Art collectors strike a delicate balance between patron and artist. Though emerging creatives view collectors as a golden ticket to success, stardom, or just their next meal, mid-career artists view their relationship more as a shared dialogue constantly shifting the scope and focus of their endeavors. A shroud of mystery often pervades collectors, radiating with the air of inherited privilege and market control.
Susan Hancock, the owner of the former Royal/T Gallery in LA’s Culver City, is a woman who built herself and her collection from the ground up. During our ArtSlant panel "Women In Art: Pop Culture, Collaboration, and Collecting," at stARTup LA, Hancock shared the story of how she built her empire and the very real struggle she faced on the way up.
Hancock's apartment in West Hollywood is home to some of her favorite pieces and continues to be a whimsical place that draws wonder, smiles, and inspiration. We sat down recently to chat about her collection and she shared stories and insights into her wonderful piece of the art world.
Yoshitomo Nara, Your Dog, at Royal/T Gallery
Nathaly Charria: What is the first piece of art you see when you wake up in the morning?
Susan Hancock: The first piece of art I see when I wake in the morning is this beautiful Blue Infinity painting by Yayoi Kusama that I bought from Robert Miller back in 2004. It is magical like most of her pieces are. She is one of my favorite artists.
(left) Yayoi Kusama, Nets Obsession Blue Infinity Painting, 2004 (right) Robert Mapplethorp, Thomas and Dovana, 1986
NC: Tell us about your start and how that lead into a prominent art collection?
SH: In 1998 I joined the Orlando Museum Acquisition Trust (where I was living and working at the time) and we paid $500 per person to buy art for the museum. We raised about $25,000 every two years, and at that time, you could buy a museum quality piece from a mid-level artist. The adjunct curator at our museum (Sue Scott) lived in NYC and use to take us on trips to look at art. The first time I went to NYC with this group we visited Amy Sillman’s Studio (this was 1999) and I bought 12 drawings from her. She wasn’t represented by a gallery at that time. I had them framed and hung them up the stairwell. Every time I ran up the stairs I fell more in love with them!
Amy Sillman, 12 Drawings from an Installation, 1999
NC: What was Royal/T Gallery’s significance in your journey and what are some of your fondest memories?
SH: Royal/T Gallery was part of my art journey. I started collecting art for my five young nieces and was attracted to Anime from Japan for their bedrooms. I bought them Nara pieces and Murakami prints and some of Murakami’s artists that he was mentoring, and then I started buying more and more for myself. I developed a love for Japanese art.
One of the best parts of Royal/T [which started in 2008] was our architect Kulapat Yantrasast from wHY Architecture. He worked for Tadao Ando in Japan and although Kulapat is Thai, he knew a lot about Japanese culture. It was his idea to put up Plexiglas around all the figurines that were so popular at that time, much like they do in Japan, and so we could have great art and have children run through having birthday parties or Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, weddings, and tea parties.
Aside from my collection, we were able to borrow art, and when Eric Shiner curated The Warholian at Royal/T, we were even able to borrow Warhols. Jane Glassman curated a great show called In Bed Together and was able to tap many great collectors in LA to lend one of their favorite artists.
Royal/T achieved my goal of introducing people who were intimidated to go to museums or galleries to contemporary art by having them interface with the collection during parties and lunches.
FriendsWithYou, The Phantom, 2009
NC: What is one of the most special pieces in your collection and the story of how it was acquired?
SH: Years ago (around 1998), I visited Harley Baldwin and Richard Edwards' apartment in Aspen. I fell in love with a Robert Mapplethorpe piece they had and every time I ran into Richard at art events around the world I’d ask if it was for sale and he would say “no.” Last year when LACMA and the Getty announced a joint Mapplethorpe show in March I knew I had to buy it or I’d never get it. I went online and found the gallery who had it in Germany and bought it. I’m very happy I bought it.
Harley Baldwin and Richard Edwards’ apartment in Aspen
NC: As a collector, how important are studio visits and knowing the artists you collect?
SH: I love to go to artists' studios and see their practice, hear what music they listen to, and see the things they have that inspire them that hang in their studio. Although, it’s also fun to buy a piece you see and just fall in love with and then later research and find out who the artist is.
Richard Prince, Nurses Dormitory #3, 2003
NC: What is your advice for aspiring collectors?
SH: I would suggest aspiring collectors join an acquisition group at a local museum. If you are attracted to photography join the photography group. There are sometimes a print committee and a painting and sculpture group. Or, go to three or four fairs before you buy and make a “hit list.” I bet by the fourth fair you are scratching off some of your first picks and your taste has matured or you have learned a lot. I also would look at the auctions online and if possible go to preview them at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips. It’s like going to a museum with prices on each piece.
Olaf Breuning, The Collectors, 2007
NC: What do you look for when you buy works?
SH: Years ago I was told that for an artist to reach “art history status,” which only a very very small part of 1 percent will, it helps if important collectors are collecting the artist; it helps if museums are buying the artist and if other artists are buzzing about the artist; and then finally the gallery that is representing the artist is important too.
NC: What is hanging over your bed right now?
SH: Hanging over my bed right now is a Richard Prince DeKooning work on paper with lots of boobs and multiple penises Richard added to the Dekooning drawing. I’m concentrating on sexy art in my bedroom.
Richard Prince, Untitled (with DeKooning), 2006
(Image at top: Susan Hancock in her home. All images: Courtesy of Susan Hancock)