I met Anne Stills several months ago when she wrote to me to comment on the recent publication of my book entitled Black Paris Profiles. Since that time, we communicate frequently by e-mail to share information about Paris.
I received a couple of messages from Anne a few days ago, each with an image attached. I was delighted to find that the images were of paintings by Beauford!
(1942) Pastel on paper
Image courtesy of Anne Stills
(undated) Pastel on paper
Image courtesy of Anne Stills
Anne found these paintings at a private art dealer's establishment* in NYC while she was purchasing art to add to her collection. The dealer, Jon Mellitz, acquired them over 20 years ago from the Betty Esman estate (Esman was a WPA artist, as was Beauford.) Both pieces measure approximately 23x18 inches and are in good condition. The asking price is $7000 for both paintings.
Because I believe that the concept of art collection is foreign to many and because starting and building a collection requires education and advice, I asked Anne to grant Les Amis an interview to talk about art collection and what it means to her. Find our exchange below:
Photo courtesy of Anne D. Stills
Les Amis: When did you first realize that you wanted to collect art?
Anne D. Stills: I have been collecting one thing or another most my life. We are all collectors, all of us. As a young person I collected dolls. I moved on to jazz albums, fashion magazines, cookbooks and mystery novels. As my taste and exposure to the world grew, I started more costly collections of porcelain teapots, Lladro and Herend figurines, and Hermes scarves. As I settled down and started paying more attention to home, I began to think about collecting art first as a means to decorate and later as a passionate pursuit.
Les Amis: Why is it important for you to collect art?
Anne D. Stills: I am a visual person. I need to be surrounded by beauty. The artwork in my home reflects my personal taste and brings a certain energy, joy and peace to my well being and sensibility. It reminds me of my parents and connects me to the history and experience of black people in America and the African Diaspora.
Les Amis: Which genres do you prefer (painting, sculpture, installations, photography…)?
Anne D. Stills: My collection is still young and evolving, therefore, I prefer to remain open and develop a taste for a broad range of mediums. I started with works on paper, along with vintage black and white photos.
Les Amis: Which types of paintings do you prefer (examples: figurative vs. abstract; portraits vs. landscapes; oils vs. watercolors vs. acrylics…)?
Anne D. Stills: My tastes are quite varied. In the beginning stages of collecting, I found myself drawn to abstract works of art. Later to round out my collection, I acquired figurative works. As a serious collector, I am very deliberate about my selections. It is very important that each piece enhances and fits into the overall theme.
I have a wish list of artists I want to collect. When I am considering a work, I mostly think about what that artist is known for and select art that represents a part of either their earlier or later works or sometimes both.
Les Amis: Is Beauford one of the artists whose work you'd like to collect?
Anne D. Stills: Yes, Beauford Delaney is on my wish list. I am partial to his abstracts and bold use of color.
Les Amis: When did you begin to collect art?
Anne D. Stills: My first awareness and deliberate decision to build a collection of fine art started five years ago. Once I made the decision, I thought long and hard about the strategy and artistic goal for my collection. I first went about educating myself and being exposed to many different types of art and artists. Through this exposure and training, I decided I wanted to focus my collection on African-American artists of the WPA (Works Progress Administration) period. This was a federal program established in 1935 during the Great Depression to offer work to the unemployed. There was an arts project component to help keep artists working. This was also during the time of the Harlem Renaissance with its explosion of cultural nationalism, black heritage, pride and the blossoming of black art and literature. I feel a strong affinity to the works created during this era.
Les Amis: What was your first purchase?
Anne D. Stills: My first acquisition was a Romare Bearden lithograph, Brass Section (Jamming at Minton’s), from the Jazz Series, dated 1979. As a lover of jazz music, this piece spoke to me. I remember gazing at the image and being taken back to the 1970s jazz club scene in Greenwich Village, grooving to the sounds of Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and the voices of Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae and Shirley Horn.
Les Amis: How do you feel about the concept of “black art”?
Anne D. Stills: I believe the concept of black art is very subjective. You can ask different people including art historians and scholars this question and receive different answers. It’s a very broad subject. I am only an art lover, not an expert. However, I came of age in NYC during the late 1960s and early 1970s during a major social upheaval and transformational time. There was a proliferation of black expression, pride and the birth of the Black Movement. As a result, I was nurtured and exposed to the works of “black art” by all the many incredibly talented, prolific writers, musicians and artists that look like me and whom I could identify with. This was my bridge into the art world. It established a comfort level for me. As an example, my love for opera music developed because I was able to go and see Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Shirley Verrett…people that looked like me.
Black art has illuminated my path, nurtured my growth and given me the freedom to broaden my horizons and develop a global perspective.
Les Amis: Does your collection represent an investment or simply a passion?
Anne D. Stills: My collection comes out of my love and passion for the history and legacy of African-American artists, their art and our collective experiences. I applaud their ability to document what they saw and express their emotions to create something beautiful that I live with and enjoy each day. That is the driving force behind my building a fine art collection. At some point, however, as my collection grew in size and value, it inevitably evolved into an investment. As an investment, there are certain considerations that require management - things such as insurance, tax, and estate planning.
Les Amis: Do you use the Internet to search for works to collect?
Anne D. Stills: The Internet can certainly be used as a source to search for artwork. I much prefer an interactive and proactive approach, including consulting with my art dealers and attending art auctions, galleries and art fairs. The primary source I have used to collect art is through reputable dealers that I have developed a long-term relationship with. They are familiar with the strategy of my collection and have assisted me with evolving, expanding and growing my body of work.
Les Amis: What are the pros and cons of using the Internet?
Anne D. Stills: The down side of buying art on the Internet is that you may purchase a fraudulent work if you are not experienced and knowledgeable. There can be a lot fraud if you don’t know what you are doing. It’s important to receive certificate of authenticity to document the details and value of your artwork. This may not always be possible using an Internet seller. The positive side, however, is that you are purchasing directly as opposed to through a middle man such as an auction house, thereby, getting a better price.
Some dealers use the Internet to sell their inventory. I once came upon a valuable piece of artwork directly via the Internet. It was put up for auction at a major auction house in the past, however, did not sell. The seller’s asking price was thousands of dollars below the auction house estimate. Unfortunately, I was not able to purchase it because it was not within my budget at the time.
Les Amis: How would you advise someone new to art collection to begin?
Anne D. Stills: All serious art collecting begins with educating yourself and building an art library. A great deal of effort must be put in prior to your first purchase. I would advise the novice collector to spend of lot of time visiting museums and galleries as well as attending local art fairs and auctions. Study art magazines and gallery catalogs. Attend exhibits and establish relationships with contemporary artists, gallery owners, curators and collectors. Study the African-American art collections of important private collectors such as Dr. Walter O. Evans (Savannah College of Art and Design), Dr. Harmon and Harriet Kelley (private collection), and Paul R. Jones collection (University of Delaware and University of Alabama)—these are an extremely educational resource. In time you will train your eye and your gut to identify artists that have created the works that speak to you.
Quality artwork by established emerging artists can be found to fit any taste and budget. To develop a good collection, you must develop your eye.
Les Amis: Are there any references, online courses, or other resources that you would recommend to new collectors?
Anne D. Stills: One of the books I consider the bible of African-American art history is A History of African-American Artists, From 1792 to the Present by Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson. The information, artists and works presented in this book and made during this period laid the groundwork for everything that followed. Another important reference and must have is Collecting African American Art, Works on Paper and Canvas by Halima Taha. This book is invaluable with everything the new collector needs to know. The IRAAA (The International Review of African American Art) magazine published by Hampton University Museum is an excellent resource for identifying emerging artists and what is trending in the art world of black artists.
Three excellent books that I would recommend by art historians and scholars are Black Art in the 20th Century and To Conserve a Legacy: American Art of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, both by Richard Powell; and African American Art and Artists by Samella Lewis. Additional resources would include the online archived catalogs at Swann Galleries, and the auction house Web sites for Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
*For more information about the Beauford Delaney portraits, contact Jon Mellitz at 917-721-3608.