In Our Words: Rudy Green on the Christian-Green Collection
'In Our Words' is the platform from which we get to tell our stories. 'We' is loosely defined as members of the AGBS community: staff, faculty, supporters, and guest-contributors whose voices help shape our narrative.
We continue this series with an enlightening, and moving, essay from Rudy Green who is a UT alumnus, Chair of the Black Studies Advisory Council, and an Austin-based art-collector. Rudy and his wife Joyce Christian are some of the earliest supporters of the galleries. The Christian-Green Gallery is evidence of this meaningful and long-term relationship-- the sorts of relationships explored in this essay about collecting art.
We are honored to call Rudy and Joyce members of our community, and pleased to present this thoughtful essay on The Narrative.
Michael Ray Charles, Forever Free (Cream of the Crop), 1992. Image courtesy of the artist.
A Few Musings on Why I (We) Collect Art
By Rudy Green
I have been collecting art for almost 35 years and my wife, Joyce Christian, has joined me in the activity for the last 25 of those years. While we both have been involved in various ways, I hesitate to completely call it a joint activity. One way of describing our circumstance is to say that Joyce “married into collecting" and has been a more than willing participant, but that I have been the primary collector. Another way I like to think about it is to say that I drive the collecting activity but Joyce is my steady shotgun seat rider. Because we have been on this ride together for so long, many insights expressed in this article have come from my experience as being part of a collecting couple. In that sense, Joyce is a co-author even as I might often refer only to myself.
The collection itself has grown fairly steadily over time to now include several hundred objects with an almost exclusive emphasis on works by people of African descent in the trans-Atlantic region. This strong focus on work that isn’t very familiar to many in the American art community, combined with positive evaluations of the collection’s quality, has attracted the attention of curators and educators interested in exploring traditionally under-explored areas. As a result, we are often asked to lend work to exhibitions. Our strong desire for the work to be used in an educational context has prompted us to lend work most often for display at schools, universities and museums. Indeed, one of the greatest joys of having the collection has come from having the ability to make a meaningful contribution to the education mission.
Aside from lending art, I have often spoken on the topic of collecting as part of the programming associated with these exhibitions. I really enjoy this type of setting as it makes it easier for me show the connection between works on display, and our collection. Over the years, these engagements have allowed me to think a lot about collecting, and gather good feedback from audience members. What I’ve come to learn is that while those attending the sessions are greatly interested in seeing the art and hearing from me about the art and the artist, what really gets them excited is the passion shown in telling stories associated with the acquisition of the art.
Indeed, one of the greatest joys of having the collection has come from having the ability to make a meaningful contribution to the education mission.
I start with these observations about our collecting history, and the responses to my art talks, because they highlight two important points in the story of why I collect art. First: serious collecting is an activity that takes place and gains meaning over a period of time – perhaps a life-time. This has strong implications on relationships and lifestyle. And second: collecting is an activity driven by emotion. This should make sense right away because art, after all, is derived from strong emotional inputs – creative spirit and personal aesthetic. In collecting, one devotes time, energy and resources to an activity that is voluntary. While there may be other forms of “payment” from engagement in this activity, I suspect that most serious collectors would agree that the big payoff is psychological. Indeed, the simplest answer I could give to the question of “why I collect” is that I find it emotionally rewarding.
Of course, this response is vague and incomplete because it does not include enough information to help you understand my approach to collecting art. I could make the response more interesting by adding that “I like the life story.” This helps you to better understand up front that the decision to be a collector is a life path choice and likely a life-long activity. It also gets across that collecting is a generator of personal stories and relationships. Indeed, our life story as collectors is made up of many singular stories centered on art, artists, art dealers and museum communities. But the most memorable ones are often associated with the relationships that we developed over time. As Joyce puts it, “the most enjoyable part of collecting is the opportunity to meet the artist in his or her environment, and to engage in conversation about what inspires creativity in general. It makes for an even more meaningful encounter if/when we purchase a work of art directly from the artist. That work is a wonderful reminder of the relationship”.
Indeed, our life story as collectors is made up of many singular stories centered on art, artists, art dealers and museum communities. But the most memorable ones are often associated with the relationships that we developed over time.
Michael Ray Charles, (Forever Free Post) Skin Games, 1993. Image courtesy of the artist.
To explain my answer to the question “why collect” more fully, I’ll begin with a story of how it began.
I started consciously collecting art in 1986 as part of an effort to promote a better understanding and appreciation of the culture of peoples of African descent. At the time, I was in partnership with my late wife, Roslyn Wright, who passed away at any early age in 1990. It was she who introduced me to the idea of collecting art to further my cultural education and promotion objectives, and of beginning the collection with a focus on Haitian art. Of course, I was an easy target as I had taken two ‘History of Art’ classes while in college, one of which explored African cultural retentions in the Americas and had a strong emphasis on Brazil and Haiti. I was also receptive because we both wanted to find an activity in which we could jointly participate. So, another component of the answer to the question of why collect is that “it’s what my partner wanted to do.” In that sense I, like Joyce, married into collecting.
Again, my basic motivation in beginning was to promote Black arts culture. I actually began this effort in the 1970s with a focus on music and musical performance. After acquiring several art pieces in the late 1980s, I began to consider whether, instead of exploring and promoting culture exclusively through music, I could do so effectively with respect to the visual arts. As I did more research on the subject of African and African diaspora art, I learned that unlike in music, the contributions of Black people to the visual arts and cultural history of the Americas were woefully unrecognized. This failure of recognition stemmed in large part from the absence of curators and scholars in the area and the consequent dearth of documentation and research materials. This strengthened my commitment to focus my efforts on the educational potential of art, both personal and community, and to develop a strategy for collecting that included building a personal research library and archive and the establishment of relationships with educational institutions.
As I did more research on the subject of African and African diaspora art, I learned that unlike in music, the contributions of Black people to the visual arts and cultural history of the Americas were woefully unrecognized.
I did not begin to think of myself as a serious collector until 1993 when two fortuitous meetings greatly accelerated my development. The first was my introduction to Michael Ray Charles, who then, at the age of 25, had already establish a successful career as an artist and was launching a parallel career in university arts education. We quickly established a lasting friendship that regularly involved discussions about social and cultural influences on art as well as formal elements of the creative process. In one sense, we were and continue to be co-mentors, each helping the other gain a better understanding of the art world as seen from our respective points of view.
Jacques Enguerrande Gourgue, Mind’s Window, 1993. Photo: Mark Doroba, The Visual Resources Collection, The University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.
The second was meeting a Washington, D.C. based photographer and Haitian art dealer named Len DePas. Len was well connected in the Haitian arts community and had significant experience in dealing with major collectors, both in the U.S. and abroad. After two years of friendship centered around my efforts to develop a meaningful Haitian arts collection, Len nominated me for service on the board of trustees of the support organization for Le Musée D’Art Haitien du Collège Saint-Pierre , the national art museum for Haiti. I was elected to the board in April, 1995, and attended the first board meeting in Haiti. Incidentally, the visit to Haiti ended up being part of my honey-moon vacation with Joyce. Aside from helping us begin our marriage on a very sweet note, the trip to Haiti exposed us to an international group of art collectors and promoters, and allowed us to meet several of the artists whose works have become important elements of our collection. Len was also a strong influence in the development of my collecting strategy which considers that acquired works are financial investment assets as well as objects of aesthetic pleasure.
These relationship stories are just two of the numerous that I could recount about my life as a collector, and show how collecting can affect daily living through its influence on one’s friendship circles. They make it easier to see how I consider it emotionally rewarding. Aside from choice of personal relationships, collecting can influence many other significant life decisions as well, including those related to housing, work, financial and estate planning, travel and social calendar. We won’t address these topics in this article, but please continue to follow “The Narrative” for more on these topics and other perspectives on collecting. If you have specific questions on these or related topics, I invite you to ask questions through the "Contact" section of the Black Studies's AGBS website.