some churches, colleges, and universities have made it an institutional priority. Ed Knippers reports on his visit to the collection at Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery—an admittedly fundamentalist Protestant institution. At the end of his tour, and having seen just half of the collections, Knippers concludes Bob Jones’ collection is more comprehensive and impressive that those at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Similar in many respects to the Bob Jones collection, Monsignor Timothy Verdon has been charged with the task of curating and housing the extensive art collection belonging to the Florence Cathedral (the Duomo). It is the rich world of Catholic theology that informs Verdon’s work. Returning then to the United States, John Kohan, Eva Ting, and Robert Brusic describe a range of collections with a variety of foci. Kohan begins his essay by revisiting his viewing of Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, a painting featured in the permanent collection at Anderson University.
Following these four essays is a thought piece by John E. Skillen informed largely by the publication of his recent book, Putting Art (back) in its Place. Supportive though Skillen is of individual and institutional collectors (some of them, close friends), he laments the reality that museum viewers are often left to view works of art that have been removed entirely from their original context—that is, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, and altarpieces no long in situ.
Finally, we review a pair of recently published books: Bob Covolo considers Modern Art and the Life of a Culture by Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness; and Kathryn Bradford Heidelberger Silence and Beauty, by Makoto Fujimura. Increasingly, it is rewarding to see friends in the CIVA community leading the conversation.
One collector explains his experience of collecting as follows, “I rise each morning and enter the day surrounded by friends.” That is, the material objects he has collected and, by extension, their makers, now invite him to abide with them. The decision to surround ourselves with things we cherish—often fashioned by people we admire—is a striking counter-proposal to the frenetic pace of contemporary life. Art, good art, invites us to enter worlds occupied by others—some we know intimately well, but also others who live in cultures and ages substantially different from our own. This is, then, one vivid image of what it could mean to flourish.
Cameron J. Anderson is the Executive Director of CIVA.