Collector Profile: An Eye for the Outsider

A young doctor quietly living on Chicago’s North Side fell into collecting art 20 years ago. Like many devoted collectors, he says at first he didn’t know what he was doing, but it’s been a passion ever since. Within his Modern-looking condo, surrounded by faces of all colors and shapes and contortions, one is struck by the number of works by Outsiders - those curious and inspiring artists who are compelled to create art using any means and materials necessary in an effort to express the thoughts within them. Through learning about his own tastes and interests, this collector has discovered the pleasures of meeting artists in unexpected places and the fun in sharing the unconventional with friends at home. -GV

CGN: Tell me how you got started collecting works of art? Is your focus different today?
DR: The first work I bought was at auction, at Kass/Meridian, probably 20 or so years ago.  Unfortunately I was caught in a bidding war - with my roommate at the time! I ‘won’ that battle, only to find I owned a work I knew nothing about, by an artist I had never heard of, but for which I had fought feverishly. That lesson in impulse buying taught me to research, take my time, enjoy the process of discovering what type of art I liked and how to go about finding and collecting it. Much of the art I acquired in the beginning of my collecting days was during travel - I’d pick something up when I was in Vietnam, Peru, Mexico, or London. Eventually, as I formed stronger opinions and learned a bit, I gravitated to Outsider/self-taught artists. I also like to support local artists, and in particular the younger artists who have come from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

You have focused on figurative work as well as Outsider art. What is it about these genres or view points that attracts you?
I’ve tried and failed to come up with a unifying theme for the art in my collection, and in the end I’ve realized it’s not important to have one. You hear so often (because it’s true!) that you should collect what you like and what you want to live with, and that is always what I’ve sought to find, whether it is work by self-taught artists, contemporary trained painters or photographers, or furniture designers. I have collected paintings, drawings, some sculpture, furniture and woodwork from various eras - really a hodge-podge, but ultimately from this chaos comes a space in which I love to live. I am constantly changing it to accommodate new additions. The Outsiders appeal to me because they were not beholden to the market or to a perceived audience of collectors, gallery agents, professors, and so on. I think in many ways you are able to see their pure creativity. I have collected works by Lee Godie, Charles Steffen, Jim Work, Henry Darger, Paul Estrada, and Anna Zemankova - some of these artists participated in the established art world and some did not, but all of them have communicated absolutely unique visions.

Please highlight any favorite pieces or collecting experiences. Are there lessons you’ve learned through observing and buying art?
I found an artist in Hanoi whose work I loved several years ago. She was represented at a gallery there but lived outside Ho Chi Minh City, so I spent a day trekking miles past the finished roads on the outskirts of the city to find the compound where she and her husband, a sculptor, lived. With blond hair, blue eyes, and the biggest nose in Vietnam, apparently, I certainly stood out wading through those fields, so I trailed about ten kids with me by the time I reached the artist. She and her husband hosted me for hours, showing me how and where they worked and looking through all their art - it was really a great day, and I think that was one of the experiences that really hooked me. Part of the joy of collecting is the process, of course, and learning about the lives and influences of the people you meet along the way. Many of the works that mean the most to me I acquired in artists’ studios, or on the streets in destinations like Lima, Peru and Mexico City - places outside the complex that has grown around the art business, such as the mega-fairs and galleries.

Are there any reactions to the works in your collection that have surprised you, such as  candid responses from friends or family?
My friends think I am nuts, particularly when they are evaluating the latest Outsider acquisition: ‘So, he was schizophenic, or bipolar?’ and ‘You paid for that, or you found it on the street?’ or, ‘Can I sell you what my kid did in school last week?’ I think to most people there is more respect for art that comes from traditionally trained artists, or from recognized galleries, or for more figurative work.
In my house there is no relationship between a work’s monetary value and how it is received by a casual observer who is over for dinner. In fact Henry Darger’s work inspires the least positive reviews, though when a guest learns the back story it intrigues them enormously and changes many opinions. Along those same lines, not everything in my home is really family-friendly, and Darger is a good example of that; his reverse image with hermaphrodite Vivian Girls only comes out at more festive dinner parties!