Collector's Notebook: True Social Networks

This summer, more than 75 people gathered excitedly at The Center for Western Studies to view the art collection belonging to longtime Sioux Falls residents Frank and Jan Gibbs. It was the South Dakota center’s largest gathering ever for a reception where patrons got a glimpse of the 200 works created by Seth Eastman, O.C. Seltzer, Oscar Howe, Jimmy Swinnerton, Jim Savage and other renowned artists. It represented only half of the couple’s prized treasures from American illustrators, and Western and Native American artists.

According to the Gibbs’ daughter, Barb Gifford, who organized the event, the six-month show attracted familiar faces that represented a lifetime of relationships gleaned from her parents’ passion for paintings, sculpture and pen-and-ink illustrations. “Growing up was like living in a gallery in my home,” says Gifford with pride. “My parents bought whatever struck their heart.”

Through 45 years of art journeys, the Gibbs rambled the United States with their camper, tent and four children in tow, introducing them to a pantheon of collectors and artists. Says Barb, “Going on vacation was like playing ‘connect the dots.’ We would visit different artists and museums and festivals.”

And so it goes with the life of avid collectors. As art defines their lives, so do their relationships with other collectors and artists. While Facebook and Twitter garner audiences in the millions, collectors network with peers face-to- face, on the road, during museum events, and at art receptions. The benefit of these bonds results in enduring friendships and increased knowledge.

Such a support system helps when one wants to buy, sell or trade their precious treasures. Says Native American art expert Marti Struever, “It is a joy for people to talk about what they collect. If you collect kachinas and meet others who do the same thing, it reinforces what you do. It’s good fellowship.”

In the case of Jan and Frank Gibbs, moving from California to South Dakota was an opportunity to learn about their new state through history and Native American art. Meeting artists — including wood carver Jim Savage (now deceased) — enriched their lives. “We were so interested in getting to know the actual artists and especially ones who were just coming into the art community,” says Jan. “They would want to know, ‘Where do we go from here?’ and Frank, who was an attorney, had the expertise to let them know the things to avoid and told them what he looks for in a piece. We became mentors to them.”

“During our time of collecting, we must have known at least 100 artists. We stayed on reservations and woke up to a view of the plains. We would get people’s newsletters and eventually see how their kids were coming along. We have always enjoyed the tie-in of history in art and how it reflects the lives and stories of those in the community,” says Jan.

Like the Gibbs, collectors inevitably travel, and many travel in packs. Struever, a Santa Fe art historian and dealer, has led more than 60 Native American art education tours around the country since 1976. According to Struever, one collector met a fellow art lover on one of her trips, and they eventually married. “A Houston dentist and his wife met a school superintendent in Chicago, and they often have had her (the superintendent) stay at their vacation home in Santa Fe,” recalls Struever. “I have had diverse people from all different parts of the country, and they all come because they want to learn about Indian art.”

While Struever does not conduct as many trips as she used to, networking with other collectors and art aficiona infused our whole being, and now these friendships go back as far as 45 years.” Deb Krol of Phoenix has been involved in several collectors’ clubs for decades, and she finds those relationships indispensible in exchanging information and support. A collector of Franciscan Ware, Native American baskets, first edition books, Mission-style furniture and antique radios, she belongs to the Arizona Antique Radio Club, the Southern California Antique Radio Society and also the California Indian Basketweavers Association. She actually met her husband when he was shopping for parts at the antique radio store where she was working at the time. “We collectors are very particular,” says Krol. “With Franciscan Ware, it must be made in California, and the clay must be dug in Rocklin, and it has to be painted in Pasadena or Glendale. With first edition books, I want the original dustcover to be intact and complete with those old typos.”

Through these groups, her world has broadened by meeting like-minded collectors, artists, museum-store buyers and art dealers. Those ties have been valuable in learning how to determine real art from the fake and which dealers are reputable. Collectors build up a trust so they can buy and sell from each other or simply trade goods. “We get emails and calls all the time,” Krol says. “If I know you are a collector looking for something, and I have an antique store over here, I will go and pick it up for you. If I see something at another place that will interest another collector, I will clue him in.”

“We are all abnormal,” jokes Krol. “We have collector friends and artist friends. We welcome them into our home, and we have stayed with people from Maine to Hawaii, and they become a part of our lives. It is just so cool.”

Robert Painter, a writer in St. George, Utah, started amassing his Native American treasures more than 40 years ago. Now, willing to pare down, he found comfort knowing that he’s met other collectors who want to buy what he owns.

Indeed, the art collector life can be abundant with kindred spirits, affiliations that transcend physical boundaries. What starts out as a hobby transforms a person’s life through conversations with other enthusiasts. They join museum boards, open art galleries, teach classes, write books and lead art tours. With a longstanding contribution to the arts, in 2009, JoAnn Balzer was named as a presidential appointee to the board of trustees for the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe. It was the love of art that led Deb Krol to become senior communications director at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Robert Painter opened one of the first Native American art galleries in Florida.

Such zeal is infectious. Today, Barb Gifford does not own as many pieces as her parents do. However, from childhood connect-the-dots travels, she appreciates artists and the stories that go behind each piece of work. “I enjoy the little bit I do have,” she says. “I love having the original over any print that is out there. I love seeing what other people enjoy. I love what it means to have a piece that reaches my own heart.” dos is not difficult. According to Anne Wrinkle, public relations director at SITE Santa Fe, a contemporary art space, many of the country’s largest museums offer members exclusive art trips to galleries, artist studios and collector’s homes.

Last year SITE Santa Fe brought a group to Cuba on a humanitarian trip where they also visited artists and museums for six days, and in 2013, its patrons will head to Bogota, Colombia, for an art fair and to see private collections. “Becoming involved with a museum is a great way to build greater relationships,” says Wrinkle. “People love to go to places where they might not be able to access on their own.”

By joining a museum, starting as a member and moving up the membership hierarchy, the opportunity to participate in members-only events provides for more connections and learning.

JoAnn Balzer became interested in Native American art and culture in the early 1980s. Soon after building up her collection, she and other museum members launched the Collector’s Club of the Southwest Museum, which has now merged with the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. “We offered many educational programs showing the indigenous cultures of the West,” recalls Balzer of their monthly meetings.

Not only did they host lectures from prominent Native American artists and scholars, the group sponsored ‘show-and-tell’ nights where people brought in their art, held Southwest fashion shows and traveled to Vancouver Island to visit with Native Americans.

After 30 years in the club, Balzer moved from Southern California to Santa Fe and the connections remain, she stresses. “We were able to be a source of inspiration to one another. Artwork 

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