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Collector’s Notebook: Feathering your nest

When buying becomes collecting, a professional curator can help determine the direction of a personal art collection

Written by Corinne Garcia  
Illustrated by Jesse Greenwood  
December 2017 | January 2018


When Liz Wright and her husband built a home in the Yellowstone Club, a private ski and golf community in Big Sky, Montana, they knew they wanted artwork that reflected the spirit of the West, but they didn’t know where to begin.

“We’ve always loved history and Native American art,” Wright says, explaining that a good friend of theirs at the club had a collection of Native American art and artifacts that they admired. “We thought, ‘We have this beautiful house, let’s get some nice things in it,’ but we had no idea where to start.”

The Wrights’ interior designer introduced them to Betsy Swartz, a Bozeman, Montana-based art consultant and gallery owner who also helps clients curate private art collections. Swartz will work from scratch to build a collection around her client’s preferences or a theme, such as a region or genre. Or, if her clients have an existing collection, Swartz will add or commission pieces to help fill in the gaps. She also provides insight on organizing and grouping artwork within a home, providing an understanding of how pieces relate to one another and tell a larger story in their placement while fitting in with the décor.

For the Wrights, Swartz first looked at their house to determine the wall space, lighting and the style that was reflected in the architecture and interior design. Then she learned more about the couple’s taste by perusing images of artwork that she had pulled together, letting the “yays and nays” narrow the search.

“She was good at getting a sense of what we like,” Wright says. “She gave us her vision of where she saw things, and I really liked her insight on the artists.”

Art consultants such as Swartz often gain experience by working as museum curators and gallerists and then use their knowledge of art history and genres to curate works for homes and businesses, both for those looking to start serious collections and those, as with the Wrights, who are looking for art as an extension of the décor.

Christian Hohmann, owner of Hohmann Fine Art in Palm Desert, California, is a perfect example. He has an education in art history, owns a well-established gallery and has curated museum exhibits, most recently at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Hohmann translated these skills into another aspect of his business as a private art consultant.

“It’s very common that people come in the gallery and they’ve bought a new house and have a few pieces they’ve collected, but they don’t know where to put them,” he says. “Then there are the real collectors, who are building a collection above and beyond what’s on display in their homes and they’re hiring an art curator to take their collections to a different level with, perhaps, a deeper meaning.”

Although he’s done both, Hohmann is careful to point out the difference between consulting and curation. “When you curate, you go by your personal instinct, what you trained for,” he says. “It’s my personal view of art history and where things fit in. When you consult, you have a client who already has a taste and a vision, and you help them clarify it or focus it.”

In the consulting process, Hohmann finds that it’s important to clarify terminology. “They may say ‘abstract art’ but really they mean modern,” he says. “I show them different artists and make sure we are talking about the same things, then make an assessment of space and what they already have and how attached they are to certain pieces.”

Swartz considers herself a matchmaker of sorts. “I select pieces that are the right size and the genre that will fit in beautifully with the overall theme of the home,” she says. “Some clients have pieces from their travels all over the world or from other collections, and then we work with [those pieces] to complement what they already have.”

For her, it’s not about matching the sofa; it’s about the overall message the person is conveying. “Maybe they are really into the history of Montana or Native American art. Or if their home is designed to accommodate grown children and grandchildren, they might want it to reflect a place to gather. I look for things that connect to their interests,” she says.

Today, the Wrights’ collection is a reflection of their love for Yellowstone National Park and the history of the West, and, with Swartz’s help, they’ve collected heirloom pieces and discovered favorite artists. They recently commissioned a painting of geysers in Yellowstone. “Not having experience, I really had to trust her, and she earned that trust through the process we went through,” Wright says. “Everything we picked out, I really love.”