Anatomy of an Art Collector

BY Marimar McNaughton

Subjecting yourself to art may be habit forming lead to accidental collecting and a lifelong addiction to original art appreciation.

Unless you re a billionaire you don t set out to start an art collection says Wilmington photographer artist and yes art collector Billy Cone.

Cone defines the anatomy of a collector as the random series of events that lead to an inevitable conclusion.

Usually it s an accident he says. It s not something you think you re going to do when you grow up. Somehow you wake up one day and say Oh I m a collector.

Collecting art is arguably in Cone s DNA. His great great aunts Dr. Claribel Cone and Etta Cone were legendary modern art collectors. The sisters of Moses Cone who with their brother Caesar Cone established a textile mill in Greensboro North Carolina kept apartments in the Bolton Hill section of Baltimore Maryland where they schlepped around with the Steins Gertrude and her brother Leo. The Cones and Steins became socially connected to Parisian salons in the early 20th century rubbing elbows with the illuminati of the times.

The sisters siblings in a family of 12 children tripped to Europe supported by the success of their brothers  textile mill yet their obsession for collecting art was secreted for two generations from their great grand nephew.

I found out about them in 1986 when I was 26 years old and my cousin Claribel — she was the namesake — called me and said I m coming to DC.  At the time I was working for Sutton Place Gourmet selling pastries wholesale caviar from Tennessee; food s important to me he says smiling.

Cousin Claribel invited him to the Baltimore Museum of Art the repository of the internationally renowned Cone Collection — 3 000 pieces of master works by Pablo Picasso Paul Cezanne Paul Gauguin Vincent Van Gogh and the 500-piece Henri Matisse stash the largest cache of his work worldwide. The BMA considers the Cone sisters  collection its crown jewel valued today at a staggering $1 billion.

Billy Cone says the discovery provoked an awakening within him.

From that moment on I was aware.Some creative things were going on at that time too. I took drawing classes when I was in DC. I went to France and cleaned my mind out. I was there for one month and got clear on what I needed to do. I realized I had to do what I wanted to do which was my photography. I had to do it devote all myself to it so that s what I did.

In a singularly unpremeditated move he also began collecting art. Cone says he learned from his aunts: the richest part of collecting was knowing the artists.

Think about it — the fact that they knew Picasso they knew Matisse. They invited Matisse to Baltimore — things like that that s the meat of it all. I ve met 80 percent of the artists who did the work in my collection. I m friends with them.

Ironically Cone says art was not a part of family life when he was growing up in Greensboro.

We had art and we had portraits of family members growing up but nobody really cared about art. My dad didn t. My mom may have. No one in my family cared about art he says.

With $100 Cone began a collection that now numbers more than 400 pieces. He purchased his first painting at a Sotheby s auction while he was living in Washington DC.

I d never been to an auction before. I didn t plan to buy anything; but when this piece came up I thought That looks like an older David Bowie   Cone says.

He s describing a Lucien Roulle painting an oil-on-canvas portrait of a man smoking a pipe.

I had to bid which was the first time I ever did that. That was fun. I didn t expect I d ever win it or buy it he remembers.

Almost all of Cone s collection is portraiture.

To me it s all about the face and the emotion he says.

Unless he liquidates some of his landscapes Cone says his collection is outgrowing his available wall space but Merrimon Kennedy of New Elements Gallery says collectors are not limited by the amount of wall space they have.

Kennedy suggests stacking paintings gallery style to create relationships between pieces or tucking some pieces out of sight while showcasing others.

Juxtaposition really changes the whole feel of the room Kennedy says. Mix it up. It really helps you get a perspective on your collection.

It s evident right away Kennedy says who is comfortable in an art-filled gallery and who is not.

People have immediate reactions to art. It s not something that takes a long time for somebody to process. It s really an instant reaction she says.

Either the person who s knowledgeable will be familiar with artists or you ll know this person has been involved in the art world for a period of time she says. Some people are lucky because their parents started them out as collectors. I have a lot of people grandparents and parents who will make purchases for their children for a birthday a college graduation they just got their first home. They begin that process at an early age and that s a huge advantage to be taken to museums and galleries as small children. This is an environment that s very familiar to them and they re comfortable with it.

There are others for whom art was never part of their early education.

It s just a little alien to them she says some people feel intimated.

Art collecting is subjective Kennedy says.

People will ask Is this right or is this wrong?  I don t think there s one way to collect she says. A lot of people don t start out with the intention to create a collection but when you start getting interested in art it s very addictive. You start following one or two artists she explains. You start visiting museums and galleries. Over time you start acquiring more and more pieces of art.

Kennedy admits she will sometimes steer a collector in a different direction if she thinks he or she is becoming obsessed with one single artist.

I think a collection really needs to have some depth she says. You need to introduce other artists into the mix so that it s not just focusing on one specific person.

Kennedy says some art buyers think of art in terms of investment but not Tom and Mary Morris. Art has enhanced the Landfall residence of the philosopher and book author and his wife for more than 40 years.

We ve always thought of it in terms of enjoyment Tom Morris says. What can we do to enhance our daily lives? You buy a beautiful dress or a beautiful suit — you re going to hopefully wear it several times it s not that you see it and enjoy it every day.

Art in the home he says is constantly grabbing his attention in new ways.

You re going to be sparked in different ways as you go through your daily environment he says.

Morris defines that spark in two ways.

It s a color experience that has an emotional impact right away he says. Referencing a Patsy Howell painting of a Capri canal scene hanging in his foyer for the last 15 years he says he ll have a wow experience in front of the painting at least three days a week.

It never gets old. I ll just be running downstairs to do something or to go to the gym to work out and I ll just all of a sudden stop at the bottom of the stairs. It s got some really vibrant colors in it. They just shoot right through me Morris says.

The red boat painting represents stimulation excitement spirit lifting and at other times calm and deep peace.

It s like almost whatever I need somehow it s going to spark that emotional attitude shift that s just appropriate for the moment Morris says. That one is my big exclamation point. It s just like having a therapist waiting for me in the entryway that has just the right word when I need it he says.

The Morrises lean toward bright colors like Howell s. They also collect the work of Sally Sutton Kyle Highsmith Bruce Bowman and Chip Hemingway.

Paint surface color and light stimulate visual rods and cones Morris says.

In his inner sanctum he hung two pieces by Bowman. One is a nocturnal portrait of Wilmington s lost Bijou Theatre. The other a darker subject depicts a bottle of absinthe and a candle.

What it s all about is light and color. All that stuff kind of lights me up he says. I enjoy turning to look at these things for a few seconds then I get back to work.

An innocuous New Orleans streetscape inspired the Morris collection.

We were in Chapel Hill Morris says. This is when we were undergraduates before we were married 41 years ago.

He recalls seeing the painting in a little gallery on Franklin Street.

I said Wow that s really cool.  It s a carriage going down the street and some New Orleans  lamps — a really quirky looking watercolor he says.

It was unheard of at the time for a young woman to purchase a $25 painting for a boyfriend yet Mary remembered Tom s reaction and purchased the painting on layaway paying $5 a week. Even though Mary was pursuing a degree as a dental hygienist her husband says she s always been a very creative person. Working as a hygienist while Tom attended grad school at Yale Mary finally earned a break when their daughter was six weeks old just after her husband had landed his first teaching job at Notre Dame.

It s as if our home has always been her canvas because she has an aesthetic sensibility he says.

Morris thinks there s a deep spiritual need for beauty and considers the need among the four dimensions of the human experience he explores in his book If Aristotle Ran General Motors.

I grew up deprived of any normal satisfaction of that need he says. As soon as I could at the age of 12 I became a musician because that s a form of beauty.

Growing up in Durham North Carolina in a household in which there was no connection to art he says he found beauty in music and also at Duke Gardens where he and friends played Frisbee among the rolling hills and beautiful flowers.

A Morehead Scholar and the first in his family to attend college Morris studied some history of modern art at the University of North Carolina.

I got the bug. Once I was exposed especially to modern art where you could just go on with color and form and energy — and that connected to the kind of music I liked — it was almost as if it was me discovering myself my having the great self knowledge: I love this stuff   he says.

During the Chapel Hill years Tom Morris bought art supplies and created his own paintings.

It never even occurred to me that I could go out and buy other people s stuff he says. I would do these wild vibrant primary color paintings just to have them around.

The Morrises were drawn into the high art world when they lived in New Haven Connecticut during Tom s grad school studies at Yale. Attending fine art shows in New York they often came home with an exhibition poster which they framed inexpensively. Later they graduated into signed lithograph prints.

When they moved to Wilmington Tom and Mary Morris began the collection they live with today.

They possessed that confidence Kennedy detects when people visit New Elements Gallery and like those fortunate people to have art color their young lives the Morrises introduced their son and daughter to art and also their granddaughter now age 10 is showing signs of her own artistic expression.

When our granddaughter was an infant we d take her around to each painting holding her in our arms and give her the name of the piece or what it was about. She d point before she could talk. My wife is a textile artist and our daughter is a photographer and our son is a filmmaker and photographer Morris says. That s what results when people are surrounded by art.


Ronna Zimmer s Life in Art

Ronna Zimmer has been collecting art since she was a teenager.

Originally from Buffalo New York Zimmer recalls attending an outdoor show where she made her first purchase.

It s a huge daisy surrounded by broken glass and all sorts of things. I still have it; it s hanging in my bedroom. She thinks she may have paid $150 for the photograph.

To me that was a huge amount at that time Zimmer says. His name was Dick Nosbisch and he was an amazing photographer. The second piece she bought was by artist Bill Gates a watercolor of a rooster. All the pieces that I bought through the years I still have. I liked them enough to keep them. They might have been reframed and re-matted but I ve still got them.

Her early childhood exposure to art at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery provided a foundation for appreciation. When designing her Wilmington home 32 years ago Zimmer asked for vast expanses of wall space for hanging art. Inspired by the Albright-Knox installation of Lucas Samaras  Mirrored Room she finished her powder room walls and ceiling with mirrors.

My mother was very into the arts Zimmer says. Every time we would go to any city we would go into the art galleries. I brought my children up the same way — art and music. They re in their 30s my two sons they laugh about it now.

In Europe Asia Scandinavia northern Africa Central and South America the Zimmers bought regional art directly from the artists they met.

We ve traveled extensively and I always try to buy art that was done by people from the different areas we ve been in.

On the board of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University for eight years Zimmer served during a pivotal time in the museum s history. In 2006 she went to Art Basel in Miami with Raymond Nasher. While there she bought a few things lunched with Dale Chihuly and his wife and toured the glassblower s botanical gardens installation.

I just want one of those at my house she laughs.

Her advice: Get things that you like not things that you think are going to go up in value.