On June 12, 2019, BmoreArt hosted our fourth Connet+Collect Speaker Event with artist Zoë Charlton and DC-based collector and arts advocate Philippa Hughes. Our conversation focused around relationship-building, preparing for a studio visit, live-work-art balance, and all the speakers, including moderator Cara Ober, shared anecdotes and lessons learned through trial and error. Our fourth event was hosted at The Motor House on North Avenue, and included a drink in the Showroom Bar after the talk.
Jeffrey Kent: Hi everyone. I’m Jeffrey Kent and I’m a Baltimore-based artist. We’d like to know how many people have been here before for the previous Connect + Collect speaker series events, so please raise your hands… How many of you are returning? Okay, that’s good. It’s great to have some new people here. How many artists are in this room? Wow – that’s a lot. We are going to make sure that we concentrate on your needs as artists in this conversation. Our mission is to connect collectors to artists and to have conversations about around collecting art and why it’s important to live with art in general.
Today from Washington, we have Philippa Hughes, a DC based art collector, influencer, and culture producer and Baltimore-based artist Zoë Charlton. [applause] . She is a visual artist but recently Zoë has become a curator and worked with fellow painter and AU professor Tim Doud to create ‘sindikit, a curatorial project space originally based at Area 405 that is now roving. And you know who Cara Ober is. Without further ado, I guess I’ll turn the conversation over to these ladies.
Cara: Thanks for giving us your time tonight. We’re excited to be here with two wonderful guests to talk about something that Baltimore seriously needs. You know what I’m talking about¬–artists need a market for their work. The art that’s being made here in this city is world-class. It deserves to be collected. It deserves to be written about, read about, discussed, argued over. And one of the things that we wanted to do in this discussion series is pair people who collect art for a variety of reasons, and we wanted it to be an art collector who could inspire those who live in Baltimore.
There’s the stereotype of an art collector being someone who is ridiculously wealthy, ridiculously pretentious, and ridiculously ridiculous. And that’s not, in my mind, a sustainable or accurate model for Baltimore. That’s not what we want here. We don’t have a lot of tolerance for bs in Baltimore and that’s a good thing.
We also wanted to bring in artists who are based here with international careers, who should be collected by those who collect art in this city. But typically collectors based here are collecting in New York, Miami, and Basel instead of collecting the work being made here, in their own backyard. There are a significant number of artists based here who have national and international careers. They live and work Baltimore, which is why we say Baltimore-based artists, but their careers are in no way limited to Baltimore.
I want to introduce our guests tonight. I met Zoë almost twenty years ago when she was relatively new to Baltimore. She moved to the area for a fulltime teaching job at American University in DC, but the opportunity to live at the brand new Creative Alliance artist residency drew her to Baltimore. I had just finished my MFA at MICA and I wanted to build a national career for my painting and I talked to Zoë about her strategies for showing her work in New York and other cities.
I noticed that she was doing a number of studio visits with curators from museums and that wasn’t something I saw other artists doing, especially young artists. And so I asked her, you know, how did you do this? Because it seemed like magic to me. She explained that she made a list of curators she wanted to meet and sent out letters. This is before email, right after she finished graduate school in Texas, and she sent out letters to 20, 30, 40 curators at different museums and she invited them to her studio and not all of them said yes, not all of them responded, but enough of them did that it was already making a significant difference in her career.
I realized it was a teachable moment and she was someone that I wanted to know better. I knew I wanted to ask nosy questions of her to follow her career. Also the fact that I love her work was helpful and I now own two pieces of her work.
I met Philippa Hughes about the same time. I was a young artist exhibiting in Washington DC and I was having my first solo show at Flashpoint Gallery and I was introduced to her by the curator. I had never met anyone who self-identified as a collector, especially someone young. Philippa was someone who was identified to me as a person that artists wanted to know. She was a visionary collector. She collected the art in DC, and this doesn’t always happen. A lot of collectors are more aspiring to sort of a national or international level, but sort of neglecting the art of their place in time. And that was something that appealed to me about Philippa, that she was comfortable wearing that role and supporting artists in that way. Since then, her career has evolved to include a number of different initiatives that are building culture, creating connections between individuals, mostly in DC, but we’d like to bring her to Baltimore more often. [applause]
Zoë, I wanted to start with you and how you think about your career in in a strategic way. You’re so busy doing so many things, but how do you prioritize how you spend your time and set your goals?
Zoë: Everything that I do supports my studio. Bottom line, I have two priorities. One is my studio and the other one is health insurance, which means that my job is a priority. Right? And that’s a very real thing.
As Cara said, I’m faculty at American University. I’ve been there for 16 years. And I like to start talks off with that because people tend to think that when one gets a teaching job, it’s the thing that kind of surrounds your life, and the way that you socialize is through your job, that you give everything to your job. And, some of the best advice that I received from artists that I look up to, faculty like Sonya Clark and and Sanford Biggers, are that this is actually a job. And don’t forget that.
And the job enables you to do some other things. I have to say that when I made that kind of switch in my thinking, it made me realize that the reason why I’m at that job is because of the studio work that I do. If I make a lot of artwork, then I can always have a studio. And so the studio has to be a priority. All of my travels support people understanding what I do in my studio, and even the external projects are related to what I do in my studio. A lot of my collaborations inform my own kind of creative work or my thinking.
Cara: I feel like travel has always been a priority for you. In the past year or so, where have you gone? I suspect that most of us who are artists or are really bad at vacation. We love to travel, but we’re terrible on vacation.
Zoë: It’s a lot of work trips. I don’t take vacations. I would love to take a vacation and I look at your Instagram for my vacation ideas, so that’d be awesome. I want a paddleboard like Philippa! Within the past year, let’s see, I’ve been in Texas, Pennsylvania, several trips to Chicago, Georgia, Australia, China, and Miami with Cara. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to get out of the country twice in the last 12 months.
Cara: And then you do a ton of travel back and forth between Baltimore and DC. Most recently, you completed a mural project at Eaton Hotel in DC. Can you tell us more about it?
Zoë: I was commissioned and worked with another artist, Sheldon Scott who was based in DC, um, who invited me to create this mosaic at the Eaton hotel in DC. Sheldon invited me to envision a project for the rooftop of this new hotel, this art and social justice themed hotel. And I took one of my collages and re-imagined it, substituted some figures and um, and the tiles were produced in Ravenna, Italy and shipped back over and installed. And it’s 14 feet by 40 feet long. It’s the largest project that I’ve done to date. I’m really excited about it. If you ever want to go to lunch in DC, please call me and I will take you to eat. I love it.
Cara: [pulling a new image onto the screen] This is the sketch that went with it, that was specific for the mural and a limited editioned print of it, with original embellishments on it.
Zoë: I had never made a limited edition print before. There’s just 10 of them and well now they’re nine. Okay. Then eight. All right. Each is unique, but with something different added on to each one. And the long title is declared and proclaimed in parentheses, the black settlers comma, homecoming in parentheses. Um, so it’s a rather long title. It’s about Liberia. It’s about Black women in the United States as well. It’s about supporting culture, holding culture, letting culture slide off one shoulders and toppling structures, larger drawing.
Cara: You’re combining a drawing, some paintings, with some ink wash and collaged stickers. She buys them from craft stores, and scans them in large as them uses them as collage elements and a lot of these larger sort of larger than life pieces. I want to bring Philippa into the conversation… [looking at screen, new image] So I harvested this off of your website. I feel like initially when I met you, people were like, oh, she’s a lawyer and an art collector, but that the, the lawyer part didn’t last long for you. And at dinner we were talking about the why of it, that the why is really the most important thing.
Philippa: One thing I want to set straight, with Zoë… I was thinking about travel and vacation and I do travel a bit and it looks like vacation. I mean I don’t want to be disingenuous, but that, you know, I was thinking about kind of related to this question of why is that all those travels do inform everything that I do. I mean, every person you meet along the way and every person who’s different from you. And I think that’s, I mean that’s a big part of why I travel like I do, it sounds so hokey, but I do actually want to expand my horizons because I don’t want to be talking to the same people who already think like me all the time anyway. You don’t grow when you only hang out with only people like you.
Cara: Travel is work. I agree. I didn’t think of you as a vacationer… Can and can we back it up just a little bit into how did you get into collecting art? Why did you start collecting art and do you remember like one or two of the earliest pieces?
Philippa: Well, I stole this from another art collector in DC that you might know Henry Thaggert. [applause] He’s great. He’s a really intense art collector. And one time we were on a panel, much like this, talking about our collecting and he said that he doesn’t collect objects, but what he really collects are artists. Ever since he said that, years ago to me, I thought, YES, I love art projects and I love going to art museums and going to galleries and doing things like this. But what I really love is having these kinds of conversations and actually having relationships with people like Zoë who, the second we met, I was like, we’re sisters. Oh, we actually could be related. We just discovered that we might be actually related. It’s another long story…
But, the relationships are what I really care about. And art has helped me build not only individual relationships, but also a whole community. And again, it just sounds so hokey at some level, but that’s what we all really want, right? We want to be part of something and we want to belong to something that’s good and bigger than ourselves. And for me, art was the way into that and the people that I met because of the art. So that was the one way of saying that’s my why. That’s why I do everything that I do right now–because I want more and better meaningful relationships. I think artists, also want to eat and drink and grow their practices as well. So I feel good about that part, too.
Cara: So for you the relationships are most important. I think, in Baltimore in particular, this idea of who is a collector needs to be understood and better developed. Can you explain how does this relationship evolve? Also I think new collectors and artists worry a lot about etiquette and making mistakes. What are the rules of this relationship? It can make people very uncomfortable.
Philippa: When I first started getting involved in the art world, and I became a collector and I began to acquire a lot of art, I really liked that. But my thinking has evolved a lot in the last decade. Part of it is because I’m trying to live an artful life and collecting art is really just one piece of that, and I’m on a bigger life journey and the art is part of that evolution.
Cara: The collecting, and your public persona around it, has taken you into some interesting circumstances. Can you talk about the artist who lived in a bubble in your apartment as part of a collecting experiment?
Philippa: I don’t know how many collectors in Baltimore would allow an artist to come live in a bubble, inside their home for a week… It was only a week, but it felt like a year. [laughter] Just a little background. This friend of mine, who owned a gallery that isn’t there anymore in DC, called me up and said, we’re doing this project and this artist needs somebody to host her. She’s going to do this big project and it would entail her moving in with you for a week. And I was like, okay, whatever. I agreed to it before I really understood what it was. The artist went to Carnegie Mellon so she wasn’t even from DC and I hadn’t met her before.
Cara: I mean, what could go wrong? [laughter]
Philippa: Right. Little by little, I find out what the project is and it turns out she built this bubble out of some see-through plastic and built it in pieces so that she could reassemble it inside my apartment. We had to move all the furniture to the side to fit this giant bubble. She lived in it for a week and there were all these rules, like I had to cook two meals a day for her, but they had to be vegetarian meals…. I really liked meat, so that was hard.
Every morning I had to give her a kiss on the cheek and welcome her. It was very strict. We couldn’t actually speak to each other. We were supposed to communicate through these little pieces of paper that we shoved through a tube. And her whole premise was about exploring the relationship between collector and artists and how difficult that can be. And she of course made it more difficult. To sidebar, we actually came to almost fisticuffs in the middle of the week after she called the animal control people… She made an anonymous complaint and said that somebody in this building was keeping an animal that’s screaming very loudly at night.
And so this guy comes to the door with a uniform and a badge and is like, we’ve got this complaint. And then, so I opened the door, I’m like, “Well, all I’ve got is this girl in a bubble. No animals are being tortured here.” So they backed away and left and I was so angry. All this to demonstrate the difficult relationships that can happen between artist and collector.
Cara: And there were reporters watching this all happening. It was in very public. She was like stealing your stuff and putting it in the bubble, right?
Philippa: Yes! She stole stuff and she had a video camera on all the time, too. It was very well documented. But then, because we basically fought by the end and we weren’t getting along, she destroyed all the film. That’s how bad it was. But anyway, so she documented it thoroughly and it was actually on the front page of the style section of the Washington Post. And then for years, people were like, was that, what was that like? I’m like, I can’t even explain. And there have been other projects too… You probably know Jeffrey Cudlin. He teaches at MICA and has been a good friend for a long time. He, right before that, did a whole performance art project in which he impersonated me all around DC.
He had a blonde wig he went around to all the galleries in town and danced and his whole thing was like, I’m Philippa and I was getting feedback from press occasionally that all I did was throw art parties, like I’m not a real collector. I mean he didn’t think that, but he was making fun of that statement.
This is a very long way of saying that my relationship to being a collector has been very tortured and has evolved. I don’t even know what I’m trying to tell you right now other than it’s complicated. I just stick to it because I really like having people like Zoë and Jeffrey in my life and others who are awesome. And I just focus on that because there are plenty of people out there who just don’t get it.
Cara: And so you made yourself incredibly vulnerable in a public way, via your private life. You invited this person into your home because you love art and you had sort of been branded this like art leader art may then, and then in a very sort of contrived and fucked up way, she created this crazy situation where she’s somehow, you know, dependent on you and you’re responsible for her.
And I can see how there’s a power imbalance that can make for discomfort, right? I mean, I think comfort is highly overrated. None of us are here because we want to be comfortable necessarily, but for artists who would like to engage with collectors, can you give just like a few pointers for not fucking that up?
Philippa: You’re spot on. That was really a story about power. And that’s a story that we’re all living in at different levels, not just as artists and collectors. But that’s the core of so many imbalances in so many parts of our lives.
That project made me so deeply uncomfortable because, in general, I do not buy into that power in balance. I mean, I do see collecting as this relationship and if there is a power imbalance, it’s doesn’t make for better art. I think when you have a real relationship, a dynamic in which you’re taking and giving, we’re both better off for it. Like, you’re going to make better art and I’m going to be a better person.
Cara: So for you a balanced relationship with an artist as a human you’d actually want to know in real life, forms the basis of who and what you collect?
Philippa: I don’t know if many other collectors buy into my theory but that’s how I approach collecting art. And that’s how I approach being in the art world. I want both of us to get an equal amount of value out of it. And I’m not talking about monetary value, but the investment in all of it… I’m not really answering your question because that’s, I think it’s really hard because artists are put in that lesser power role because you have to take, like you have to earn your money from the person who has the money. And that sucks. I just don’t know what to do about that.
Cara: So what should we do about that?
Zoë: I hear that dilemma. I am an artist who also collects. And I don’t know how you resolve that except for building relationships. I just keep coming back to them. I think that some of my most important relationships, especially professional ones, are ones where developed over many years. And, um, and if I’m lucky, we develop a friendship and that’s even better. Right? So that is the only thing that mitigates that kind of power.
Cara: For both of you, it sounds like you think about collecting art as a long-term process, not as a series of individual transactions or purchases. Can you talk about how you do that as an artist, how you reach out to collectors? And then, one other thing I think is great is something that you said to me a while ago… You said that whenever you sell a piece of work, you buy a piece of art from another artist. I think that’s fantastic and it’s good advice for all artists. But back to relationships, Zoë how do you develop and maintain relationships with collectors?
Zoë: Honestly, it usually is not about art. That’s how I ended up maintaining relationships with collectors, that we have other kinds of shared interests, like we’ve been talking today about the structures of dinner parties and like how we do that. So, I just find other things that are interesting to us both. I have a great story about a collector who was a basketball player, and I’m not sure how he ended up getting my number, but he started calling me every three months and I remember I was going to Zurich one year, one summer, and I was walking onto the plane and he called and I was like, hey, what are you doing? I’m going to Zurich. What are you doing? Um, I’m just calling to talk with you. And I thought, well, this is strange. Like what are we supposed to talk about?
And he just, I mean, I really generally didn’t know what to say. And he led that conversation. He just wanted to talk about what I am doing in my studio, what I was reading? I mean, that was a big thing. So we ended up finding other ways to build a relationship. And I think that that’s been the most, that’s the only way that we can maintain our friendship. Because if we’re just talking about the work, then that kind of exchange always feels like there’s something at stake.
Philippa: Just to add to that, relationship building has to be multidimensional. If you’re only ever talking about art, that gets kind of boring, right? I mean, I love talking about art to a point, but like there are other dimensions to us as people. So if you want to have a real relationship with somebody, I mean, think about it and you’ve got the rest of your life for this. For me, it’s like, I just want to see you as a full person and being an artist is one amazing aspect of you, Zoë, but also you’re a very interesting person in many other ways.
Zoë: Well, thank you!
Cara: I’m here too. Okay? I know I’m just the moderator, though. [laughter]
Zoë: I’m just thinking about relationships in general. I mean, do you want to date a guy who only talks about one thing ever? Nope. But, on my personal collection…. when I sell something, I always turn around and buy the work of my peers or someone who is younger than me. I just picked up work from Kennedy Ringgold, a recent graduate of MICA’s undergraduate program. I’m really excited about having that work and I’m really excited to be supporting her and her thinking. And she’s a native of Baltimore.
Also, a really important collection that I had been fortunate to obtain is through a collecting collaboration with my colleague, Tim Doud. And so we have a relationship and the way that we have decided, we’ve decided to put our politics into practice because we like going to studios. We like talking to artists who are our peers and artists that we can’t ever imagine getting into their studios.
We recently acquired a work by Magnolia Laurie, and that was massive. Hey Magnolia. I bet you didn’t know that! So, so we’re really excited about that. And I think that that’s the way that you expand that is that we both have relationships with Magnolia, our friendships with her and, and part of it’s professional, part of is social, part of it is just being an artist in community, and it’s one way we’ve figured out how to support each other and other artists.
Cara: I segued into Philippa’s dinner slide. [image on screen of dinner party in Philippa’s apartment] It’s interesting to me that Philippa in, in talking about the bubble girl and the press that surrounded all of that, the idea that certain collectors are seen as valid and others are not. It’s crazy to me that there’s this hierarchy in the world of collecting. It seems so ridiculous and so pretentious and, and not all that helpful to anyone really, creating more boundaries in a space where we need less.
Philippa, I know you collect artists who are nationally and internationally known, as well as main who are based in the city where you live, in DC. Can you talk about that balance?
Philippa: I would say about half of it was made in DC. I’m a very emotional buyer, so I have strong feelings about each piece that I own.
Small story though about the hierarchy of art collecting. This one time I was in Los Angeles, and I actually went specifically to see one show from an artist whose work I own – remember Rozeal? Used to go by Iona Rozeal Brown? And it was these big beautiful works and there was this one piece that I really wanted and so I was talking to the gallery owner and she was hemming and hawing. I was like, that’s weird. Like I’m telling you, I want to buy that piece. I’m going to give you money. And she was like hemming and hawing about, oh, the long story short is the Rubells bought it. So I was like, oh of course, you know, I guess they had already been talking about it, but they hadn’t agreed to it yet.
Cara: So your interest and money were not considered as good as the Rubell’s, since they are internationally known collectors?
Philippa: Yeah. And she was holding it for them in the hopes that they would buy it and they ended up buying it. And the way I found out? I didn’t know that they had bought it until years later when the Rubells had a show at the women’s museum in DC and the piece was in that show. And I was like, dammit, that was the piece that, and that’s how I found out that, you know, obviously they’d want her piece to be in that collection and not in my collection even though she and I were actual friends. Anyway, that’s just a little story. It illustrates this idea that there is a hierarchy to art collecting. And I mean, part of me, I’m like, fine, I get it. Like, I’m happy for Iona like that that happened for her, but also, but on a bigger scale, it goes back to this whole idea of the power imbalance between collector and artists and also between this kind of collector and that kind of collector and then the museum collection and all of that.
And that was a rant, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this. And we talked earlier about capitalism, and I think – if we want to solve this problem, we have to get rid of capitalism because that’s really what drives them.
Cara: Collecting and capitalism do go hand in hand, don’t they? And how to maintain the idea of purity that is ascribed to art and artists who are driven by ideas and not wealth?
Philippa: And that’s why I’m so struggling with this question. Maybe there’s no point in even like trying to solve the problem on this sort of individual level when there’s a big systemic problem that we have to solve that, that we can’t do anything about this until that gets fixed? So there is a political solution we may need to consider first. And I’m interested in having these political conversations.
Cara: Can you talk more about your Red and Blue dinner party series?
Philippa: Right after the 2016 presidential election when we were all, probably many in this room, were very upset by the results, I wanted to do something. My solution to being upset was to start inviting Trump voters over to my house for dinner. And so we’d gather around my dining table and I would make these dinners and I would try to make red and blue foods. There’s one meal where I had these blue tortilla chips and red salsa and blue cheese on this red pasta that I found that was like tinted with a beet juice and, and I made a blueberry and cherry crisp for dessert
Cara: I think that’s technically purple. [laughter]
Philippa: And then the dinners became more popular but I had a hard time finding Trump voters in DC, but I’d find a friend of a friend, or find people on Twitter. And I would meet them in a coffee shop in advance to make sure they were not a psycho killer, and they actually turned out to be okay, with maybe a crazy Twitter feed. So then I kept doing this over and over. I’d invite people over for dinner, different conversation, relationship building, seeing each other eye to eye, like, you know, I was really thinking about humanizing. Also I have a very artful apartment. So I thought, well maybe that gives people something to think about other than attacking each other.
I did that over and over and I’m trying to not make this too long, but it culminated last fall in me organizing a small art show at a museum around the topic of Immigration and they asked me to organize a dinner. It was 50 people from across the political spectrum in the museum. So I invited people to come look at the art and experience whatever they experienced with that, and then we’d have a conversation and it was amazing. And so I invited this man to come who was from this organization that does immigration policy and basically long story short is now they’re funding me to do art shows and dinners across America. So that’s what I’ve been doing for that.
Cara: Yeah, it’s an amazing thing.
Philippa: Now basically this whole year is about organizing all of that and it’s so awesome to go to these cities and talk to people who don’t think like us. And that’s in our own country. So like I’ve just realized like there’s like 10 countries in our one country and it’s fascinating. I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind, but I’m just trying to open up these kinds of spaces with art to at least get people to talk to each other. And I think that’s how the Pink Line Project evolved. It started out as a publication and event calendar. We hosted events, mostly based in DC. We would do some coverage and then it sort of evolved into events.
Cara: At a certain point you were like hosting a party for several hundred people every week or two. I mean I love hosting a lot of things, but that seems like a lot.
Philippa: Sometimes it would be several hundred people, but sometimes it would be five people. So I was just trying to think of every possible way that art could be used to bring people together because not everybody wants to come to it in a friend thousand people and, but also that’s a different kind of dialogue than you can have like this. So I was trying to figure out every possible way to, so that nobody would have an excuse. Like you there, you want to be around art or talking to people about art. Like there’s no excuse. There is a way for you!
Cara: Was it art and not music or dance or theater? Like why visual art?
Philippa: I don’t know because I like all the art forms, but contemporary visual art is my jam. I don’t know. That’s the thing that moves me the most and it’s a visceral thing. Why do you breathe? I just know. You just know that’s the thing for you. That’s what you want to focus on and be around.
Cara: And then in terms of art, are studio visits still a primary way that you engage with artists? Do you do discover work at exhibitions? Do you discover work when you’re being a juror or curator? How do you initially find artists?
Philippa: Today was so great. Does everybody know that we went to all these studios today? That was amazing. I hadn’t done that in a long time. So I appreciated you setting all of that up and you and Jeffrey picked the most amazing artists. And I’m not just saying that cause I’m in Baltimore, but like every single one was like better than the next. Not better, but wow, there’s usually one dud, but there wasn’t! And then I thought, maybe subconsciously you picked artists you knew I would be attracted to somehow, even though we don’t actually know each other that well.
Cara: Zoë also is someone who gives a very good studio visit. How do you do it? What are your strategies? I feel like the first studio visit I did with you, it was just very comfortable, very smooth. Having done this multiple times over the years, I wasn’t even aware that you had a very specific strategy.
You just always have it covered. So can you just talk about that? Because most artists don’t, and a lot of artists, the first thing they do when you come into their studio is they apologize. You have never done that. And none of the artists we visited today did that. One takeaway: Artists, never apologize, never, never, for your space. It doesn’t matter if your studio looks like a cyclone.
Zoë: My primary strategy is through storytelling, that’s how I end up navigating through the world. I connect with people over stories, so I enter into studio visits through telling stories. I think that that’s really the best way that I’ve found to explain what I’m doing. It just makes it more concrete, more personal. I also moved through my work thematically. I don’t always do it chronology, because my practice is not just chronological and I revisit series often, but something that always comes back up were specific kinds of themes. Even the way that I lay work out in the studio, there’s always a relationship between the thing that is either catty-corner to it or right next to it. And so that’s been really important. That actually helps me tell a story a lot more easily.
And, I don’t apologize when people come into my studio cause my studio is typically a hot mess. If I spend time cleaning it up that’s pretty exciting for me cause I never get to see things that are not halfway covered with other stuff, or like today, with pieces on the floor.
Cara: Your studio is not a hot mess. Not right now. It’s actually pretty clean.
Philippa: It was good. One thing I noticed that has been consistent, is that she has multiple sizes of work in her studio. Some very large monumental pieces, larger than a person but not too many,
She has designated different spaces in the studio. Some small pieces are hung up, and some are in sort of in neat stacks and piles according type of work, body of work. She works in a series and there’s just a sense of order. I think people gravitate to the larger pieces first. But oftentimes someone who is a new collector is going to buy something small. You also had sculpture in your studio and then you also had a tablet out with digital images and video so we could see like three or four of these large drawings, figure drawings that she had and then we could actually see what they look like installed in a museum. Because for me, that was transformative. Seeing them in the context, obviously we’re not going to go to the museum, we’re in your studio. But having that sort of sense to see the work as it is, but also to see in context I think is good.
Zoë: It’s like going to a store in a way… The best kinds of stores have a variety of things going on, things to touch and see, different sizes, and things to shuffle through. Those are really the best experiences, like old bookstores that have a big display but then lots of small things to sift through. So, when folks come to my studio I know that it’s not pleasurable to stand in one space, looking at one thing. It’s a different kind of experience when you can touch something or look through things at your own pace, consider a series and then relate it all back together. In my studio visits, I build in time for people not to talk, but just to look and ask questions.
Philippa: I want to underscore, too, this idea of storytelling, in the sense that when you’re telling stories, you’re building a relationship because you are sharing a part of yourself. There’s got to be a give and take because otherwise, you’re just doing the sales pitch and that doesn’t feel good. I’m pitched to a lot and as a person collecting, it’s always better to remind me of an experience I had and that’s is why and how your art connects to me.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m a very emotional art buyer. What does is mean to see something and it brings tears to your eyes? When that happens, I’ve got to have this. It’s not just visually, but sometimes because I talked to this person and the story reminds me of the time when something similar happened to me. That’s what I mean by emotional response.
Some collectors are more analytical. They care more about where you went to school and what residencies you’ve done. Those are the classic things. And if someone visiting your studio is like this, then that’s fine, you have to go with it. But I think it’s important to be open to the possibility that a lot of people are more like me. I’m not buying to invest. I’m not going to make gazillion dollars someday on my art collection. I’m buying it because I love it and I love the artist, not because it’s going to pay off one day and I better make sure the artist went to the right school. That’s just not my priority.
Cara: Do you see it as investing in an artist and their career?
Philippa: Yes, but it’s not an investment in my financial future at all. And I think collectors who are doing that at our level are really dumb actually. I think that’s a mistake because that’s like investing in the stock market or something to me. Who knows? You might as well just stick that money into your mattress.
Audience Question 1: I think the root of capitalism is just trying to hold on to things and that’s a dynamic in collecting. I’m not making a judgment, I’m just leaving it open. The other phrase that came into my mind was what we say in a marriage ceremony: “to have and to hold” and then sometimes “till death do us part.” But I just wanted to offer up those two phrases that came into my mind, listening to you talk about this…
Philippa: I have a quick response “to have and to hold.” I was married for a really long time and my ex and I collected a lot of art together and when we split up, very nice person, it was a very easy divorce, it was very amicable in every way except for one–and that was splitting up the art collection. Literally it took like a year to figure out how we’re going to divide it and we tried out different methodologies.
And at one point I was so frustrated, I thought, there’s going to be a murder. But then we made lists and this idea of to “having to hold” really like hit deep for me, and I realized they’re just objects at the end of the day and I still get to know the artist behind the object which I can replace, more or less. Unless you’re Peggy Cooper Cafritz and you lose your entire art collection to a fire. For me, art is more important than the money in the transaction, more important than our acquisition.
Audience Question 2: In addition to being a fan of your work, Zoë, one of the things I have noticed is that you seem to be involved administratively throughout a variety of institutions around the country. From the outside looking in, I don’t know all these details, I don’t know if it was as an artist or as a consultant or as a curator, but can you talk a little bit about your involvement with art institutions outside of being an artist?
Zoë: When I worked at other institutions or with other institutions, it’s not as a consultant, but as an artist. I know that I have a responsibility to raise the concerns that artists have in my communities. And I belonged to a lot of different communities. And an example of that is when I’m a councilor for the Maryland State Arts Council and I did that for a very particular reason, because I saw things happening and said by artists who were my friends who were applying for grants for through the Maryland State Arts Council, and they weren’t able to do things or have funding in the way that they felt that they should.
When I had an opportunity to join the council, I jumped towards it. And, I think that it’s been very enlightening because it allowed me to think more strategically about how grants are written and what I can tell my friends who are applying to help them and other artists who are applying. And that extends to a lot of other organizations or boards that I belong to, like the WPA or being a mentor at Hamiltonian. Those kinds of experiences are important because they extend and help other people who aren’t artists understand what we’re thinking. So I always go to go to go into those situations as an artist first and foremost. And I do a lot of work with other universities and art departments because I feel very strongly about how we’re teaching and how we’re presenting ourselves.
Audience Question 3: Can you explain what you meant by emotional art collecting?
Philippa: For example, I have two sets of photographs by Nick and Sheila Pie. They used to show Curator’s Office and did several series of photographs about the absurdity of marriage and then they broke up. I bought several of their photographs, but one of them I bought at the time I was getting divorced because it really spoke to me. I mean, I already liked their work, as artists, but this was emotional art planning. I think that my art collection often reflects as a marker for a time in my life that was very emotional. But also, there’s this whole other section of my art collection that is about me being really into color and pattern. I also love the way artists see things that I don’t like and manages to attract me to it, and I cannot figure out how they did that.
Audience Question 4: Thank you all for being so transparent with everything tonight, with Zoe sharing how you pursue art. And so the question is really for both of you: If you had to pick three things that are factors for why you would want to collect a piece of artwork – can you share that with us? I had a colleague that said that, when you want a piece of artwork, if it’s beautiful, you think about it all the time and you want to possess it. And I thought, contemporary art actually contradicts all of those things. So that’s not really good criteria and it’s actually not the criteria for me.
Zoë: I tend to look at a lot of work on paper because I’m a drawer, so I want to support people who are making work on paper. Over the last few years I have managed to sort of go against that and I’ve been looking at paintings and sculptures and some photos too. I want the work to say something that is indicative of the time that we’re living in and my own personal politics. So, one of my main criteria is that it has to say something.
Philippa: I totally agree with that, that it has to say something. When I was talking about the works that I have that are about pattern and color, in each case they’re saying something, but it’s different in each case. It has to speak to not just me personally, but maybe to something in the world that’s important. And to get back to something you said earlier, I was thinking the last couple of things that I’ve purchased were from young artists. And, if I feel like this person is actually going to stick around and really work at their art career, then I want to help support that artist because I do know like you can kinda tell when somebody is not 100%, you can tell. So, if I feel like, I know this person, and maybe this is not the best work they’re ever going to produce, but I can see where it’s going: Like, here’s some money. I’m happy to support it by buying your art, but you better make some good art. If I see the potential and I know that you need a little encouragement, I’m going to buy.
Audience Question 5: This is kind of a funny question, but being longtime collectors, how do you deal with lack of wall space?
Philippa: Um, I don’t. I rotate my collection, so there’s always wall space.
Zoë: When Rick and I first moved here, we went to an opening at The Warehouse. Do you remember The Warehouse? And, Travis Childers was making these paper tanks and I think there were over a hundred of them. And what I saw, I was like to have these paper tanks and at the time, we were in and out of conflicts and wars and I was obsessed with this work and we ended up getting it.
And they’re all sitting in one of those big cases to right now. And so we’ve been really thinking about, how do we actually install something like this? Where do we put it? And, um, we were thinking, oh, we could do a ledge, or a shelf all along the perimeter of the ceiling and have them looking down. We started thinking about other ways of showing work, so we rotate work regularly, but we also look at work that might not need to be on a wall. Maybe it exists in a flat file and I have to go through the file and people often come into my basement and go through our flat files to see. Wall space is the least of my worries.
Cara: I want to thank the audience for their questions and please join us in the bar for a drink and conversation. Thank you all for coming out. Give yourselves a hand.