Lou Meisel

Louis and Susan Meisel in front of their SoHo gallery

#8 — How to COLLECT!

In 1973, I opened the Louis K. Meisel Gallery in SoHo—a newly developing industrial district that was to become THE center of the contemporary art world during the mid to late 20th century. Around this time, dealers began to see an entirely new category of visitors. SoHo’s openness, “friendliness” and general sense of accessibility began to draw in neophytes, the young, and those newly interested in art who were hopefully collectors-to-be, the same people who were generally discouraged and reticent about entering the traditional galleries on 57th Street and Madison Avenue.

Meisel Gallery on Madison Avenue & E79th, featuring Susan Meisel’s paintings

While I was part of the Madison Avenue mass of galleries for 5 years before opening in SoHo, I was not really part of the intimidating aspect. I was on the street, in a very good location at 79th and Madison in the southwest corner, BUT at 200 square feet, I probably had the smallest gallery of them all. No one seemed deterred in entering! Even many who were wealthy and sophisticated Upper East Siders would discuss their feelings about the main establishment galleries. I remember Giancarlo, married to a Ford, telling me he wanted a Vasarely. I told him to go to Denise Rene. He demurred saying he felt uncomfortable going to her sixth-floor gallery space. I told him to come back in a few hours after lunch. I called that gallery, where along with 80 others, I had developed relationships through my own collecting, publishing and personal interactions. I asked them to send up three 36×36 paintings. I sold one for them to Giancarlo later that day. When I left Madison Avenue for the “new world”, I left anything and everything that might in anyway discourage interactions with someone who had a serious interest in learning, knowing about and maybe collecting contemporary art of the later 20th century. Gone were the Cardin suits and ties, Gucci, Pucci and anything which might have “impressed” visitors.

I went back to my cowboy boots from my days in Texas. My wardrobe was simplified to jeans, denim blue work shirts and pure relaxed comfort. That continues to this day except for the boots—just loafers now. The RESULT—artists, dealers, collectors and any visitors feel comfortable and are free to ask for me, to meet and discuss art, SoHo and anything else. My office was, and IS, up front and I have spent over 40 years just talking to people all day, and from time to time selling some art.

OK, all that said, now for the main part of this blog:

Louis and Susan Meisel in front of their SoHo gallery

My primary interest is teaching and explaining to a very few, what it means to be a collector as opposed to just accumulating or decorating. “Investing” was not even a discussion when I started. I have been a collector all my life and have well over 100 collections… almost NONE coinciding with what others seem to focus on. That subject will be for another blog, but it HAS worked for me and for the MANY people that I worked with over these decades. Instead, I’d like to share a couple of general stories about getting started as a collector. In the early 1970s, a couple in their early 30’s came into the gallery one day and admired a work that was on view at that time. They unabashedly told me they had decided on an annual budget of $10,000 to collect art. 95% of galleries or dealers hearing that would have found a way and a work in their inventory, to make a sale and get that $10,000.

I actually spent much of the afternoon showing and talking to them about art and how I felt they should begin this hopefully very pleasant and fun avocation. I told them that they should divide whatever budget they had in mind into five parts. In their case, five $2,000 acquisitions over their first year. I told them I would give them a list of about a dozen or so galleries that I thought would be showing art that might attract them including mine. That they should visit those and others for the next two months during which they would see at least two shows in each. I explained that they could then narrow down the galleries, the type of art they liked, and the artists they preferred. From there, they could select three to five artists and works they might like in the selected price range. (In 1974, there were many works to choose from in this budget in SoHo.) After revisiting some of those, and discussing amongst themselves… or even with me, they should make a decision and their first acquisition.

Then, repeat the process every two to three months so that at years end they would have four or five artworks and the beginnings of a collection. They would have learned a great deal and would really FEEL like “collectors”. If the couple had spent their whole budget on that first day, it would have ended their pursuit of art and enjoyment for at least a year since they knew they couldn’t get anything else. Consequently, their interest in collecting probably would have waned.

Of course, I could have grabbed that couple’s ten grand; instead, I made a $1,500 and an $1,800 sale that first year, and HAVE made good friends with them. By the way, the current value of those first two acquisitions are presently well into six figures… and they still own them.

Here is the second story I’d like to share about learning to collect:

Another mid-thirties couple came into the gallery one day and said they would like to get a painting by Richard Estes (the leading Photorealist cityscape painter). They had $300,000 for this acquisition. They did not know much about Photorealism and the 30 or so painters in the genre, but they had “heard” that Estes was the most important. I agreed that he was the most historically important, BUT if it was the subject matter, and very high-quality skills and craftsmanship that drew them to this imagery that there was a lot to know about this movement.

I explained that their budget would get them one of several very small and minor works by an admittedly great painter, BUT from the point of view of enjoying and being proud of owning and living with great Photorealism they could actually have VERY major works by the THREE of the leading 21st century cityscape painters. Three six and seven foot masterworks for the price of a 14×20 inch Estes. They LOOKED, SAW and agreed, and began with those three. Now they have 20 works, and ultimately did feel comfortable and more confident in going much higher to even add a significant Estes. In the end, they have a much more developed collection, as well as the Estes they always desired.

I must note that as we got to the early and mid-eighties, the art market underwent a cultural shift. Unfortunately, many more recent SoHo galleries with their newly minted “Gallerists” reverted to arrogance, pretention, snobbery and being downright rude as a matter of what they perceived art dealing to be. False “waiting lists”, invitations to special “private” openings, and discussions about status, prestige and investment polluted the purity and fun of true collecting. This trend remains pervasive currently. A herd mentality has driven those listed as “Top 100 Collectors” into all having the exact same collections; each contains the same 100 or so “most important” artists, and almost everyone on these lists is collecting only contemporary art and foregoing works by the Old Masters.

Nonetheless, I still manage to find, guide, develop and enjoy a few new COLLECTORS a year.