Of all the people who make the art world turn, Kansas City collectors John and Sharon Hoffman love to hang out with the artists. They have met and maintained a personal relationship with most of the artists whose work they collect.
Although they collect various different types of artwork, the Hoffmans are particularly drawn to contemporary art made by artists of African descent and have developed one of the leading collections of contemporary African-American art in the midwest region. We had the chance to speak with the Hoffmans about how they developed their penchant for African diasporic art, how they have grown and shaped their collection over the years, and advice they have for emerging collectors today.
[SHARON] About twenty years ago, we realised that we were gravitating to the work of young African American artists. We had known Nick Cave from the 1980s when he went to the Kansas City Art Institute. Later in the 90s, we bought a Radcliffe Bailey and then a Kerry James Marshall. We had met Jack Shainman and he was a big influence on us. We were able to see new work as these young artists were having their first shows.
Ted Coe [former Director of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art] had always said to us, “I'd like to train your eye to react to young, new work so that if you had gone to the first showing of the Impressionists, you would've bought. Nobody else did, but you would have!.”
So after collecting various work for thirty years, when we started seeing these young African American artists, we thought, "Wow, these artists are doing it both—visual and content.” At that point, we realised that everything we saw and liked was from African American artists. So we decided, "Okay, for once, we are now ready to concentrate.”
[JOHN] My background, after college, was with the Peace Corps in South America. I learned that it was a big diverse world with many, many issues.
When I came back, I began to think, how could I get involved domestically in the same way I had been involved in the Peace Corps internationally? I looked back to my early years in Kansas City, when I had been involved with the Boys' Club and my family had been involved in breaking down barriers in the downtown business clubs. So it was really in my background, my family's background, to be involved in the urban community.
After we got married, we started looking at where we wanted to spend our time and our energy, and it was in the arts and urban issues. My parents had been collectors of art and it was natural for us to get involved at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Ted Coe was then the senior curator, and he took us under his wing. He said he'd like to work with a group of young people and teach them about contemporary art and how to collect. That was the beginning of our collecting art.
[SHARON] Another big influence on our lives was the fact that the Alvin Ailey Dance Company had its second home in Kansas City. Our board was set up half Black and half White. We all worked together and we all became really good friends. So it was very natural for us to be knowledgeable about the Black community and be involved when we could. We also later became politically involved as a part of the Obama team in 2008 and 2012.
[JOHN] When you look at our collection, there are very few pieces in it that are abstract, it’s about the content for us. The message and the emotion behind a work of art are more meaningful to us than an abstract piece, which is intellectually stimulating but may not have a direct emotional response.
[SHARON] In 2010, when we went to South Africa, we hit the jackpot when we were lucky enough to see Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Nicholas Hlobo, and Zanele Muholi. We were ready for it… the breadth and beauty of the work. So we bought all three.
[JOHN] We returned to Kansas City in 1970 and immediately began to get involved at the Nelson Gallery and Ted Coe, senior curator, taught us how to collect, whether it was contemporary, art deco, art nouveau or African. He took a group of us to visit artists, collectors and galleries in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York and Dallas. As our group grew to 25-plus couples, we formed the Guild of the Friends of Art and The Contemporary Art Society whose first exhibit was Christo and Wrapped Walkways (1977-78). As a result, we learned about Pop Art and began to purchase many small works for our own collections.
[SHARON] One thing that I think is important—Ted not only taught us about contemporary art but he told us to know and respect the other arts as well, and do our homework. I think that's really important because if you look around our collection, we don't only have contemporary art but many complementary arts, as well.
Hopefully, it’s the best of what's new and the best of what was historical. I think our knowledge of art nouveau, art deco and African, all helped us define and discern when we're looking at new work. The juxtaposition of these things. Tiffany set against a Mickalene Thomas, Theaster Gates, or a Lynette Yiadom-Boakye gives it more strength and validity.
[SHARON] A couple we didn't buy.
[JOHN] We had seen a Rothko. It was a small Rothko. We really loved it. But the most we were paying for art back in the ’70s was around four thousand dollars. So to pay $40,000 for a Rothko was a lot but in hindsight.. we should have done it.
[SHARON] Ted had told us, "Mortgage your house." Literally, that's what he told us. "Sell your car." And he knew exactly what he was talking about. We just couldn’t do it then.
[JOHN] Our theory back in those days was to set aside a percentage of our incomes to buy art.
[SHARON] We don't just go out and buy on impulse. We go to well-respected galleries, art fairs and exhibits. And...
[JOHN] ...we study it.
[SHARON] We buy a couple of works a year and hopefully, make a good decision.
[JOHN] It's difficult because we don't have much room left to display and we don’t buy works to put in storage.
[SHARON] However if we see it and we like it, we won't belabour it. If we see it in a respected gallery, hear the artist's history, and we see a survey of what they've done so far and where they're exhibiting, and like it, we buy it!
[JOHN] People ask, "Do you have anything in storage?" We buy it to live with and enjoy! We often give works to our kids. It's always great fun to go to their homes and see the work which we still love. And most rewarding of all is to give to a museum, like the Nelson Atkins, where we see people of all walks of life coming to see the work. Our gift of a Kehinde Wiley to the Nelson has had a huge impact on the community.
[SHARON] I think there are a couple of different reactions, especially where we live now. We've lived in three different sites: a historic wood-panelled house that had been built by the same architects that did the Nelson and was really elegant. To see the contemporary art in that, setting with all wood panelling and Tiffany chandeliers was pretty eye-opening. Then we lived in a loft with 14’ ceilings. The contemporary art fit there really well. I think people are always kind of overwhelmed just to see that much art. Now we live in a 3 story townhouse which was designed to hold some of our more important works.
[JOHN] The Deborah Roberts. People always say, "Do you ever collect women artists?" She happens to be a woman but we've never gone about collecting based on gender. That doesn't matter. It's the object. It's the visual that we're looking at, not necessarily who the artist is.
[SHARON] We usually say it's our latest purchase.
[JOHN] I've never had a favourite because it's just like you said—your favourite child. But, the more important pieces, the larger pieces, I think have a more impactful relationship to us.
[SHARON] The personal relationship is really important to us. We helped start a visiting artist program at Anderson Ranch, which has been very successful. We've also started one at the Kansas City Art Institute and we'd like to do one at the Nelson.
[JOHN] In the art world, we enjoy all the people, the dealers, collectors and especially the artists.
[JOHN] Well, I think it goes back to what Ted Coe said to us. "Look and learn before you make a purchase.”
[SHARON] But you have to be looking in the right places.
[JOHN] Yeah. Just as an aside, because we do have a lot of groups that come from all over the country to view to the collection, sometimes the question is asked, "why do you need a gallery?" And we always say, "galleries are the reason why we've been able to put the collection together." Because number one, they filter. The galleries that we believe in have already filtered down to the ones they believe in. They may show ten or twelve different artists but they have looked at a hundred or more. The other thing is, if you have a good relationship with a gallery, they will call you and try to work with you because they know that you’re serious collectors. We think artists really are served well by good galleries. The artists should be working in their studios.
[SHARON] I think we should say to aim high, go to museums, go to contemporary art exhibits. See who they're showing and become knowledgeable. Then search out work. You can start with a print or photograph, or work on paper and then move to a painting.
[JOHN] Buy the best artists and the best piece you can afford. And enjoy the journey!
Rachel Kabukala is a PhD student in Art History at Indiana University specialising in historical African art. Prior to starting her PhD, Rachel was Curatorial Assistant for African Art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art where she served on the exhibition team for Through the Eyes of Picasso.