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Article by Colleen Watson O’Reilly

his past October at the 25th annual symposium of the CSDA Objects of Desire: Pursuits of the Collecting Eye, veterans and non-collectors alike came together to explore what collecting means, why we do it, and how. Five members of the Canadian decorative arts community shared their differing backgrounds, expressed opinions and exchanged compliments on collected artefacts. Throughout the symposium many themes emerged, in particular the central issue of change and how current trends relate to the nature of collecting itself.

The panelists all had their start in collecting in different ways – some by accident, some by design. One of the major themes of the symposium was the psychology of collecting. Although different for every person, it also shows us what we have in common. Humans have always collected. We keep pieces of our personal past, our family’s past, and also of our society’s past. This fascination with our history also has to do with our aesthetic sensibilities. We collect because we are interested in the stories objects tell, but also because we are stimulated visually. Aaron Milrad, lawyer, vice chair of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art and member of the Ontario Minister of Culture’s Advisory Council for Arts and Culture, collects because he believes in the pleasure of living with beautiful things.

Whether we collect baseball cards or eighteenth-century French porcelain, it seems to be in an effort to surround ourselves with physical evidence of what humanity has to offer. Or perhaps it is just to connect ourselves to the physical world. As William Kime, head of the Decorative Arts department at Waddington’s points out, collecting is inborn – who didn’t pick up pebbles on the beach to take home as a child? What is more, by choosing to take an interest in what previous generations have chosen to preserve, we edit our own history. It becomes a personal connection with a story, a person, an experience. Collecting also unites people across time and space. By studying and examining the artistic expressions of the past, we find out about ourselves and about our society.

John Harbinson, whose well-known collection of
Canadian historical furnishings has recently been
acquired by the Canadian Museum of Civilization,
pointed out that collecting is also a way to define oneself,
and to refine one’s tastes and interests. In discussing
his decision to share his collection he brought up yet
another aspect and purpose of the practice: to support
and encourage the display of decorative art and to
elevate its profile and level of interest.

Max Allen, co-founder of the Textile Museum of
Canada (who came wearing a 120-year-old Afghanistani
robe), brought some war rugs from Afghanistan made
since the 1979 Soviet invasion to illustrate another
purpose and motivation for collecting. The rugs were
decorated with images of weapons, rather than the
traditional birds or flower motifs. They have thus
become a cultural document, an expression of the
recent situation in that society. The decorative arts
are well suited to this, perhaps more so than fine art.

Aaron Milrad also discussed the usefulness of the
decorative arts – as a cultural expression – for the survival,
expression, and cultural transfer of oppressed or underrepresented
parties. Women, for example, who in the
past have been often excluded from artistic practice
and even today forced into situations of dire poverty
at times, have used craft as a way to tell their stories,
to make a living and to have a voice.

The panelists expressed concern that the next
generation might not carry on the traditional patterns
of collecting. Will the collecting community remain
strong? Is the market in decline? William Bensen, longtime
collector of the historical decorative arts, and of
Canadiana in particular (who brought part of the original
set of Great Seals sent to Canada for the reign of Edward
VII), observed that “people here don’t know our history
or our culture.” One of his goals is to try to show
young people, who think that everything worthwhile
has already been collected, that there are still things out
there that have a history and are also affordable. John
Harbinson suggested that perhaps young people can’t
find their way in to these kinds of activities, and that
what is needed is to build a firm base of interest and
exposure through formal studies and museum practices.
Bill Kime agreed that young people are not much
interested in the decorative arts and that parents want
to get rid of stuff, because “no one’s kids want it.” Major
pieces still stand out at auctions, but more ordinary
things draw little attention.

Decorative art is not the first thing an amateur
necessarily thinks of in terms of the art market. It has
less mass appeal than paintings and sculpture. And
indeed, there may be fewer young people interested
in collecting rugs from Afghanistan than in collecting
Warhols. The fact is that our history is changing. As
Max Allen pointed out, the average Canadian’s individual
cultural identity looks remarkably different from that
of fifty years ago. Globalization and other demographic
shifts mean that the places and stories of interest
concerning the past are now part of a larger mosaic.
Other cultures have become a part of ours.

Another dominant theme during the forum was
the changing nature of the decorative arts market in
the wake of the Internet and eBay. The fact that the
computer can provide hundreds or thousands of items
in an instant considerably changes the nature of collecting
today. Max Allen calls the Internet “a window through
which things come from the world” and points out that
it is an “unprecedented global marketplace” where for
the first time in commerce, the distinction between
buyers and sellers is gone.

Some collectors still feel that collecting is impossible
without using all of your senses. For them it is absolutely
necessary to see, touch, smell and listen to the object
of desire, experience the foreplay of buying and the joy
of travelling to trade fairs and galleries. Others maintain
that it is possible for an expert to make good decisions
online (and bad ones in person) and that the broad
range of material available on the Internet outweighs
its risks, one just has to be careful. Bill Kime reported
that after having found three sample plates over twenty
years, he went online and immediately found twenty.

The Internet could be seen as a cutting edge research
tool that widens collecting possibilities, facilitates
expansion of the market, and expedites the extension
of the benefits and knowledge gained through collecting
to the community at large.
It is hard to know exactly how these recent changes
positively affect the art market, which by some standards
is booming. Some also argue that too many people enter the market for investment, not for the beauty
of the objects. This has changed the distribution of
value dramatically.

The forum ended with a final word on the importance
of donor relations. Aaron Milrad called for increased
attention to relationships between donors and museums,
because many collections are dependent upon benefactions
and donations for their development. Several panelists
also suggested that the CSDA push the government for
a new tax break for Canadians who donate Canadian
pieces to museums in other countries, something that
exists in the United States.

Some viewpoints were more progressive, some more
traditional, but all had in common a passion for beautiful
things. Things that are household items in their essence,
but that hold meaning and truth and beauty for a whole
civilization. That, I think, does not change.

Colleen Watson O’Reilly is a recent graduate in Fine Art History
from the University of Toronto.