by Tracy Hudak
When you think of art collecting, what comes to mind? Seven-figure auction sales from news stories? Or towering egos and chichi galleries from movies? Focus on the Masters hosted an event recently that offered a very different perspective. “Where Art Lives” was a self-led tour of the homes of eleven local art collectors that brought to light the intimate and dynamic relationships between works of art, their collectors and the spaces they share.
Focus on the Masters (FOTM) is Ventura County’s ultimate collector of stories on the region’s art world, preserving and documenting art works and artists’ lives and sharing them through their archive, presentations and arts education programs. FOTM “office empress” Mary Galbraith conceived of the tour as a way to help people understand that one doesn’t have to be an expert in art history or a “gazillionaire” to collect art because, as she says, “What carries the day is the passion of the collector, the inability to say ‘no’ to a work of art that has power for them.”
Denise Sindelar, whose home was included in the tour, knows all about this power. The community partners manager for the city of Ventura, Sindelar purchased her first painting in 1983 for $40 while a mail carrier in Reseda. Sitting in the window of a frame shop, it just grabbed hold of her and hasn’t let go since. Sindelar and her husband, Jim, have created a home blooming with art, and, she explains, “Each work in our collection has its own story and has become interwoven into the story of my and my husband’s lives.”
Real estate agent and collage artist Karen Hoffberg also opened her home for the tour. She began by collecting objects on her travels, like bells from sheep in Sweden. After many decades of collecting, she made the leap to a significant art purchase, which she says, “scared the [crap] out of me.” It’s one of Ernesto Seco’s expressionistic paintings of the L.A. Philharmonic, whose movement transports Hoffberg’s mind and body. Living with the works of art that she has chosen, “is an enrichment to my life,” she explains. “It feeds my soul, it awakens my emotions, it is both stimulating and soothing.”
All of us curate the experience of our homes, balancing pleasure, meaning and function on a budget. Choosing to live with unique works of art adds a highly personal and energized dimension to this. Arts educator and artist Aimee French explains, “Original art is imbued with the human spirit, like a living, breathing thing unto itself.” She shared her collection on the tour, pointing out that the first piece of art she ever bought, a $15 ceramic vase, now serves as her cooking utensil holder. Another collector has a highly prized Picasso print over a bathroom sink, one of the most frequently visited and private rooms in the house. Collectors on the tour situate artworks to affect the spaces in which they cook, sit, read, visit and sleep.
The stories or private resonances that an artwork can embody for a collector can become a legacy to be passed on. Printmaker Ginny Furmanski first began collecting works that she “could afford of famous artists,” but now her home is filled with pieces of “sentimental value” by friends and family members. The most important are paintings of her made by her father, who died when she was 18 months old. She explains that even though she didn’t get to grow up with him, she is surrounded by the love that is evident in those paintings.
Betsy Chess, director of fund development for the Museum of Ventura County, was given her first work of art at birth, when her parents gifted her a beautiful Jessie Arms Botke painting. One of California’s most celebrated painters, Botke made her home in Santa Paula, the city that Chess’ great-grandfather founded. Many of the collections on view comprised largely works by local artists, illustrating how art can weave an interconnectedness between people and place.
While the “Where Art Lives” tour offered but a small sampling of Ventura County collectors, their generosity in sharing their passion and homes provided invaluable insights for both artists and art lovers to consider. The biggest takeaway is that anyone can do it, and with the density of artists and variety of artwork in our region, one can start at any price point. Buying art on layaway is often an option as well. When Sindelar had her shop, Natalie’s Fine Threads and The Upstairs Gallery, she observed that “More people bought art on layaway than our clothing — and they never defaulted.” And while the neutral spaces of galleries help us see the work, it’s not just aesthetics that people hunger for. The stories collectors shared provided eloquent and powerful testimony on the value of living with art, reminding us that we all seek meaningful connection with both the people and the objects in our lives.