In Art Guide’s new interview series Let’s Hang, find out what’s on the walls of art-world luminaries and get expert advice on art collecting, styling, and decorating. First up: Spalding Nix, founder of Atlanta’s Spalding Nix Fine Art, a leading gallery for contemporary works in the Southeast.
A lawyer by trade, art appraiser on the side, and “frustrated art history professor” deep down, Nix worked at Sotheby’s, The Smithsonian, and the National Gallery of Art before opening his eponymous gallery in 2003. As an art adviser, Spalding has assisted individual and Fortune 500 clients in private sales ranging from original Picasso drawings to rare Josef Koudelka photographs. Here, he dives into his best advice for starting your collection — and tells us why it’s a problem if the only thing your painting says is “I match the couch.”
You recently gave a presentation on starting an art collection. What was the impetus behind that idea?
I wanted to look at what it means to take that plunge and say “I want to buy some art that speaks to me. How do I go about doing it?” The overarching idea to this presentation was “means and desire make the buyer.” How much you have and how much you want it sets the parameters for what you can buy. We can’t all go to New York City and spend millions of dollars on Basquiats and Warhols, but we’re so lucky to have so many hardworking, talented artists who are affordable. Whether you’ve got $5,000 or $50,000, there’s amazing artwork out there for you.
The first rule is focus: Figure out what it is that you’re interested in. That takes time. I think a lot of people spread themselves too thin. If you’re flitting from one area to another, it’s really hard to figure out what you like and don’t like. If you’re interested in prints or photography or sculpture or women artists here in the Southeast, find a niche that really speaks to you. It could be subject, medium or genre, a micro or a macro lens. Once you have that, getting out there and looking is the most important thing. And that’s the fun part. It’s research but with a glass of wine in your hand.
What was your first job in the art world? What was the most important thing you learned?
My first formal job was at the Heath Gallery, founded by David Heath — the first contemporary art gallery of note in Atlanta in the early ’60s. He brought down a lot of artists making big splashes in New York City, from the Pop artists through Lynda Benglis, and championed them in the Southeast. It was a real pleasure after my senior year of high school getting to spend the summer with him and it taught me how important the summers are. I ended up going to law school and every summer, I secured these great opportunities. A favorite was at the National Gallery of Art, which silkscreens all of their labels on the wall. It was a treat to march through the museum after hours with our buckets of paint and squeegees.
Through law school, I was on the general counsel team of the Smithsonian. For people who are interested in the art world, there are so many different sides of it. Take advantage of opportunities to be in galleries, museums, and regional auction houses. I feel very lucky that I got to experience a few of them before I had to make a professional career decision.
What’s your top tip for starting your art collection?
Just find one piece a year that you and your partner really love – one great thing to add to your home every year. Now that I’m 47, my home is filled to the gills with art. Twenty years of buying something that’s special to you will change your home and change your life. It’s a challenge you can share with someone.
A lot of collectors buy for themselves but I love the challenge for couples. It’s a personal decision shared by two people. At the gallery, we recently had a couple who was very excited about Susan Habel collage pieces come in on a Saturday, and whittle down the works they wanted from two dozen to four they really loved. It was hysterical listening to them compromise and figure out which ones made both of them happy and they were so proud in the end.
That’s adorable advice! What’s the first artwork you bought as a couple?
For our first anniversary and the traditional gift of paper, my wife and I found a beautiful early 19th-century French drawing that spoke to both of us when we were in Paris. It’s a charcoal portrait of a young man who seems like he could open up his mouth and talk. It’s so fun to have that character hanging next to a piece by portrait artist Richard Thomas Scott — the old and the new.
What’s your favorite piece on your walls at home?
A Katherine Sandoz abstract painting of a magnolia. We really love this picture, and it’s a big painting, so when we redid our living room, we said “Every decision we make is going to be based on this painting.” We had it answer all these questions for us: What color should the walls be? What color fabric should the sofa be? It’s a very special picture that creates a special room.
I’m sure you have many interesting stories from your work as an art appraiser. I would love to hear about some memorable moments in terms of works you’ve seen or notable requests for your services.
I was part of helping an estate where a long-lost John Singer Sargent Venice watercolor reappeared. I happened to know the people who represent his estate. I called and said I hope this is what we think it is! They called back in two seconds – it was a work that had been missing since 1913! Then, there was a Norman Rockwell painting of Lincoln saved, literally, from the trash.
On the appraisal side, it is fun that there are those diamonds in the rough out there. Write the information on the back of the picture of what it is or how it’s significant to your family — it only takes a generation to turn over for the relevance of something to be lost until it’s rediscovered.
What is your favorite museum?
There’s just nothing as global and encyclopedia as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I lived in New York, I tried to go there as often as I could. When visitors came to stay, I’d take them on the Better Butts tour, critiquing as many rear ends as we could — a lighthearted way to make your way through the galleries. I’m very at home at the Met.
What’s your motto?
Ideas start with the art. For art galleries, a lot of what we’re doing is trying to sell art for people for their homes. If all the painting says is “I match the couch” that’s a problem. We want to find something that excites them and surprises them, maybe for a lifetime!
No one is going to remember the sofa — they’re going to remember that great work of art you hung over the sofa. Make art a priority. How you do that is by focusing, really looking, doing your research, and listening and learning from the people around you who might have knowledge to share.
Spend some more time with Spalding Nix through his artist talks on Instagram.
What questions do you have about starting your art collection? Whose advice are you dying to get? Let us know in the comments below.