Twenty years ago, Michael Salcman's 7-year-old daughter Dara was walking through the family's house in Homeland when she glanced up at him and asked, "Daddy, why do we live in a museum?"
It was an easy mistake to make. As Dara looked around, she saw paintings and prints on almost every wall, sculptures on nearly every shelf and table. She couldn't know it, but several of the artists—Grace Hartigan, Sam Gilliam, and Robert Motherwell—were in museums all over the world.
And today, the Salcman home is more a museum than ever. Paintings by Morris Louis, Frank Stella, and Josef Albers hang in the living room; an Anthony Caro sculpture and Andres Serrano's photographs are in the dining room; and a Jenny Holzer installation is in the kitchen. Meals are still prepared in that kitchen and eaten in that dining room; after-dinner guests are likely to gather for drinks in that living room.
So the question remains: Why do they live in a museum? And why do the Salcmans or any of the dozens of other serious art collectors in the Baltimore area turn their homes into display cases for museum-quality art? How do they amass such impressive collections? Why don't they just go downtown to a real museum and see art there?
"The great thing about having your own collection," explains Michael Salcman (pronounced salz-man), "is there are no crowds, no rush to get through a show. Late at night you can turn off all the lights but those on the artwork and just sit there and meditate on them."
"I can see [my collection] all the time," adds Salcman's friend Stanley Mazaroff, who has created his own museum-like homes in Bolton Hill and Upperco with his wife Nancy Dorman. "Being surrounded by art—and not just any old art but art that Nancy and I liked enough to buy and learn about and care about—adds immeasurably to the pleasure in our lives."
Unlike Salcman, who focuses on abstract art from the 1960's through the present, or Mazaroff, who emphasizes contemporary photography in a collection that also includes contemporary painting and sculpture, Ted Frankel has filled his Mount Vernon rowhouse with folk art, outsider art, and found objects. Several of his pieces have been included in museum shows, however, and last December he opened his home for the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association's annual Holly Tour.
What the tour members saw were angel heads made from beads and shoe tacks, collages made from sneakers, mermaids made from sequins, portraits painted over a background of tar, a king's bust framed in bottle caps, dog heads carved out of wood, tableaus created from small bits of colored paper, tables painted by trained artists, paintings originally commissioned for pulp-fiction covers, and hand-painted Bollywood movie posters that covered entire walls—all in a jumble that filled every bit of the walls and a good part of the floors and stairs too.
"Twelve hundred people came through my house on the tour," Frankel recalls, "and I found people sitting down in my living room and talking about what they'd just seen. That made me so happy—both that they'd seen things in my house worth talking about and that they felt comfortable enough to sit there and talk about it. Art does that; it gives people a platform for talking."
Frankel, who runs the gift shop at AVAM, takes an irreverent approach to collecting. Hanging on his kitchen wall is what appears to be a masterpiece of pop art, a four-foot-tall sign for Lady Billy Cucumber Wafers, the green pickle slices seeming to glow in their glass jar. Except it isn't a pop-art painting; it's an advertising board that Frankel found while rooting around in a warehouse one day.
"That's the great thing about going junking," he crows with a giddy laugh. "You see something like this, and you can turn it into art."
Like Frankel, Charles Brohawn concentrates on outsider art. Brohawn is one of four Baltimoreans who own most of the work by the legendary Baltimore artist Paul "The Baltimore Glassman" Darmafall. The first-ever one-man show at the American Visionary Art Museum showcased Darmafall, and the artist also exhibited in France and Germany.
The living room of Brohawn's home in Idlewild is filled with Darmafall's wooden boards that have been brightly painted and decorated with broken shards of glass. Against the knotty-pine paneling, glass encrusted maple leaves, American flags, cowboys, and Native Americans glisten in the afternoon sun. Scrawled near the images are such axioms as "In God We Trust" or "Maple Leaf Forever."
"He didn't call them paintings," Brohawn points out. "He called them 'signs,' because the message was so important to him. It's not that I necessarily agreed with his messages but that I was impressed that anyone would be so compelled to get his message across and would go to such extremes to do so. It was the same thing when I met Howard Finster [an even more famous outsider artist from Georgia.] The message wasn't as important to me as the fact that he was so driven to get the message out."
It's no coincidence that Salcman and Mazaroff collect contemporary art or that Frankel and Brohawn collect outsider art. Unless you possess extraordinary wealth, you can't collect noted works by Renaissance, Impressionist, or even Abstract Expressionist painters. History has already judged those periods, and the great works have been identified and priced accordingly. On the other hand, you can acquire museum-quality works if you buy them before the artist has been canonized.
Two of the most famous collectors in art history, Claribel and Etta Cone, were from Baltimore. Their homes, in Reservoir Hill's Marlborough Apartments, were filled with paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Cezanne and purchased when those artists were still up-and-comers in Paris.
The likes of Frankel and Mazaroff have taken a similar approach. "When you buy a piece directly from an artist," Frankel maintains, "it never gets boring, because there's a story that goes with it. The Cone sisters knew the artists they bought from; I know most of the artists I buy from."
"Economics play a role," says Mazaroff. "I love Matisse, but I can't go out and buy a Matisse. I can afford some contemporary art, so that's what I collect."
Mazaroff and Salcman have built their collections by using income from successful white-collar careers. Frankel does own several small businesses selling outsider art and novelties, but the businesses are a result of his collecting. Brohawn still works as an assistant manager of the Plaza Artist Materials store in Towson, but he has built a remarkable collection from bargain hunting and from searching out overlooked artists.
"I'm cheap," says Brohawn. "If I can pay two dollars for a signed Howard Finster print when most people haven't heard of him, that's a good deal. If you can get something you like for free or for cheap, why spend a lot of money? I don't get any satisfaction from spending a lot of money."
So it is possible to become a serious art collector without being obscenely wealthy. What is required, however, is a good eye and unfailing courage—the eye to spot great art before it's generally recognized and the courage to pull the money out of your wallet when such an opportunity occurs.
"If you want to be a serious art collector," maintains Mazaroff, "you have to be serious about art. You can't find something by happenstance or by luck. It's an acquired taste, and you acquire that taste by going to galleries and museums and talks, by reading books and magazines to learn the range of possibilities and to understand the factors that distinguish the good from the not-so-good."
"A great collection, what I call a scholarly collection, has a theme," notes Salcman. "It discusses related issues. To do that, you have to know what the issues are. I'm an autodidact. My way of approaching anything is through history. The way to learn about music is to study the history of music. The way to learn about art is to study the history of art."
Frankel takes a more intuitive approach. "When you buy art," he says, "you buy it because you like it. Only later do you understand why you liked it. As I look at my collection today, I realize that a lot of what I collect involves death and people's reactions to death; there are a lot of eyes and faces in the work I buy. But I wasn't thinking about that at the time. That initial bond is often hard to understand, but you have to trust your eye."
Once you've trained your eye to spot the good stuff, Frankel adds, you've got to be ready to act on it. "When you get the feeling that a piece is something exceptional," he says, "you've got to learn not to question that feeling. I've learned that there is nothing smarter than my body telling me something is good."
It's hard for many people to make that leap from admiring a work of art to actually purchasing it. Most of us are content with the museum posters and reproductions. We assume that fine works of art are for museums and the very rich. How do you break through that mindset to become a collector?
For Salcman, the breakthrough came when he and his wife were living in Bethesda in 1971. "Like many young people with limited means," he recalls, "we started collecting prints. The great advantage of prints is you can get an impression of something that's in a museum or a book. But in the 1980's, there was a big art boom, and suddenly prints by Jasper Johns or Richard Diebenkorn cost as much as those by Rembrandt or Degas. Are you kidding me? We decided to step down a notch and collect new works by new artists."
They thought they were scaling back and controlling their habit, but they soon found that buying one-of-a-kind art was far more intoxicating than buying prints. "All the money we might have spent on vacations or savings accounts went into the art," Salcman confesses. "My family never understood it. My father said, 'You've got no savings. Your savings are on your wall.' For us every decision is painful. We're not like those multi-millionaires who go to a show and vacuum up everything that's hot and then three or four years later get rid of two-thirds of what they bought and keep their favorites. For the most part, we have one piece by each artist. We have a good eye, and if we buy something by a young artist at one show, it's likely that they're going places and we won't be able to afford what they'll be asking the next year."
Mazaroff and Dorman were working at intense jobs on Capitol Hill when they first started dating in 1968. Going to museums and galleries together was something they did to relax. The possibility of actually buying art, they soon learned, added another dimension to that enjoyment.
Now, collecting art even adds to their vacation plans. "It can be a big part of what you do when you travel," Dorman says. "Instead of just going to the tourist sites, you can go to art shows and learn a lot about the country politically and culturally."
Frankel grew up haunting junk stores and flea markets for anything that was visually weird enough or striking enough to capture his imagination. As a successful graphic designer in Chicago, the Ohio native had an eye for scanning shelves of second-hand goods and picking out the one or two really original items. He would buy almost anything—anything, that is, but fine art from an artist or a dealer. That would have meant he wasn't just a junker; he was an art collector.
That changed during a trip to Mexico. "I'd never bought fine art before," he recalls, "but, on that trip, I walked into a gallery and saw this collage by Rodolfo Morales of a Mexican funeral. It was so beautiful and so strange I fell in love with it. In the past I'd always resisted that feeling, but this time I had a friend with me who told me to go ahead and buy it. I did and I've never doubted that feeling again."
Brohawn, a 1975 MICA graduate, was first exposed to outsider art while traveling through Europe after graduation. He was floored by an Adolf Wölfli exhibition at a museum in Switzerland.
"I'd been to the Louvre," Brohawn remembers, "and it had some pretty good stuff, but the Wölfli show was unlike anything I'd seen before—certainly not in art school. The obsessive quality of his paintings fascinated me."
Brohawn was similarly fascinated by "The Baltimore Glassman," Paul Darmafall, an East Baltimore artist he befriended in the 1980's. "He'd sit in a chair in front of a barber shop [on Erdman Avenue], smoking, drinking and talking to passersby as he did his work," remembers Brohawn. "He had a towel that he wrapped around the glass when he smashed it up with a hammer, then he'd sort the glass into his jars. He was so personable and I was so taken with his work and his ideas about it, the whole package, that I started hanging out a couple afternoons a week with him.
"At the end of the day, you had to take all the pieces he'd made or else he'd put them on the freight trains that passed near there. I felt someone had to preserve them rather than having them thrown out by some railroad employee. So every day, I'd make a small donation and come home with two or three of his pieces. Pretty soon piles of them were overflowing my apartment and out into the hallway."
That's the other challenge with collecting art: Once you start, it's hard to stop. For all the works by Darmafall and other outsider artists on his walls, Brohawn has even more in boxes in his attic. Frankel has a big pile of sequined Haitian voodoo flags lying unsorted in his guest bedroom—and he's scheduled to go back to Port au Prince to buy even more this autumn. Mazaroff has un-hung paintings in his basement. Salcman has a Jasper Johns print in his closet and a Robert Rauschenberg photo of a Baltimore bar behind a chair.
Frankel's solution has been to open three stores, two in Chicago and the one at AVAM, where he can sell off both the fine art and oddball novelties that he has no room for in his two homes.
"Whenever you have too much of something, you have to sell it," he says. "There are two joys in collecting—once when you buy something, because you've made yourself happy, and again when you sell it, because you've made someone else happy."
Salcman takes a very different approach. Although he's willing to donate an artwork to raise funds for a nonprofit organization such as the Maryland Food Bank, he refuses to "flip" the works—to resell them at a profit. "Unlike a lot of collectors," he says, "we don't flip. Artists and dealers will give us a break on price because they know if a work comes into this house, it's not going anywhere. They know we won't become their competition.
"We emphasize to our children that it is a luxury to examine art for the sheer joy of great beauty. If we were into it for any other reason—for profit or social status—it would cheapen the art. You cannot commune with these works of art if you use them for such base purposes."