The Art Collector Next Door

Don’t delete people from your mailing list or wipe them off your radar just because you think they’re not potential buyers.

Kyle Vincent Thomas, Weathered (study). Oil on canvas mounted on panel.

Kyle Vincent Thomas, Weathered (study). Oil on canvas mounted on panel, 20 x 16 inches. ©The Artist

Part of your job as marketing wizard for your art is to figure out who your audience is. But there will be times when you come across people attracted to your art that don’t conform to your notion of an ideal patron.

Embrace them!

When I was a naïve young curator, I worked with a number of collectors in our local community.

Some people looked, dressed, and lived as you would expect a collector to. They were well-coiffed, wore designer clothing, drove shiny imported cars, and owned lovely homes tended to by housekeepers and gardeners.

Then there were Mr. and Mrs. Wilson (pseudonyms). Mr. and Mrs. Wilson looked like they were relatively homeless – especially Mr. W.

His socks were probably 40 years old and didn’t match his clothing. His shoes were worn, and he drove a beat-up jalopy. He usually needed a shower when I met with him.

Mr. W was a closet collector. “Hoarder” might be a better word. He had a warehouse full of purchases that he had made over decades, which were mostly from auction houses.

This was not a small warehouse. Its size and the enormous number of items it stored were mind-boggling.

And there was Mr. Wilson overseeing it all in a rundown, non-climate-controlled, low-security warehouse.

There’s an argument to be made that you don’t want your art to end up in a box in a dark corner of a secret warehouse. I get that. But not every closet collector will behave as Mr. Wilson did.

While Mr. Wilson was no collector of living artists, there are still two lessons to be learned from this story:

  • Don’t discount anyone just because they don’t look like a serious buyer.
  • Treat everyone who approaches your art as equal.

Do you have a similar story about an unlikely collector?

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15 comments to The Art Collector Next Door

  • Your story makes me think of Herb and Dorothy Vogel. A retired postal worker and librarian -perhaps two of the most unlikely contemporary art collectors ever! The National Gallery of Art now houses their amazing collection.

  • Robin

    That’s funny Holly – I though of the Vogels immediately when I read the story. Here’s another: We were en route to a show last year when we blew a wheel bearing in our RV and had to spend the night in a parking lot waiting for a repair truck. The man who responded was around 60, drove a truck full of parts, was missing a few teeth and had permanent grease up to his elbows. When he found out that we were headed to an art show, he enthusiastically responded that he liked to go to art shows and collect paintings. He estimated that he had acquired around 300 paintings over the years. I asked if they were prints or originals and he said that he only ever bought originals – otherwise, it just wasn’t the same. Anyway – ya never know! This goes for any business and any good salesman should know that you never judge a book by it’s cover.

  • So True!! When I sold Time/Billing Software to Architects + Engineers (way back when PC’s cost over $10,000 + had a 20 Megabyte HD) it was often the smaller Firms operating out of a Grubby Office as opposed to the Glossy Futuristic ones out of an Ayn Rand novel who Bought!! It’s always Surprising just Who can Cut a Check!! ;)

  • I have a simular customer much like the one in this story. Rhonda lives in the apartments right next door to my gallery. She is a bit of a recluse but felt comfortable coming to our gallery. I also like the gallery to have a friendly feel to all who come in. Upon offering a layaway plan on a piece of art to Rhonda, she decided that was a doable way to purchase her first original piece of art. She has now after a year and a half bought 6 originals from the gallery and has her eye on a new piece. I have a new collector and she is a happy art owner. Find a way for people to buy. Even if it’s over time.

  • This is absolutely true! I used to be a personal assistant for a well-known artist. He was a gem. He’d buy me lunch every day and sometimes we’d go to a fancy place for lunch. The first time, I was horrified. We were both very messy that day. We stepped into the restaurant and I saw all these dressed up people. The staff treated us fabulously, but I worried about our appearance. My boss, ” I hope when I grow up I can be like these guys and earn 72K a year.” (The joke being that as his asst. I knew his income and I can’t count that high.) My boss did not care how he looked, he was happy and enjoying life. The staff at the restaurant treated us well regardless of our clothing. If you meet him, don’t dismiss him. You will miss out on an amazingly generous person and possible collector. Or at the least the chance for an excellent trade!

  • Your story is a good one, Alyson. Looking at their shoes to tell their income is an inexact science at best, isn’t it?

    I met a nonagenarian at the art fair, and she had the eyes to prove her age: blue, pale and flattened with age. She was small and sweet, with a French accent. Her apartment was a couple blocks from the venue, and her story was that she had an art collection. Much of it was stuffed under her bed, so large it was.

    She had some by Miro. Some by Picasso. A Klee. A Matisse. You get the idea.

  • My first sale of a major bead weaving piece was to a retired couple (he had worked at the Social Security Office in Maryland). The piece was a massive work in purple and lavender and vintage crystal – she told me she was planning on wearing it to a family reunion. He had seen it first and said to me, “Oh, I have to call my wife over here!”

    Looking at them one might assume that they were more conventional than they actually were. People make choices on how they want to spend their money. While many ogle the latest sneaker or exercise equipment, others choose art and fine craft – even so far as furnishing their homes with one of a kind or limited edition pieces by highly skilled artisans instead of going out to Ikea or some other mainstream home furnishing store.

  • Wow…I really enjoyed reading all these stories….amazing!!

  • I also first thought of Herb and Dorothy Vogel. And then I also was reminded that several of my biggest sales have come from friends who I really never saw or looked at as potential collectors of my work.

    And what I learned from this was, not only should we treat everyone who approaches our art as equal and don’t discount anyone as potential collectors, but also that the people who buy my work are doing so more because of the relationship I’ve established with them – getting to know me and understanding more about my work – than just by seeing my art by itself in a show or online. I think it’s this deeper personal connection that draws people to want to buy a piece of my art, whether it be a large work or smaller, more affordable piece.

  • This reminds me of when I was doing art fairs years ago. A late middle-aged woman came into my booth, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and struck up a conversation and told me that she was a retired school teacher. Since I was also a former school teacher we had a nice conversation. She loved my work and asked me many questions about several pieces. Two hours passed and I was still answering questions about changing frames etc. My neighbors next to me thought I was CRAZY for spending the time I did with her. I had many other visitors to my booth because I had received an award that day, but I gave everyone who entered my booth the attention they deserved. The third hour with this woman arrived and low and behold she had not one, but three paintings she wanted to purchase. I gave her a discount for multiple purchases and she became a loyal customer each year I participated in that art fair. My neighbors next to me did not make sales that day and never returned to that art fair. My lesson from this experience was to treat each person who entered my booth as a treasured potential customer…greeting them and be willing to answer any questions for them. One can ‘never judge a book by its cover’!

  • One of my collectors is a single middle aged man who drives an old car and lives in a small apartment, yet he has bought several paintings from me. None of these are in a series, all are a different subject matter, one he bought right off the easel before it was finished! He also buys from other artists, and writes the most beautifully poetic letters of thank you after he takes the pieces home. He loves to come by the studio and sits and talks for hours sometimes. He does not currently have the wall space to hang all of the art he collects, and you’d never know he was an avid collector by looking at him, but he has been a huge support to me, including donating to my nonprofit ogranization that I started last year. It is not unusual for him to buy several pieces at a time on layaway and he is always on time with payments. Never judge a book by its cover!

  • [...] Lee Shiney attended my book signing and talk in Wichita, Kansas. He writes: You were talking about keeping in touch with buyers, using mailing lists, etc., and my dilemma had always been that often I didn’t know who bought work because it was cash and carry out of small shops. There was no record of the actual buyer. [...]

  • [...] And the person who wanted to know if I had any more like the narrow hand-dyed piece I’d made specifically to show her?   She’s already a collector of my work.   One of those special people I learned about from Alyson Stanfield . [...]

  • [...] pressure to approach the potential buyer at the perfect [...]