These Kansas City Art Collectors Are Unabashedly Obsessive, Sometimes Influential
Two times every year, a group of admittedly obsessive collectors gets together for a "show and tell." And sometimes, what the members of the The Print Society of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art are most excited about can end up on the walls of area museums.
At the most recent gathering on January 13, at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Gallery in the Crossroads, Print Society members were huddled over colorful lithographs of Indian gods, vivid serigraphs of birds in the Amazon, and eighteenth century Italian etchings were laid out for all to see.
“People like to see what other people collect, because we all have different tastes," said the Print Society’s president, Paul Sokoloff, who has been collecting prints since high school. "People bring prints that I would never want, and I bring prints that they would never want, but it opens us up to a whole world.”
Collectors' reasons for buying prints are as varied at the individuals who collect them.
Kathy Ashenbrenner, for example, owns several prints from artist Roger Brown. Known internationally, Brown is most closely associated with the Chicago Imagist school.
“I brought the print because I really like the Roger Brown sky, and I also like it because it’s the 'Family Tree Mourning' print,” Ashenbrenner explained. “And these are all the wars in the United States up until the time that the print was made. So it touched my heart.”
At these gatherings, each member has five minutes to talk about a print or two. Karl Marxhausen brought a framed Max Weber woodcut his father left him, because he wanted to know more about the artist.
“Someone said, 'If you have a print and you don’t know anything about, it bring it. Someone will say something,'" he said when it was his turn to speak. "Anybody know about Max Weber?”
A murmur of excitement rippled through the crowd, and John Mallery, who organizes these events, did a quick search on his phone.
“Weber’s early paintings reflect a fascination with futurist themes, Cubist space and Fauve color,” John Mallery read out loud. “And it goes on. Yeah, he’s a significant artist.”
The Nelson-Atkins Print Society was founded four decades ago by George McKenna, the museum's former print curator. The group's mission, both then and now, is to increase the appreciation for prints and expand the Nelson’s collections of works on paper.
Stephanie Fox Knappe, the Samuel Sosland Curator of American Art at the Nelson, now serves as the group's official liaison and keeps a close eye on what they are doing.
“I’m learning something at every 'Show and Tell' event,” says Knappe. “I’m learning new things about artists that I felt very comfortable with, and I’m being exposed to artists that were not in my playbook.”
Collectors bring a different kind of intensity to the art they purchase, she notes.
“I live with art a large part of my day here at the museum. But it is so wonderful to see and hear collectors’ personal stories of the connections (they make with) these works of art that they’re living with,” Knappe says.
A Print Society member’s enthusiasm can place an artist on Knappe’s radar. Currently there's a print called "Fine Lines: Whistler and the American Etching Revival," by Oklahoma artist Maurice Bebb, on display at the Nelson.
It was Mallery who brought Bebb to Knappe's attention, and Mallery admits he can be obsessive. Prints, he says, can be like a gateway drug into art collecting.
“So if you really like an artist, you’re not going to spend thousands of dollars on a painting, but you can spend $100 or $150 on an etching,” he says.
“If you’re a collector and you have the disease, you’ll see the print and there’s nothing that’s going to stop you from buying it short of it’s way out of your price range,” Mallery says. “But if it’s in your price range, I’m going to have that print. It’s very sad,” he says with a laugh, meaning it's not sad at all.
Mallery is relatively new to collecting. He bought his first print just a few years ago, and now he has 200. And later this month, the Albrecht-Kemper Museum in St. Joseph will feature a special exhibit of works from his personal collection, “A Life’s Looking Glass: The Collection of John Mallery.”
“I was always excited to find that you can buy museum-quality prints without being a millionaire,” Mallery says. “And that’s kind of the whole thing about prints. I mean, during the Depression, people like Thomas Hart Benton and a bunch of folks doing prints — and they were selling for five dollars.”
Collectors often ask Sokoloff if prints are a good investment. But he advises people to collect for pleasure.
"Train your eye," he says, "and buy what you love."
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.