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The debate rages over “what is art?”


In private conversations among artists, gallery directors and interior designers there is a debate about how to define art. The question of what works are considered collectible art— that which is purchased for its potential value appreciation or because it was created by a particular artist—or decorative art—work that is no less beautiful but is purchased because it complements a sofa or interior design—is often discussed, debated and argued.

Art by its very nature is relative. One person’s art is another’s trash. In his day, van Gogh couldn’t give his art away for a bowl of soup. Dragon Street, and the surrounding area in the Design District, is lined with galleries that sell art of all types, which attracts both collectors and designers. Add to this the many furniture showrooms that make art part of their offerings, and it is easy for the buyer, or collector, to get confused.

Certainly, there are some works that can only be considered a “work of art.” We are looking at you stack of rocks in the corner. The focus of this debate is about less avant-garde work. Interestingly, for many we spoke with, some art can exist in a Schrödinger’s cat-type state— existing as both collectible and decorative simultaneously.

spoke with gallery owners and artists to learn their perspectives about this subject.

Laura Rathe Fine Art
For Laura Rathe, who owns galleries in Dallas and Houston, the distinction between collectible and decorative art can blur depending on how those terms are actually defined. In her opinion, that is quite all right. Rathe believes a work of art can exists as both and reiterates that art is subjective.

“We believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if a work of art interests or excites someone, then it will bring dimension to their life, regardless of the label!” Rathe says.

When considering art, Rathe says, “There always comes that point when working with a client where they need to decide where the piece will fit in their space, but it’s important for the piece to speak to them first, or else its aesthetic won’t work at all.”

Bottom line for Rathe, and a philosophy she shares with every client, is that art should be loved and appreciated for what it is; worrying about whether it is defined one way or another is not the primary focus.

“Art is meant to have a personal impact, not simply bought and sold for the sole benefit of profit,” she says. “We wholeheartedly believe in every one of our artists and their futures, but we also believe that their art can change people’s lives through their magnetic beauty.”

Southwest Gallery
Melissa Butler, gallery manager at Southwest Gallery, believes it is important to have the distinction between the two in order to understand the world of art. “Helping to clarify the differences gives the viewer more of a base from which to decide the direction they want to pursue and purchase a piece,” she says.

She points out that both types of work generally share the same fundamental function of making the surrounding environment more stimulating and uplifting to the viewer. However, Butler draws a distinction between the two.

“Collectors’ art implies there is sufficiently more depth to an objet d’art as a piece that may increase in value as the artist achieves a heightened status,” she says. “Theoretically, a collectible piece is not made to support an interior place of living, rather it is there to satisfy the viewer, not only in the visual enjoyment but with the added possibility of an investment payoff in the future. Whereas decorative art is created more as a product—something to accompany and fill a functional need, such as matching a room’s decorative theme with no other benefit.”

With that said, Butler does believe that an artist’s work can start as one type of work and become the other over time.

“When an artist starts their career with introductory pricing, buyers can attain work at a relatively inexpensive, more decorative art price point. But then, as more people acquire that artist’s work, the pricing increases, which usually starts the upward shift to the collectability of that artist’s work.”

A theme is emerging that art should be purchased not based on its potential collectability, but due to a personal connection to the work. “Since predicting collectability is almost impossible, it is much better to buy a piece because there is a personal connection to the piece. Then, if the artist becomes highly sought after, it is a win-win!” Butler points out.

CINQ Gallery
At Cinq Gallery the general guideline for differentiating between the two types of work is that the primary purpose of “decorative art” is to appeal to the viewer and complement a particular style, motif or design. The value is derived more from the work’s visual aesthetic rather than any conceptual concerns.

While “collectors’ art” is work that has created an inherent value based on its conceptual and contextual significance. The art might exhibit historical and political relevance. The artist’s reputation and current trends factor largely with this art. Accompanying its conceptional relevance is also a perception of fiscal worth and investment value. The end extreme of this work is that it becomes a commodity to be bought and sold.

“We think it’s important for both a gallery and buyer to 4. John Humphreys understand where the value in a particular piece of art is derived from,” says Scott Dawson, owner of CINQ Gallery. “The more knowledge and understanding of the work can only enhance the experience of appreciating art. The gallery should be informed of what and why they are showing and selling work, and additionally, the buyer needs to have a good understanding of the purpose for their purchase.”

Dawson shares other’s sentiments that art can be considered both collectible and decorative. “The beauty with art is that the significance and value is purely man-made. Art can transcend multiple categories,” he says. “What may be considered at one time purely decorative may at another time have collectible attributes. History has shown that as styles, trends and culture change so do our aesthetic sensibilities. Although a piece of art may be a static object, art appreciation is a fluid experience.”

John Humphreys Artist
John Humphreys feels there is a differentiation between collectible and decorative art but that it has become increasingly blurred.

“Today’s collectors are more informed and more confident in their purchases. The internet and social media have made information readily available, empowering and inspiring individuals in their search for art,” Humphreys says. “It is less about known artists and more about an emotion the art evokes. Many collectors form a personal connection to an emerging artist, especially if they are local, allowing both the artist and collector to collaborate.”

Humphreys points out that, traditionally, fine art collectors were very interested in the “value” in the marketplace, and says: “While that mind-set still exists and is very important in the art world, today’s collectors are more interested in how art speaks to them. If a piece by an unknown artist captures one’s eye, makes them stop to look deeper or raises a question in their mind, such as the artist’s intent, then there is a good possibility that the person will be somehow inspired by the piece for years to come. This is a piece worth collecting, whether or not the artist is included in the world’s 10 best art museums.”

To make his point, the artist relates a story about the installation of one of his works for a client. “In a recent installation, the clients’ 8-year-old daughter came racing in from school and screeched to a halt in front of the newly placed painting. Studying it for a bit, she then proclaimed, ‘I love this!’ While this art piece is by no means my clients’ most expensive painting, it is now one of their most valued pieces because of its impact on their daughter,” Humphreys says, proudly.

Paula Radvansky
Paula Radvansky, whose work hangs in hotels, resorts and hospitals as well as private collections, says that one main difference between the two types of art is that collectors’ art provides a story.

“Collectors like to know why and how the art was created. If the art has meaning that a collector relates to it is more appealing,” Radvansky says. “Decorative art can pull a design project together and is more about the color, texture and design. Decorative art fills a need for designers and hospitality procurement.”

Radvansky also believes that combining collectible art and decorative art is optimal. “Forcing an artwork to be something is never usually good,” the artist says. “It will require more ability to incorporate theory and design. Some artists prefer one form of art over another. Some projects will call for one or the other. But when conceptual and decorative qualities are combined it can really be special.”

Radvansky is also quick to point out that art buyers should not worry about the collectability of art. Instead, focus on buying what speaks to you and what has meaning or fills a design need.

Carlyn Ray Designs
Carlyn Ray, owner of Carlyn Ray Designs, has seen a number of changes in the attitudes of art buyers as well as the perception of glass as an art medium.

“Dallas’ interest has migrated from art and crafts into purchasing larger, sophisticated and custom fine art installations,” she says. “I think this is a result of being influenced by having access to the largest arts district in the country and constantly being surrounded by artistic expression and public art throughout the city. Dallas has created an incubator for people’s comfort with art, allowing it to grow into their own environments. I see the older tradition of collecting trinkets of glass to display in cabinets fading. This is being replaced by a movement where each item holds a story, connection or an energy that speaks to the beholder of the item. It is a significant shift in how one displays glass art in their home.”

Ray also notes that the medium of glass as art has changed due to China producing glass at a price that studios like Steuben, Waterford and others cannot compete with. “The small crystal collectibles are not part of the art movement anymore; custom fine art is now the sought-after glass item. Whether this fine art piece becomes a collector’s item, like the early work of Dale Chihuly or a Steuben piece early in the days of the factory, remains a mystery,” Ray says. “I have seen glass artists who really have high ambitions and push the material to extremes, the end result being that their work becomes collectible. I think custom fine art that speaks to viewers, holds a message and exudes energy will always be a collector’s item, at least to those it speaks to.”

In contrast, Ray says: “I think that decorative art lacks that message and experience, whereas collectible art has an attraction. A specific vase can have that essence of elevated attraction and be considered a decoration to some, but to the viewer who sees the innate, raw beauty and feels that connection to that piece, for whatever reason, that piece is part of that person’s intimate collection.”

David Gappa
Fellow glass artist David Gappa, owner of Gappa Fine Art Glass, notes that handblown and sculpted glass is not a common medium for collectors, but he believes that decorative glass can often be seen as a “trial” or a first step toward a collection. “After the viewer studies and lives with the artwork for a length of time, the work itself has an opportunity to take hold of its owner. If this happens, then a collector is born,” Gappa says.

He is quick to point out that the distinction between collectible and decorative art is just as often about the person buying it as it is the art itself. “A collector is a patron that invests not only in my work, but also in my life’s journey. It seems as though they oftentimes know me better than myself, and I intimately become a part of their lives as well,” he says. “Being a collector is a state of mind and passion, but with a defining disclaimer. If a patron is passionate about what they have, and the work of art is ‘pure,’ both in conceptual presence and aesthetic beauty, then the piece can be both collectible and decorative. But if the work is simply ‘craft,’ then it will be nothing more than a one-off and pass with time.”

In contrast, Gappa notes that oftentimes he is asked to have his work simply occupy a space on a wall, ceiling or niche, and this type of decorative art is what pays the bills. “I do not see this as a bad thing, it is simply a different approach to creating something beautiful for my patron’s space. I see this as an opportunity to explore new design opportunities and hopefully inspire a client to become a collector.”

Gappa is a firm believer that art should be viewed and collected primarily for its aesthetic impact and emotional connection and not the collectability of the art. “If a buyer purchases artwork solely for its projected monetary value or its collectability, then the art itself is exploited as a tool, thereby devaluing its aesthetic purity,” he says.

Laura Roosevelt Surrounding Cloud That Freed My Soul, Acrylic, mixed media and oil on canvas mounted on board, 60″ x 46″ 10. Stacie Hernandez)

Laura Roosevelt “In my opinion, there’s a subtle line between fine art and decorative art, and the definitions are constantly blurring depending on the beholder, the collector or purchaser,” says artist Laura Roosevelt, founder of LR Art House.

“Historically, fine art (paintings, sculptures, drawings …) is made by artists, exhibited in art galleries and museums, and purchased by art collectors. Decorative art is also made by artists, but these artists are specialized, in that they produce functional art that is sold in a different venue, and in turn sometimes they are known as craftsmen.”

Roosevelt is quick to point out that in all cases, whether it is creating a painting, sculpture, piece of glass, furniture or silver, the creator is an artist—fine or decorative. That is not to say all is good, valuable or equal in aesthetic and function, she admits.

“Whether a piece of art is considered decorative or collectible is determined and validated by its audience. In my mind, as an artist who creates paintings, sculpture and works with historical photographic images, the real question and true distinction between art and decoration is determined by when or if the piece becomes just an object in the eye of the beholder. At this point, it ceases to hold the energy, the awe, the magic of its creation—thus, it is no longer art,” she says.

Roosevelt mentions the Margaret McDermott collection on exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art and wonders if there ever was a moment in time, however brief or fleeting, that those pieces became everyday objects in their home. “As they had dinner, did they reflect on and behold the greatness of Braque’s Still Life with Guitar or the Picasso gouache Nude with Folded Hands or Cezanne’s Rooftop, and did they ever cease to command reverence?” she asks. “I would think not.”

Ginger Fox
Ginger Fox, owner of her eponymous gallery, is one who agrees that art is subjective and leads audience members to project their personal experiences on each piece. Due to this, she and her team at Ginger Fox Gallery take the buyer’s reasons for purchasing art into consideration when differentiating between collectible and decorative art.

“When the art serves as decorative, the buyer often thinks about the space in which the art will go. In this case, what is important to the buyer is more along the lines of aesthetics and function, and they ask questions like: ‘Do the colors match? Is the size right? Will it work for its intended purpose in the room?’” Fox says. “With art that is collectible, on the other hand, the buyer often places emphasis on the originality and significance of the artist as much as the artwork itself. They are sometimes interested in certificates of authenticity so that they can keep track of the artist and know the provenance.”

When asked if she believes there should be a distinction between collectible and decorative art, Fox says that such a distinction can create a barrier that either hinders and sways the audience’s experience or prevents the buyer from making a purchase because the art they like may not be the “right” type. “Any work of art can serve both functions in that it could fit someone’s space and someone could have interest in the piece (as well as the artist) itself,” Fox says. “Depending on who purchases the artwork, it could fit either or both descriptions.” Fox also does not believe that buyers should be worried about the collectability of art, if you are buying the work because you enjoy it and intend to keep it in your collection. “Even when we look at museum collections to help answer this question, we see decorative and collectible art side by side, or items that were purely functional to society in the past that have become fine art by our standards today,” Fox points out. “Ultimately, the buyers in the art world help to establish the standards of what the successful trends and movements are or will be. In other words, the status of a work of art should not deter a buyer from purchasing a work of art they enjoy, because there is no guarantee of how the status of the art or artist may change in the future.”

Debra Paysinger
Artist Debra Paysinger also believes that art can exist as both types, depending on time and place and the buyer.

“I was granted a trademark for the ‘the raddit,’ which is painted and numbered on all raddit paintings, thus making each painting unique and collectable––and possibly more valuable. I am pretty sure, however, that raddit patrons use them decoratively and would mostly view the trademarked term as justification for the price they pay to own a raddit,” Paysinger says. “That price could skyrocket at a moment’s notice, if one person of influence (a Mr. or Mrs. Big) deemed it worthy of their collection. Or, the raddits could just bring joy to their owners. I freely admit that I would like them to do both.”

She is also a firm believer that buyers of art should not focus on or worry at all if a piece of art is considered collectible or decorative. “They should buy what they love or can afford or both, depending on their motivation,” the artist says, then proceeds to ponder a series of questions that buyers might consider before making a purchase: Is the art meant to impress others? Is it an investment? Does it bring a needed “something” to a space? Would it appeal in more than one location? Could they ever part with it?

The answers to these questions might provide an answer to the larger question at hand.

CJ Cowden
“Debating if art is either decorative or collectible (fine art) is an age-old debate that will probably never be settled or agreed on in the art world,” says artist CJ Cowden, who admits she does not think of art in these terms. “In my opinion, this is actually just ‘made up’ in the minds of people that I feel are making it more difficult than it really is. All art is both decorative and collectible. That is, the value, let’s call it, is in the eye of the beholder.”

To stress the point that art can exist in both definitions, Cowden points out that a collector could buy a piece of art because the art has something to say on a skill-based and emotional level, while the next buyer might simply like it because it matches their décor.

“Not one person on the planet has the authority to say a piece of art is anything. It is up to the individual viewing and/or purchasing the art,” Cowden says. “In no way should a piece of art be classified until the viewer has had a chance to decide for themselves. Preconceived expectations will only cloud what the viewer is feeling and seeing. I paint and create from my subconscious, surroundings and things I feel on this earth. My art is a commentary of my thoughts and feelings. This might or might not transfer to others viewing my art. However, people viewing my art might see or feel something different than my intentions. My art is considered fine by some people and others see it as decorative.”

Like others have pointed out, Cowden notes that some of the old masters were producing their art to decorate the homes of the rich, and only now is it considered “fine art” and worth millions.

Cowden exclaims: “Art is art. It is a beautiful thing. Let it just be that!”

Stacie Hernandez
Stacie Hernandez is an artist who believes, by definition, that there is a very clear distinction between collectible and decorative art. For her, collectible art in any of its forms—painting, sculpture, drawing—is created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaning. She believes, it is foremost a visual object to be admired and contemplated aesthetically. “Collectible art is most often intended to exist in its own space, rather than a particular place,” Hernandez says.

By contrast, decorative art is designed with a functional purpose as well as to be visually appealing. “Often, the artist is focused on a piece that has a particular place in mind, like a wall in a living room, a location for a sculpture or the design of a piece of furniture,” she says. “To enhance the background, decorative artists will use colors, lines and patterns that emphasize the main focal point of the intended location and take into account the specific desires of a buyer.”

Hernandez also believes the distinction is important, as it applies to the artist’s motivation and inspiration. “The fine artist has a more individual, intrinsic motive,” she says. “Beyond simply creating something different and appealing, the artist may want to deal with more personal psychological, intellectual and emotional issues or recognize an element of life and the world at large. The decorative artist focuses on filling a specific need with a certain type of buyer or space in mind. Decorative artists generally create their designs to make things more beautiful and more emotionally pleasing for the public and themselves.”

When asked if work can be both, Hernandez says: “For the artist, the distinction is clearer than may be the case for a buyer, because the differentiation is driven by intent, motive, emotion or life experience and by the art’s space over place. It’s unlikely that an artist intends a work as both collectible and decorative art.”

Dinora Trindade Artist
Dinora Trindade defines collectible art as work that may be classified as monetary, hobbyist or documentary. She mentions that artwork may be collected for monetary purposes in the hopes that its value will appreciate over time, but that most people will not be able to acquire a work such as Salvator Mundi and realize a 400 percent return a few years later.

“I think the biggest distinction between decorative and collectible art is in those works acquired for purposes of investment,” Trindade says. “Investment potential may outweigh aesthetics, and a collector may acquire works of art he doesn’t particularly like and would never display in his home. I believe this is a very sad situation.”

When asked if art buyers should be worried about the collectability of art, Trindade says: “The critical word in the above question is ‘worried.’ People worry about buying art. They tell me, ‘I’m not sure if it’s really good.’ How can people not know if they like or don’t like what they see? We defer to the art critic as to whether a work is good or bad. Instead, we should trust our own feelings. I think art is very personal. If you like something, if it sings to you, if it touches something in your soul, what difference does it make if an art dealer or columnist or even a golf buddy has a different opinion? Fill your homes with beautiful art!”

Sharon Grimes
Sharon Grimes, an abstract artist, thinks that the difference is not in the art itself but in the motivation of the buyer. “I’ve come to the conclusion that possibly the only difference in the art itself might be that a decorative piece could be more neutral, as to fit into more surroundings. However, as I say that, it doesn’t really ring especially true, either,” the artist confesses.

Grimes also does not support the belief that there should be a distinction made between the two and admits that a piece a collector buys could also be the very work that “pulls a room together.” Which then leads the artist to agree that a work of art can be both collectible and decorative.

“When I approach a potential client, it’s always so interesting to learn why they are interested in art. Most of my work is purchased by collectors, and usually they purchase four or five pieces the first time and then add to that, one painting at a time,” Grimes says. “They typically buy because they are ‘moved’ in some way by the work. Secondly, they seem to be rather unconcerned whether or not the work will ‘match’ anything. It’s all about the art!”

However, when Grimes works with designers, she admits they tend to lead her toward pulling a room together and making the art a part of the whole, rather than the focus. In the end though, Grimes says: “If you have art in your home that you look at every day, it should pull you toward it in an interesting way as well as give you joy or even intellectual stimulation. Otherwise, the whole point of how art enriches our minds and hearts is overlooked.”

Rhona LK Schonwald
Rhona LK Schonwald, an artist who works in multiple mediums and styles, says: “Collectible art is bought for the sheer joy of viewing it and future rooms are built around it. It is usually created by someone who has exhibited, studied and created for a significant amount of time, and is considered “fine art” created by someone recognized as an artist.”

Schonwald draws a clear distinction about decorative art, stating that it is often purchased from a store with no name of the artist and no knowledge of the piece at all. The artist also points out that a buyer must draw a distinction between the two, saying: “When art no longer matches the furniture, it becomes disposable art. One is less apt to dig deep in their pockets for something that will only last 10 to 15 years. However, a future family heirloom can be priceless.”

Schonwald, like Cowden, believes that even “masterpieces” can be decorative in a sense and mentions that a former director of Sotheby’s once said that even a Rembrandt may hang over a sofa.

Collectible art should at least retain its value and appreciate to keep pace with inflation. The real value of the art should be measured by the pleasure that the owner feels upon viewing it.

“I had a patron who said that every afternoon he sat in his sunroom with a glass of wine and lost himself while viewing my painting,” the artist says. That offers tangible value.

Peter Toth
Photographer and artist Peter Toth makes another distinction, which has not been discussed yet, and that is that the true collector appreciates original art while a decorative piece may be produced in hundreds, if not thousands, of copies. “When an etching or photograph has hundreds of works in a limited edition, it’s not a limited edition. My original work, if in an edition, is limited to three and no more than 10,” Toth says.

He is also a firm believer that there should be a difference between the two forms and says that for his own work, it is between the limited edition or single original works he creates.

As to whether or not a work can exist as both collectible and decorative, Toth says: “Many interior decorators will select original pieces that complement an interior design. So, in that sense, it can be both. But care must be taken, because if the interior design gets a refresh, the art may not work. Then what? A true collector will never have that problem because they have selected a piece of art that resonates with them, not the interior design. Therefore, the art can live through many interior updates.”

When the question is asked as to whether a buyer should make a purchase based on collectability or aesthetic value, Toth says: “Aesthetic value is always important. But is the aesthetic value of original art based on how the art moves the buyer, therefore making it collectible? Or, is the aesthetic value only to enhance the décor? These are two different things. Original art is collectable art, mass reproductions are not—they have only decorative aesthetic value.

In conclusion, is there a definitive correct answer to this ongoing debate? Every artist who responded to our questions made extremely valid points, but maybe only for them and their work. And, it is possible that the original question only acts as a catalyst for more questions. Does collectible art have to have a deeper meaning than simply stunning visuals?

Is it possible that one criterion for differentiating between the two is whether an artist creates one piece of work in a motif or completes multiple studies, thus really exploring a theme or style?

Ultimately, the debate and dialog will continue, but that should never stop anyone from purchasing artwork and supporting the arts.


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