Why Artists and Collectors Don’t Get One Another (and what we can do about it)

By Marilyn Green

It’s a pretty common scenario: the collector visits the artist’s studio and starts looking at the work. The artist explains a little about each piece, but he or she is watching the collector’s reactions with an intensity that would stop a rhinoceros in its tracks. Nobody could possibly have a chance to have a spontaneous reaction under all that scrutiny.

Then the collector hits the jackpot with a phrase the artist hates, either: “I’m looking for something that will work over my couch” or “I need something that will pick up the green in my drapes” or “I’m looking for something happy.”

The artist thinks, “I poured out my soul on this and all she/he can think of is how it will look over the couch,” and we have an adversarial situation set up that leaves the artist feeling unappreciated and misunderstood and the collector feeling that artists are crazy or an alien life form.

Why it happens

There are some fundamental reasons for this. Unless the collector is buying primarily for financial investment, how the work looks over the couch is of paramount importance; it’s going to become a part of his/her home and most personal and private environment. The plain truth is that the artist has seldom lived with the work; it usually has been standing in the studio, a gallery or storage. And in my case, during the period just after the piece is finished, it’s just as painful to look at as a recording of my voice or a video of me. So usually I put new pieces out of sight for a while, and if I’m lucky my reaction when I see them is, “Oh, that’s really good. Who painted it?”

Artists have a derogatory acronym, OTC (over the couch), to describe work that, in their view, has no merit except as a part of the decoration. Very serious collectors may have a gallery in their home, and I once had a client clear out a room in her house except for a large painting of mine and two soft chairs, but the vast majority will be bringing the art into their daily lives, so it isn’t out of line for them to care how it will fit into what they already have, or to want a particular mood or effect.

I have a friend who does gorgeous work, but the theme is invariably agony and darkness, so he has limited sales and regards the general public as Philistines for not appreciating the deep emotional value of his paintings. Very few people, however they may relate to pain in a work of art, want to incorporate it into their world, unless, like Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, it leaves them with more than it found them.

What to do

So what is the answer? Does this mean artists must paint cheerful pictures and collectors must constantly analyze what draws them to a work?

My own theory is that both groups would benefit from likening art to cooking. For some reason, most visual artists seem to have cooking skills, and they wouldn’t serve breakfast at dinner or ignore the tastes and allergies of the people who eat their food. The diners also give appreciation, understanding and pleasure to the cook, and stretch to enjoy new and unfamiliar dishes. The same kind of relationship would benefit both the artist and the collector, who are, after all, two sides of the same coin.