Living for a Living: Greg Morton, Art Collector and Owner of Frederick Douglass’s Fells Point Home

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Terrible Men at the Movies: ‘Once Upon a Ti [...]

Financier, businessman, and art collector Greg Morton splits his time between New Jersey and a house that the abolitionist Frederick Douglass built in Baltimore’s Fells Point called Douglass Place. His Baltimore residence on South Dallas Street is one of five rowhomes Douglass built in the 1890s for African Americans who migrated north after slavery was abolished to become caulkers in the then-thriving ship-building industry. 

Today, Morton runs the home as a part-time Airbnb that is truly a full-time living-with-art gallery, showcasing his impressive and ever-growing collection of African American art and artifacts. A print by Jacob Lawerence sits opposite a painting by Delita Martin and a poster advertising a Nina Simone concert. In the kitchen, a mammy figurine sits near the dish rack, and throughout the house books about Black history and art are neatly stacked on tables. The small house feels comfortable but it is obvious that each wall and surface are intended to be in conversation with the rest of the room. Morton’s assemblage of old playbills, African masks, and contemporary paintings tell of the complex history of people of African descent in the United States. Racist historical objects, such as the mammy figurine, originally made with the intention of stereotyping African Americans are juxtaposed with contemporary pieces that celebrate the Black image. It’s important to Morton to include and recognize both aspects of this history through his collection of art and artifacts. “It’s not just the artwork, it’s also remembrance, too” he says. 

I interviewed Morton in the home this past July to hear more about what drew him not only to collecting historical and contemporary African American art and artifacts but also opening his private home for strangers to stay in. It’s clear that Morton feels personally called to this work and connected to Douglass, seeing his ownership of the property as a chance to be a steward of “a piece of American history.” 

Morton, who likes the idea of “sharing spaces” with like-minded guests, is hard at work with a partner on the house next door, also built by Frederick Douglass, and hopes within the year to alternative living between the two as his guests come and go, connecting with history and art on a very human level.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.

Suzy Kopf: How did you decide that running an Airbnb in Frederick Douglass’s former home was something you wanted to do?

Greg Morton: I like to live for a living. And what I mean by that is the things that I do to make money, I actually really enjoy. So I really enjoy working in finance. I mean, it seems kind of hectic, but it’s once you get the pace of it, you know, there’s a joy to it. I really enjoy collecting artwork and would be doing it anyway. What this has turned into, not even on purpose, is sharing it with people and seeing how it goes. What I would naturally be doing anyway to enjoy myself has become something that other people enjoy and I’ve been able to capitalize off of that. 

Another business of yours, Cahoots Brothers, recently won the Remington Storefront Challenge. How did that idea get started?

My friend Arvay Adams and I do custom fashion together. I saw what he was doing a few years ago and I was like, “Oh, I really like what you do.” And then I just patronized his stuff and we end up having a relationship, just going out drinking and talking shit. Since I travel a bit, I wear his stuff and people ask me, “Who makes that? Where did you get that from?” And I would say, “Oh, my homeboy makes it,” so I started kind of funneling people to him. 

When I was asked to put together an exhibit at the Banneker-Douglass Museum, the executive director, Chanel Compton, came through and said, “Could you create a space that’s just like your home and just put it into the museum as an exhibit?” So I thought “Okay, that’s cool. But let me take it a step further. Let’s base it off of Douglass’s different places that he had in Maryland.” So I had three corners of the room, one was based on Douglass House, this place, one was based on his Washington, DC property, Cedar Hill, and another one was based on Twin Oaks, which is in Annapolis. When I  was deciding what to put for this place, it was more brick and just a little edgier than the other properties so I decided to focus on art and custom fashion and asked Arvay, “Can you base it off of Frederick Douglass?” We did a Letterman jacket called “The Orators.” 

Jackets by Arvay Adams and Greg Morton, inspired by Shirley Chisholm, Frederick Douglass, Madam C.J. Walker, and Josephine Baker

Arvay is an artist, just like anybody who draws and paints, he is just choosing the medium of soft textile and all his stuff is hand-drawn. From start to finish, he is conceptualizing it and then utilizing techniques that he researches to make different patch styles. Arvay’s cousin is Derrick Adams and I had a Derrick Adams piece, so in the exhibit, I put their work next to each other so it’s a cool little family nod.

When people saw the show they kept hitting me up, like, “Can I get one, can I get one, can I get one, can I get one?” People were appreciating that the jackets were very well done and wanted to buy them. The rub is this, when we do these custom jackets now, I make them like I want them and it’s actually kind of difficult for me to let them go once they’re done. And that’s also the reason why I should let them go. I love them so much and I would only want to sell something that I really care about myself. So if I love it, and I can’t imagine why somebody else wouldn’t love it, then it’s something I have to be involved with. That’s how Arvay and I started working together.

So when we landed the Remington Storefront Challenge along with our other collaborators, Alex Bell, a ceramicist and photographer, Kyle Johnson of Bluestone Goldsmithing, and Warner Blak, it was an honor and a blessing but I will say, we were prepared for it because we had already had the idea to do it anyway. It’s going to be an art retail experience.

With this history that you are sort of the keeper of now, you’ve become a de facto Frederick Douglass historian. People come to you and ask you all about his life. Do you feel drawn to this history? And why is this your job now?

Grace of God, I can’t deny that. I didn’t plan for any of this stuff. It wasn’t so contrived but I was always coming back to Baltimore to visit family and friends and I wanted a place that was my own. One day while I was looking, my mom texted me, “Hey, did you know Frederick Douglass’s house is for sale?” And I checked it out. I passed the first time because I thought it needed too much work but then I just really couldn’t sleep at night. I looked at so many other places that were move-in ready but I kept coming back to, “Man, It’s Frederick Douglass’s HOUSE!” I felt like I needed to do it for the historical value. The homes are a piece of American history and it was almost a surprise to me that it was able to be had and that nobody jumped on it. It hadn’t been preserved and kept up. So I felt like I should do it. 

How did you start collecting works by contemporary and historically significant African American artists?

By the time I’d purchased this house, I had started working in finance and had the idea of, since I’m going to have something on the wall, maybe I should be buying assets instead of, you know, just anything. By assets, I mean a way to store value—it’s the idea that you’re purchasing something at $2 that two years later will be worth $4, it’s a verifiable marketplace. It is important to me to collect work that is my aesthetic but also my value perspective that is a self reflection of my culture. 

I feel like my collection is the starter pack. Some collectors, like Darryl Atwell, who is a mentor of mine, represent a level way beyond the level that I am now but where I aspire to be one day.

Depending on the artist and level of medium that you’re collecting, you’re talking anywhere from $200 to $2 million. So somebody who looks at art collecting as fuddy-duddy may be put off by the pomp and circumstance and see it as unapproachable because they expect that you have to get in at such heightened values and you need to have excess capital to begin with to have a collection that anybody cares about. With me, because I am a finance guy and I think in numbers, I really did survey the landscape and look at what I was already collecting, which was collectible posters. For example, an early piece I picked up was a Jacob Lawerence poster that he did for the 1972 Olympics. That was $300 when I bought it and now it is worth $1,500 depending on where you look. The idea of starting at the level where it’s like just a couple of hundred bucks, $200, $300 and you love it and appreciate it, that didn’t seem like so much for me to start.

I have this old program from the Broadway musical Purlie, which is the play where Sherman Hemsley [of The Jeffersons fame] got his start. I got that from a trade show, it has a collectible nature because it is old. I like remembering cool African American culture and media. Those things aren’t really expensive, that’s a couple of bucks, 15, 20, 30 bucks. It’s once you move into the $3,000-$5,000 range that you start to move into galleries. And galleries are a toss-up because it’s contemporary art, so it’s a lot of hype possibly. Contemporary art is a gamble from a value perspective but if you’re just buying works of art that you love and you want to support the artist, you have to start there.

Photo by John Lucia of Kneejerk Imagery

Would you call your collection an archive on some level? Are you assembling an archive intentionally? 

I think I’ll get to a point where I will have pieces that a museum will want to borrow. I have a friend who had an Amy Sherald and she realized one day, “It should not be here” so she toured it all around so people could see it. So maybe one day I’ll have a piece that raises to that echelon. Outside of that, I guess I could call it an archive, but it’s almost like interior decorating and it just happens to be art pieces because I do care about and value the perspective of artists. All of this started because I was trying to decorate a place that I feel comfortable in, so I try not to go too far beyond that because there are people who spend their whole lives and careers and professions studying art appreciation and knowing everybody’s name and I’m not that guy! I don’t know everyone’s name, I just know when I like it and it feels good to me.

Is there a piece you passed on collecting that has become “the one that got away”?

Yes, it was a Nina Chanel Abney that was in the Newark Project for Empty Space and I happened to be walking through. I didn’t pick anything up because I was in a rush and when I came back it was gone. I had no idea who she was but a couple months later I was like “Oh shit, that was her!?” 

Discussing the value of works of art seems to be an overlap interest for you, given your work in finance.

Yes, I do recognize the value of the “thingness,” but there’s a sense of sentimental value that you should always follow in your heart. I’m not collecting something I don’t like because I think that is going to be valuable later unless it was a Kerry James Marshall or something. If it was a drawing he did on a piece of paper and they could prove to me it was real, sure! I buy artwork because I love it and I speculate that it will be valuable but if it never grows in value, I’ll be fine with what it is because I like it.

Some of my friends who are also collectors, like Darryl, regard themselves as preservationists. If you get to a level where you have works of museum quality, why is it just in your house over your bed? You should tour and share it with the world. Also having a work in a museum is a way to store it and preserve it. The value is not just in the “thingness,” it’s in the cultural conservation.

I know exactly what you mean. Is that a goal of yours, long-term, to be placing works in your collection in museums?

Yes. But what I am doing now is enjoying the work myself, sharing my home, which is kind of become a little living gallery. I absolutely love this place. I love these pieces of work. But I care about the preservation of this place as a space because Frederick Douglass built this house. This is a piece of American history and in a sense a collector’s house, a collectible house, and it should have been regarded as that even before I stepped in the door. Part of what I do here is to make sure that the history of Frederick Douglass in this place is preserved and paid homage to and carried on and respected. The collecting of African American artists happens to coalign and presents the space as a living gallery in its own right. The difference between what I am doing and someone like Myrtis Bedolla [owner of Galerie Myrtis] is the hospitality of it, “Come live and be with it.” Sometimes people contact me and ask if I am selling anything and the answer is no! But maybe. I think of it almost like a curated hotel.

How many days out of the year do you estimate you’re renting out the house?

Maybe two weeks a month? The house needs a rest and I don’t want to prostitute it. I also like to be here myself. When people come, I talked to them about the place and explain that I am sharing my personal living space with them. Nobody stays here without meeting me or my mama and my pop. It’s hospitality, you can’t check into a hotel without checking in with the concierge. I tell people “Treat this place like you would your mama’s place… I’m assuming”. This is not just an Airbnb, don’t come up in here and wreck nothing. Respect that this is somebody’s actual home and it also, it has a historic quality to it. I don’t really do it for the money. The money helps sustain it, but I don’t do it for the money. So I’m not afraid to share things that I love with people. But you know, you have to let people know you love it, because people tend to treat you and your things how you treat them yourself.

A lot of the work in your collection is figurative, so I feel like that must be intentional choice you’ve made, and also right now, figurative art is having a moment in national and international art markets. Could you speak a little bit about the power figurative work has for you and what you make of this moment we are currently in?

I pay attention to the art market and what other people are collecting but it’s really an organic choice for me. From a collector’s standpoint, people start with the figure because it’s the most easy appreciable. You look at it and it’s a bunch of faces looking back at you, but as your palate becomes more formed maybe you move into collecting abstraction. For me personally, I’m moving more towards collecting abstraction now because abstraction makes you feel something you can’t put your finger on per se and it doesn’t have to point to a particular vision of something, it makes you feel something. I’m moving away from portraiture now.

You have enough faces?

There’s something about people looking at you all the time! I’m moving more into figurative work that is not so true to life and abstraction. I’m getting into sculpture, I just picked up a Kehinde Wiley sculpture, it’s coming in the mail. I am also into cultural relics, like a 1920s-era minstrel toy that dances when you squeeze the handle. This is America, these historical artifacts are art but it’s also important to make sure that you remember and have some stake in the ownership of your historical culture. For me, it’s not just the artwork it’s also remembrance too. I’m getting a bit deeper in old slave documents and old photographs of families, older things that were touched by people in another time.

Having a collection is not just about the artworks, it’s about the records, it’s about how does it make you feel when it’s all kind of put together in like a living space. It’s a different experience to be here and fall asleep and wake up in the morning to see stuff than it is to see it in a museum for a few hours and leave. So the homey-ness of it is important, it opens up what a collection can be.

Photos by María Sánchez, except where otherwise noted.

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