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The Focus Group at SBMA

Emerging Art Collectors Join Forces with Museum


YOUNG FRIENDS: Everyone has them — every major art museum at least. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, they are the Junior Associates; at the Guggenheim, they are called the Young Collectors Council; and at the Whitney Museum of American Art, it’s the cool kids on the Artists Council who are having all the fun. The formula involved is simple. Take strong supporters of the museum who are between the ages of 21 and 45, bring them together in a group focused on collecting, and voilà, you have a new generation of sophisticated buyers building your museum’s network — not to mention its potential holdings — for the future.

“In the Tuileries” (1991) by Kathleen Barrows at SBMA.
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“In the Tuileries” (1991) by Kathleen Barrows at SBMA.

At the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, this idea goes by the name of Focus, an acknowledgment of the group’s specific commitment to supporting the museum’s photography department and to collecting contemporary art. Organized by museum staffer and freshly minted UCSB art history PhD Lisa Volpe, the group is cochaired by two power players on the Santa Barbara contemporary arts scene, Tim Walsh and Jacquelyn Klein-Brown. The second of eight Focus events scheduled for 2013 is coming up tonight, Thursday, March 21, at the wall space gallery, but there is still plenty of time for those interested to get involved before the next five, which include a studio visit, a private collection viewing, a member’s-only video art screening, and a “buying spree,” during which the group will decide on one work to acquire on behalf of SBMA.

For Volpe, who came to Santa Barbara to work on a dissertation with Professor Bruce Robertson at UCSB, Focus has become a way to share the excitement she experienced as an assistant to Karen Sinsheimer, the museum’s curator of photography. When asked about Sinsheimer, Volpe lights up, saying, “I could not be luckier as far as finding a mentor. Karen has an amazing eye. Plus she’s very forward-thinking. As a result, she catches things on the rise.” In other words, she’s the perfect kind of curator around whom to build a program in which collectors learn to make intuitive critical judgments that yield major results.

Unlike some of its bigger-city counterparts, Focus is not prohibitively expensive or created as a vehicle to promote dressy parties and large-scale social events. “Most of the membership thus far has been acquired through word of mouth,” said Volpe, adding that the goal was to keep the group relatively intimate so that “people get to know each other, so that they feel like they have input, and so that they really learn something about the art world.”

One of the main points of the sequence of events that Focus has planned this year is to emphasize the diversity of art collecting. “Not all collectors go about things the same way,” Volpe told me. “Some people focus on a single artist or genre, while others are more wide-ranging; some people collect for personal enjoyment, or to complement a specific place or interest, while others are looking at their collection as an investment.” In Focus, the hope is that each individual will discover his or her right combination of impulses, and that this will lead to some exciting and unexpected decisions.

As for Volpe, what are her favorite moments in the search for that next great acquisition? “I love doing portfolio reviews,” she said. “They’re the photography equivalent of studio visits, and it’s thrilling to me every time we get another set in. After you’ve done it a few times, you really feel like with each new batch that you are getting a concentrated look at the zeitgeist.” And does Volpe have a photographer that she’s watching right now? “Lindsey Ross. Because of my research, which has been mostly on 19th-century photography, I’m a sucker for good new work that uses the older methods and equipment. I love her tintype portraits. In fact, I just posed for one.”

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