Like blockbuster movies, art sometimes gets more attention for its price tag than for its intrinsic value.
The Hunter Museum’s “Chattanooga Gems III” exhibit puts a spotlight on art works drawn from private collections in Chattanooga. They may not have the star power or headline-grabbing price tag of star art—like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” which sold for $120 million last year at Sotheby’s New York—but these pieces and the Chattanoogans who own them show that there’s more to collecting art than investing in blockbusters.
The exhibition—on display through Oct. 14 as part of the Hunter’s 60th anniversary celebration—showcases art works from the early 20th century to today, ranging from figurative artists like Reginald Marsh, Birge Harrison and Richard Estes, to works by abstract expressionists and modernists like Kenneth Noland, Robert Motherwell and Richard Serra.
“There are people here that have ambitious collections. There are pieces in private collections that we’d love to have in our permanent collection,” Dan Stetson, executive director of the Hunter Museum, said.
Pieces were borrowed from 17 art collectors in the Chattanooga area, including James McKissic, vice president and chief operating officer for the Chattanooga Urban League.Pieces loaned include prints by John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett and Alice Neel. “Gems” has two pieces by Alice Neel side by side: McKissic’s black and white print of an artist friend of Neel’s and a painting of two children.
“She lived in Harlem. She had friends of all races and backgrounds, and she spent the majority of her life painting them,” McKissic said.
Though Alice Neel is white, McKissic’s collection focuses primarily on African-American artists. He owns about 50 pieces, mostly paintings, prints and some sculpture, ranging from nationally known artists such as Catlett and Neel to Chattanooga artists such as Isaac Duncan and Rondell Crier. Collecting for him is such a consuming passion that he sacrifices to buy art.
“There’s something special about being able to come home and be surrounded by artists and artwork that you love,” McKissic said. “I have driven a raggedy car or cut back on groceries to purchase something I like. I’m proof that you can build a very nice collection on a modest income. You don’t have to be Donald Trump or Bill Gates to do it.”
Another collector with pieces in the Gems exhibit is Chattanooga sculptor Verina Baxter, who shares McKissic’s occasional preference for art over food.
“I think if you’re a collector it’s like being an artist,” she said. “You might eat beans instead of steak so you can buy an artwork. You just can’t help yourself.”
The “Gems” exhibit includes four pieces from her personal collection: a photograph by William Christianberry, a wood sculpture by Robyn Horn and two lithographs by Leonard Baskin.
She and her husband are opportunistic collectors. “We don’t have a specific group of works or artists we’re trying to collect. We have bought a lot of work when we travel,” she said.
Their collection includes traditional arts from Peru, Botswana and Panama, as well as many pieces bought at the Hunter’s annual Spectrum fundraising auction, including the Christianberry and Horn pieces in the Gems show.
For collector Brenda Brickhouse, vice president of environmental permits and compliance at TVA, many of the pieces on loan to the Gems exhibit have stories attached.
One is a print by Bob Stackhouse, the sculptor who created “Place In The Woods” in Renaissance Park with his partner Carol Mickett. Before Brickhouse and her husband, artist Wade Brickhouse, moved to Chattanooga, they befriended the artists in Florida. When she got a job offer from TVA, she called them for the lowdown on Chattanooga.
“Bob and Carol had been here working on that piece,” Brickhouse said. “My husband called and said, ‘Tell me about this place.’ Bob was really high on us coming here and that made the difference.”
The Brickhouses’ art collection—mostly fine craft and prints—is integral to their day-to-day environment.
“I guess we have our fair share of pedestals,” she said, “but it’s everywhere—on the dresser, the kitchen counter ... everywhere.”