It is perhaps one of the cultural tragedies of our time that the phrase ‘art collector’ has come to be associated with people in auction rooms who calmly raise their hands just as the Warhol, or the Richter, or the Matisse, is about to reach the $100m mark. Or with classy art fairs where elderly overdressed couples are set upon by gallery owners trying to convince them that young so-and-so is the greatest emerging talent in recent years and will make a great investment. The world of art has become inextricably linked with the world of money and it has reduced most of us to the status of spectators, gaping bystanders, for the simple reason that taking part in it is well beyond our means.
It comes as a relief, therefore, to discover that there still some corners of the art world left where art is not exclusively approached in terms of market value. In 2001, the California College of Arts and Crafts staged an exhibition entitled Extra Art: A Survey of Artists’ Ephemera , 1960-1999. It presented a very small part of the collection of Steven Leiber, a former gallery owner whose life took a different turn when , somewhere in the 80s, he bought ‘twenty-one boxes of crap’ from artist Jeff Berner. After sifting through it for more than a year, he concluded that what he found most exciting was not the most obvious material, but rather the things that lacked any intrinsic value: the flyers, the posters, the invitation cards, all the printed stuff that had, for some reason, escaped being thrown away. Up to his death early this year, he amassed what is probably the largest collection of artists’ ephemera in the world, published over forty sales catalogues (which have themselves become highly collectible) and became the acknowledged expert in the field. His single-handed efforts opened up a whole new field of collecting, for which multi-figure bank accounts are, thankfully, not a precondition.
Leiber’s Californian exhibition was something of a landmark in the appreciation of art. Here, for the first time, was a museum presentation of stuff that had never been thought worth preserving. And it turned out to be great! The catalogue Extra Art became a classic overnight and remains the most important work on the subject to this day. It is a book for the amateur, in the original and true sense of the word, featuring some 1500 items, all illustrated. Browsing through it for the for first time, as I did some months ago, is an extraordinary experience. Here are original works by all the great artists of our time, but as they were often produced in large editions, they are affordable. You realize with some surprise (at least I did) that it is possible to actually buy them yourself, often at less than the price of a dinner for two. Some of them, admittedly, are so rare that the chance of stumbling across them is practically nil, but there are others that, with any luck, may be found on Ebay or even at your local bookshop. All you need is an open eye and the realization that art is not created by rarity.
Extra Art is more than just a feast for the eyes. It is a book that brings back the sheer joy of collecting: the thrill of discovering, and the satisfaction of acquiring something that, however small, enriches your life. And after all, that is what collecting is all about. Or should be.
[Extra Art is published by Smart Art Press, Santa Monica]