4 Keys to Building an Art Collection: A Collector Spotlight


Art Collection Profile > Robert C. Kennedy of Norfolk, Virginia, has assembled a significant collection of representational paintings, most of them figurative. He recalls, “From an early age, I was attracted to beauty in the visual and decorative arts. My older sister, Bev, was an amateur artist and showed me how to paint a few leaves on one of her still life scenes, but I never developed the skill further. Being from a small town in the rural Midwest, I did not even visit an art museum until I was in college.” (That was the great Art Institute of Chicago, which he still admires.)

Art collector Robert C. Kennedy
Robert C. Kennedy

Robert says that during college he started buying art posters, then visiting local art shows. Those experiences refined his eye, which surely also benefitted from the professional career he ultimately pursued — choosing the visual content and writing historical commentary for free educational websites that featured cartoons by Thomas Nast and other late 19th-century illustrators.

It was in the late 1990s that the Internet awakened Robert to the classical realism movement taking shape then. His first major purchase in this field was “Fall,” a still life painted in 2002 by Juliette Aristides, who has authored several bestselling books including Classical Painting Atelier (2008). That transformative acquisition was made at the influential San Francisco gallery founded and run by John Pence for 44 years, a place Robert rightly remembers as “extraordinary.”

Since then, he has purchased mainly from galleries and only occasionally from artists. He laughs, “Perhaps the most dramatic example of the latter was the Norwegian artist Cornelia Hernes’s breathtakingly gorgeous ‘Midsummer Night,’ which she shipped to me directly from Sweden, where she was living at the time.”

Art collection - Cornelia Hernes (b. 1979), "Midsummer Night [after Arthur Rackham’s Fair Helena]," 2013, oil on canvas, 35 1/3 x 23 2/3 in.
Cornelia Hernes (b. 1979), “Midsummer Night [after Arthur Rackham’s Fair Helena],” 2013, oil on canvas, 35 1/3 x 23 2/3 in.
Today the contemporary artists represented in Kennedy’s collection are Kari Lise Alexander, Erin Anderson, Angela Andrieux, Juliette Aristides, Stephen Bauman, Jura Bedic, Mia Bergeron, Laurie Lee Brom, Scott Burdick, Ali Cavanaugh, Helen Cooper, Philippe Couture, Tiffany Dae, Hunter Eddy, Eric Gibbons, Jessica Gordon, Cornelia Hernes, Solomon Isekeije, Michelle Jader, Karin Jurick, Steven J. Levin, Lacey Lewis, Susan Lyon, Anne May, Jennifer McChristian, John McClarey, Winona Nelson, Teresa Oaxaca, Tae Park, Pam Poncé, Carolyn Pyfrom, Megan Robison, John Sagartz, Travis Schlaht, Richard Thomas Scott, Sara Scribner, Kerry Brooks Simmons, June Stratton, Terry Strickland, Peter Van Dyke, Susan Werby, Katie Wilson, Anna Wypych, Ryan Wurmser, R. Scott Young, Yuzhu Zheng, and Ni Zhu.

Through two decades of experience, Robert has arrived at some helpful guidelines for collecting from which all of us can learn. He advises, “When buying what you love, make sure it will be an enduring love, not a fleeting infatuation. That’s why it’s a good idea to make decisions with your head as well as your heart.”

The keys to building an art collection are, in his own words:

  • The artwork should be skillfully created (design, composition, technique, etc.).
  • It should compel and sustain your attention upon purchase and then over the years, eliciting a sense of transcendence beyond the mundane, even if its subject is ordinary.
  • It should, in some aspect, be distinctive. For example, even it’s a straightforward portrait, something about it should distinguish it from similar portraits.
  • It should integrate into your collection, or a subset of it, without duplicating anything —or have the potential to launch a new subset. Your overall goal should be creating a collection that has harmony without uniformity, variety without dissonance.

Robert’s directive that an artwork “compel” attention is epitomized by his somewhat circuitous acquisition of Terry Strickland’s painting “Voice of the Tiger.”

Art collection - Terry Strickland (b. 1960), "Voice of the Tiger," 2010, oil on canvas over panel, 33 x 32 in.
Terry Strickland (b. 1960), “Voice of the Tiger,” 2010, oil on canvas over panel, 33 x 32 in.

“About a dozen years ago, I saw it on the Robert Lange Studios website and was captivated. Disappointingly, it was marked ‘sold,’ yet I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Checking back a week later, I was pleasantly surprised to learn it was now available because the other clients had backed out (to their later regret). Ever since, ‘Voice of the Tiger’ has been a central piece in my collection. Its acquisition also solidified my realization that I was developing a substantial collection and prodded more serious thinking about that fact.”

Robert’s passion is further reflected by the fact that, in recent years, he has been e-mailing artists “once their work reaches my home to express my gratitude for their talent.” Not surprisingly, they are usually charmed and respond kindly. Just for example, the Chinese-born, U.S.-based artist Ni Zhu replied with video clips of Ngawang, the Tibetan monk represented in her painting. “Closer to home,” Robert adds, “I volunteer to oversee monthly art shows at a library and have developed friendships with several of the exhibiting artists.”

Looking forward, Robert is deeply encouraged by “the proliferation of high-quality ateliers and workshops, including some for young people. My teenaged niece, Erin, is a talented artist, so this is a particularly hopeful development for the field and for my family.”

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