The Art of Collecting


Four renowned gallery owners talk us through the motions of starting an enviable art collection.

AFTER SPEAKING WITH A NUMBER OF FINE ART SELLERS, gallery owners and museum curators, a few things became rather clear: Hawai’i is a nearly idyllic locale to begin a collection of art for those who have not yet begun to do so. A few common threads could indeed be woven among the leading gallerists of Honolulu (whom we interviewed for this piece); however, not without a generous helping of where they differ-in both personality and their genres of preferred attainable art.

Robyn Buntin, owner of Robyn Buntin Gallery, shares the “why” and “when” of beginning a collection.

“Socially, this is what wealthier people have done all their lives,” Bunton candidly attests. “After sex, money, enough food and a place or two to live-what is left? Art. By purchasing a body of work you are establishing that you are a part of the prestigious part of society.”

On a more immediate level, Buntin, whose meandering and well-stocked (if not bursting) gallery is down the street from the Honolulu Museum of Art, says that he is approached rather frequently by the sort of investor who has just purchased more than one home, and is looking to put 20 or 30 objects in it.

“What’s going to happen is that he will establish a personality inside that apartment,” he adds, speaking in reference to a gentleman who-the morning of our conversation-purchased 30 pieces of artwork (of which, Buntin says, “70 percent of them were good things,” to give you and idea of his refreshingly unedited tact).

Buntin’s gallery has an array of pieces. It’s safe to say that he carries the most sculpture or non-2-dimensional art (of the four galleries we visited), including display cases filled with Japanese and Chinese porcelain, Tibetan artifacts, jade, Chinese belt buckles, Han Dynasty bronze, portable Indian shrines, ancient pottery, 3,000-year-old Southeast Asian archeological materials, Indonesian Buddhist pieces, Japanese armor … the list goes on. However, Buntin also hangs the odd C.W. Bartlett or John Kelly prints (he recently acquired an unprecedented 35 pieces), and John Stevens’ collection of scrolls.

To give you an idea of the informality Buntin prefers at his welcoming gallery, Stevens holds court Saturday mornings for what Buntin calls “Zen Saturdays”-an open conversation where people show up to chat about Zen art-often with Stevens sharing both his own works, as well as rarely seen scrolls that can date to the 16th century.

For Buntin, he has few rules for buying art.

“It has to move me. It has to be well-crafted. If it moves me but isn’t well-crafted, I can’t have it,” he says.

Mark and Carolyn Blackburn, owners of Mauna Kea Gallery, happen to be in possession of the most extensive collection of Polynesian art on the planet. (It’s gloriously depicted in a weighty, hardcover tome titled Polynesia, Kaeppler, University of Hawai’i Press.) Their collection includes more than 1,000 highly significant Polynesian artifacts, not including 10,000 pre-1900s Hawaiian photographs, 40,000 pre-1920s postcards, books and more that reside in storage on the East Coast.

“The best advice I could give anyone,” Mark Blackburn starts, “is to buy what you love. If you’re buying as an investment, don’t do it. I still don’t buy as an investment. I buy constantly because I love the pieces.”

Chatting and strolling through their Black Point home, it’s easy to see why; the Blackburns live with their collection. It’s on every wall. Sculptures occupy every corner. And in Mark’s downstairs study, there are drawers and bookshelves and display cases meticulously lined with pieces, books, artifacts, jewelry, photographs, weapons and carvings. More than anywhere I visited, this truly embodies “living among the art.”

“I could see pouring a scotch and really being enveloped by this stuff,” I say to Blackburn.

“Exactly. That’s what I do. Daily,” Blackburn nods, as we pass Robert Louis Stevenson’s steamer trunk, King Kamehameha’s bowl and a cup that Captain Cook used to ladle out rations on his third voyage here. It’s astounding.

As for the Blackburns’ clientele, hardly any of them are in Hawai’i.

“Most of our work is found on the mainland and in Europe,” says Carolyn Blackburn. “It gets unpacked here in the gallery, bought and then packed back up and shipped elsewhere.” I learn that the most serious collectors of Hawaiian art reside in France, Germany and England. The connection? Captain Cook, of course- the voyage journals of whom are what led Mark into collecting to begin with.

They do, however, attain works by Impressionist-era painters, like Charles Alfred Le Moine (a contemporary of Gauguin), Octave Morillot (Tahitian painter from the 1920s) and others. Carolyn gravitates towards Madge Tennent, David Howard Hitchcock and other early 20th-century Hawaiian transplants whose bold use of color offer lively examples of Impressionist work.

Michael Schnack, owner of Cedar Street Galleries-tucked inconspicuously in an industrial area of Honolulu-features the work of modern Hawai’i artists, most of which are living, breathing and in his gallery with frequency. There’s an attraction, clearly, for many collectors, both longstanding and new.

“We receive a lot of visitors looking to build a collection, but are very unaware of where to begin,” Schnack says, pulling moveable walls back and forth to reveal a host of paintings. “Frankly, none of us know what we like until we see something, and go, ‘Whoa. That turns me on. That works.’ So it’s about finding something that works for your home space, and perhaps most importantly, for both people living in it.”

Schnack’s backstreet Cedar Street Gallery is frequently occupied by the artists whose work resides there.

Schnack raises the important issue of one person in a relationship usually preferring one style or color theme, while the other has different views. Naturally, he enjoys the challenge of finding something that strikes a healthy balance.

Cedar Street has turned bowls by Ron Kent, Arthur Johnson’s Hawaiiana visuals, Mark Kadota’s mixing of multiple genres as well as other sculpturists and painters.

I posed the question to each of our gallerists, “can a collector benefit from the relationship-either between the gallery or the collector-with their home’s architect or designer?” The answers varied.

“When someone like Kelsey Grammer or another celebrity comes here and builds a palace and wants to fill it with art, designers of the home will make introductions,” Buntin says, hesitantly. “But designers often have to buy things that are safe and reflect a broad, sweeping ‘good’ taste. That can be a sticky crowd to try and please, as it’s a little boring. But it can foster good relationships for future buying.”

“Do you mean ‘archi-torture’?” asks Blackburn. “We have a widespread travesty here, in that everyone thinks they’re an expert at everything. Just look at what’s happened here in Kahala. The architects here just cave to the wild ideas and notions of their clients for fear of losing them.”

Blackburn adds that his best clients are the ones who actually listen to him.

“I have 40 years of experience in this,” he says, as Carolyn Blackburn chimes in.

“There is some appreciation for art in Hawai’i, but not a lot of buying and selling. Yet there’s great value here. You don’t have to spend huge sums of money. You can buy original posters from the 1940s for under $1,000 framed,” she says.

Crisp, clean and white: This is the ambiance surrounding any hanging works in the upstart (it’s been open for eight months) Andrew Rose Gallery on Bishop Street in downtown Honolulu. A Vassar then Pratt Institute fine arts graduate, Rose is a working artist with a refreshing vision of both the kinds of-as well as manner in which-the arts in Hawai’i can be presented.

“I’m trying to create a positive environment for new collectors to learn how to deal with Hawai’i artists. The relationships in the past have been direct-between artist and buyer-but that doesn’t work to build a collection,” Rose says, echoing a sentiment shared by Mark Blackburn. “There’s nobody looking out for them, nor for their future.”

Andrew Rose’s Bishop Street space is crisp and museum-like.

Rose waxes on the “youthful” art scene in Hawai’i, speaking both to the gallery and museum folk as well as the artists and the would-be-collectors.

“People are still feeling their way in this market,” Rose adds. The works he chooses to hang in his whitewashed downtown cube are a unique array of Hawai’i talent, each of which takes a rather introspective look at the peculiarities and wondrous aspects of life in the islands. Whether it’s the nostalgic, almost haunting imagery of Linda Kane; the colorful, blended landscapes of Noreen Naughton; or even Rose’s own Manet-like Kaleidoscope series imagery, viewers and potential clients here will feel as if they teeter on the edge of what’s new and what is storied within the contemporary Hawai’i art world.

This August and September, Rose will feature his On Paper exhibit with works by Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly, combined with artists Rose represents, such as Charlie Cohan.

After managing galleries and collections from New York to New Mexico-and an inspiring stint working with Bruce Weber-Rose is dedicated to helping his clients learn the art of “buying deep.” That is, building a collection that can grow organically to embrace new works, yet shows a fine range of the genres already purchased.

Yet it’s all about helping a client understand the “why” that he finds so rewarding.

“It’s not uncommon to hear the phrase, ‘Do you know why we like this?'” says Rose. “But if I point out a connection between the energy of various pieces they enjoy, not so much the colors or medium, it begins to open the eyes a little wider. The dialogue can then go in a new direction. This becomes a rewarding experience where we can build from.”

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