The artworks on Harold Corbin’s walls in Madison, Miss., are full of memories.
“Art needs to be not just a purchase but an experience,” says Corbin, 54, who has collected hundreds of paintings, prints and lithographs. “You’ve got a memory behind it.”
Corbin, who developed an interest in art while in college, began buying art — often by Mississippi artists — after he had established his career as an accountant. He vividly recalls where he bought most of the pieces.
“I had no idea I was collecting art,” says Corbin. “I bought some pieces I liked. More and more, it became what I did.”
Purchasing art can be intimidating, but the joy of owning a collection of original works is worth it, Corbin and others say. Building a collection means learning more about the art world and about what you like, and finding a theme — whether it’s subject matter, medium, artists or style — that ties the works together.
Collecting is “more methodical than just starting out there with no guidance,” explains Catherine Evans, curator of photography at the Columbus Museum of Art. There needs to be “some narrowing or defining of what resonates with you.”
A good place to start is by consulting with gallery owners, museum curators and artists, who often are eager to share their knowledge.
“That’s their profession,” said Corbin. “I haven’t seen a time when they didn’t want to talk about it.”
Jumaane N’Namdi, director of the G.R. N’Namdi Gallery in Chicago, which focuses on contemporary abstract art, considers it part of his job to create the next generation of collectors. He tries to make people feel welcome in the gallery.
“It’s OK to just go in there and walk around in circles,” he says.
He urges potential buyers to do research. “That doesn’t mean go read art books, because that’s not realistic,” he says. “Visit galleries. Allow yourself to grow with art.”
He has organized a club for potential collectors who want to learn more. Members attend lectures, meet artists and gather to discuss art.
“I’m trying to introduce a culture,” says N’Namdi. “It’s bigger than, ‘Are you going to get something today?’”
Many museums also sponsor clubs dedicated to helping people learn more about art.
Members of the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, for instance, can join a New Collector’s Club, which offers private tours, visits with artists and other events. Beth Batton, curator of the museum’s collection, encourages people to visit museums and galleries and figure out what medium they like. Then seek good examples of it.
“Educate your eye,” she says. “If you find you really like photography, try to understand the techniques.”
Figure out why certain pieces of art move you, adds Aprile Gallant, curator of prints, drawings and photos for the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Mass. The theme you choose can be broad, she says, and can focus on an activity, place or era.
Having a focus gives a collection coherence and personality, and also can help art buyers choose more wisely, Batton says.
“It keeps you from spending money on an impulse purchase,” she says.