The Artful Collector: How Children Become (Art) Collectors

Vuk Vuchinich (1901-1974) "Impromptu Sketch of a Bearded Man"  Charcoal on paper, c. 1952-1954
Vuk Vuchinich “Impromptu Sketch of a Bearded Man” Charcoal on paper, c. 1952-1954

It’s been said that collecting is an addiction of only a minority of the population. Given that, there is only a limited probability that anyone will grow up to be a collector . . . of anything.  But are there things—experiences, influences—that can “up” the probability? [Bear in mind, even if you do follow all my advice, only about 1 in 3 of your children will end up collectors. I know this, because I have three children. :)]

Adults pass on their passions and interests to their children, whether that’s their intention, or not. Some believe that the desire to collect is inherited, and you will find families that boast of 3rd generation collectors, because it’s “in the blood.” Others think it’s a disease that you can catch by association with other collectors, i.e., you can be “contaminated” by those who are afflicted. If you feel that way, you might want your child to avoid being part of the ‘gang’ that collects mini-collectibles like Squinkies. 🙂  But I believe that reliance on genes, or opportune friendships, are not enough. If you want the odds to be in your favor, if you want to increase the probability that a child will grow to be as passionate about what they collect as you are, there are things you can and should do when they are young. You must shape your child’s experiences so that her/his exposure, in combination with their pre-disposition, will lead to them becoming collectors. Nature and nature, in a nutshell.

What We Grow Up With Matters

You know how educators and others harp on talking alot to your baby, reading to your toddler, and having plenty of books in the home when your children are growing, as ways to insure your child will be a “good reader” and “good writer”? Well, what we grow up with is what we know and love and have nostalgia for as adults. If you have blank walls, with nothing hanging on them at all, you won’t have too much to remember, will you? You may not know it at the time, but later on, when you are stumped and need a decorator to tell you how to make your walls “more visually interesting” you’ll know who to blame. 🙂

Gustavo Montoya (1905-2003) "Girl with a Guitar" Mexican artist.
Gustavo Montoya (b. 1905) “Girl with a Guitar” Mexican artist,

It doesn’t matter what images you choose: could be bowls of fruit or landscapes or seascapes or wizards with wands. What matters is that those bare walls are covered with something other than paint or wallpaper. In my case, my parents happened to be great fans of a Mexican artist famed for his paintings of children in regional traditional Mexican clothing and settings. At one point I think they owned at least half a dozen. [not this one shown here, but like it] I never could see what they saw in Montoya’s art but that is irrelevant. What matters is that they did, the paintings were there, and treasured. Along with art by German Impressionists, New York “Ash Can” and more.

And then there’s the matter of how you, as an adult, respond to a child who loves bringing home “mementos”. Could be rocks, shells or dead bugs. How do you react to that? “Don’t bring that in here!” or “Find a box or bag to keep it in” (next step: garbage when everyone forgets about it) or “Let’s find a good place/way to display them”?  Remember: Part of the great fun of collecting is the opportunity to show off what you’ve found, not be embarrassed by it.

Then there’s the matter of neatness vs. clutter. You know the answer there, so I won’t belabor it. But let me just say that “minimalists” who believe in living simply are not a good match for those who are, by nature, acquisitive/ collectors.

Raise them with Art and Artists

I mentioned earlier the idea of visual stimulation. Well, beyond that is the good that comes from not just seeking out venues where Art can be seen, but seeking out the Artists who make it. There is a magic in seeing skilled, artistic people “at work”. Whether it’s making music, dancing or drawing. In the same way children are drawn to glass blowers and animal trainers, they love watching artists sketch, and paint. I was fortunate, at the age of about 12, to be introduced to a friend of my father’s, a heavily accented fellow with the funny name of “Vuk”. He thought it was amusing when, after being introduced as an artist, I piped up with “Can you draw me something?” He asked if I had any drawing paper and charcoal and believe it or not, I did. He set to work and a few minutes later, “oila,” there was a portrait of some imaginary bearded fellow, who looked Russian (to me) but nothing like anyone I knew. Still, I recognized the ability to do this . . . and so I had the presence of mind to ask him to sign it. He laughed knowingly, and did so, kindly inscribing it to me.  After he left, my father said “do you know who that was? He is a very well known artist, he’s done covers for “Time” magazine! And you asked him to draw something and then sign it!” I think he was torn between chiding me for rudeness and congratulating me for my ingenuity. Meanwhile, I’ve kept this drawing for 60 years now—but I think, so would any child, who felt honored enough to have a drawing such as this, created just for her/ him.

San Diego Comic Con, Artist's Alley 2012, run by Deviant Art and thanks to their site for this photo
San Diego Comic Con, Artist’s Alley 2012, run by Deviant Art and thanks to their site for this photo

I’m reminded of this whenever I see children being taken to genre “big tent” conventions like San Diego ComiCon and they get to see and meet artists “up close and personal” at con events like the Artist’s Alley. Big cons are fun because the crowds make them exciting and there’s a huge amount for a child to see. It may be too overwhelming for a young child to see everything, so you may want to confine meetings to artists you know. Smaller cons can be even better for this, because the child can really get to talk with artists without crowds overhearing and the same goes for less formal art galleries, public art spaces, or outdoor art fairs. It’s terrific fun for young young collectors to interact with an artist, or even watch them sit at their table and draw. Better yet, visit an artist’s studio and see them sculpt or paint. And, if a child is inspired enough “on the spot” to own the piece, and it’s age appropriate and within your budget, that would be the ideal time to consider the purchase.

The good news is that more and more families are attending conventions these days, and there are special activities there designed for them. But don’t let that prevent you from taking children around to meet the artists.   

Meet Other Collectors and See other Collections

Example: Small group of Austrian cold-painted miniature bronze animals, early 20th C. sold at Bohhams, 2010.
Example: Small group of Austrian cold-painted miniature bronze animals, early 20th C. sold at Bohhams, 2010.

Just as visiting art museums is not like seeing art in art galleries, where someone is there to explain it to you, seeing “collections” (of any kind) in a public institution or space is not the same as seeing them in someone’s house. The point of the exercise is “exposure” . . . not just to the idea that “collecting” is okay, or that the range of what can be collected is HUGE . . . but also exposure to the people who are “collectors.” People who collect are passionate and interesting and generally love to show off what they collect.

I was fortunate. My family knew people who collected all sorts of things, from arrowheads (arrayed in large groupings, framed, in shadowbox cabinets hanging on the wall) to miniature bronze animals marching across shelves and mantels.

The thought I was left with: this is okay. And by talking to people who collect things, I also learned that it took work, and research, and reading to be a collector.

Of course, it’s not enough to drag home bags of seashells from a beach vacation, and expect a child to look up their latin names. 🙂 But the last thing you want to do is discourage a child’s interest, curiosity, and passion, even if those shells end up holding down the plants in a fish bowl.

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