In December of 1961, the pioneering art dealer of the 20th century, Leo Castelli, replied to an apologetic letter from Chicago collector Peter B. Bensinger. “Fine art is expensive but the desire to own it is not,” he wrote, addressing Bensinger’s enthusiastic consideration but ultimate decision to decline purchasing a Robert Rauschenberg painting.
Mr. Castelli’s sentiment resonates with particular clarity amidst the season of buying and giving, in an economy still spooked from the waning recession. Still, if you love art, you should buy art. Starting a collection, or adding to someone else’s, doesn’t always mean tying a red ribbon around a Rauschenberg. Several Christmases ago I received a painting as a gift by English-born, Chicago-based artist Patrick W. Welch (1965-2008). It was a shocking thing to unwrap—two unicorns crying blood against a swirl of pale pink and lavender. It's one of his "hate paintings" and attaches to the wall with Velcro. It was purchased from the now defunct Gescheidle gallery. It hangs on my wall, watching my life. I might have it forever.
My personal collection aside, there are plenty of opportunities to buy art, artist-made books, and arty paraphernalia in Chicago inexpensively or expensively. Take your pick.
To state the obvious, shop for art at galleries. Don’t be afraid to inquire and look at price lists, some galleries will even work out payment plans. Consider it an investment that the lucky person receiving the art as a gift will live with every day. Don’t be shy to approach students about purchasing their work at school exhibitions, particularly BFA or MFA shows, or student art sales. Visit alternative spaces and apartment galleries to purchase work by emerging artists.
Start by going to Golden Age in the West Loop for books, periodicals, DVDs, music and various aesthetic and literary ephemera. It’s truly one of the most unique and worthwhile places to shop in Chicago, and they have an online store if you’re snowed in or far away: http://www.shopgoldenage.com/shop . Golden Age mastermind Martine Syms also contributed to this gift list on design-savvy website Core77: I would like the fancy-looking Bourbon, the Eye Clock, Derek Chan’s Cries and Whispers from the Salt Song Trail and the print from the New York Public Library, please.
Speaking of prints, they are an easy-to-find springboard into buying art, and can be fairly cheap. I visited Chicago Printmakers Collaborative (CPC) recently and found hundreds of inexpensive options in their 21st Annual International Small Print Show. The whole process of making the work is embedded in the atmosphere, the space is full of old printers drawers and presses, metal plates line one wall, and the sense of community and learning that you contribute to with a purchase is apparent.
On a larger scale, there has been an explosion of street fairs and online outlets for individuals to sell their art and everything else, with Etsy.com and Chicago’s own Renegade Craft Fair at the forefront. Etsy is an especially overwhelming place to look for art, but if you’re in the market for inexpensive prints, paintings, and photographs, I’m sure the perfect piece is on there, somewhere. And of course there’s ArtSlant itself, which just recently launched an online art purchasing platform. Check out the Salesroom to see what’s offered.
Anonymous art, architectural salvage, antique bookplate images, and found photos are ways to collect and make interesting gifts. I stopped in Midwestern Arts & Antiques next door to the CPC, drawn in by a giant ornamental head in the window, probably from the cornice of a demolished building. There were other odd treasures and antique store eclecticisms inside. I saw a palette and an easel set up in back, slightly hidden behind a wooden screen. On the easel sat a blocky geometric portrait of a man in shades of green, leaning against a wall. The storeowner hesitantly admitted to being an artist himself, and told me the painting was from the 1940s, in need of conservation, and to my dismay, not yet for sale.
Art really is the most significant and personal of purchases, which is why for me the real problem with buying art as a gift is that I usually want to keep it for myself. And, according to Mr. Castelli, the desire to start a collection or contribute to someone else’s is almost as noble as the purchase itself.
-Mia DiMeo, ArtSlant Staff Writer