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Home & Design Favourite room: How to cultivate an art collection – even if you’re a first-time buyer

Craig D'Arville settles in to do some work in his favourite room of his home in Toronto on Feb. 22, 2019.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

“I really like colour and pattern on pattern,” Craig D’Arville says, describing the comfortable, cottage aesthetic he and partner, Aaron Walker, have cultivated in the east Toronto home they share with three cats (“That’s Aaron’s rule,” D’Arville says, “cat max equals three”). The layered look of their living space, which D’Arville says took years to create, is made up of furnishings and collectibles, as well as artwork by some of Canada’s most established and exciting emerging artists. “We like a real strong grandma vibe, but with really contemporary art,” he says.

D’Arville worked in communications and development for museums, and for the Magenta Foundation arts publishing house, for years before partnering with gallerist Stephen Bulger to launch a photography gallery called FFOTO. “We really wanted to take a boutique approach, focusing on one discipline,” D’Arville says. The difference: FFOTO is an online platform and marketplace. Everything’s for sale, “and museum-quality,” he says, “even the inexpensive things.” Transparency around pricing is a priority for D’Arville, as is debunking collecting as a “rarefied thing” for those first-time buyers just entering the market. “We’re looking to nurture confidence in making that first step,” he says.

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D’Arville and Walker, who have been together 23 years, started their own collection in 2001 with a photograph, purchased from Monte Clark Gallery in Toronto. (The gallery has since moved to Vancouver.) The transaction took some cajoling on the part of then-director Clint Roenisch, although not for lack of interest on the buyers’ part. “There was the one [Stephen Waddell] photograph we were particularly taken with,” D’Arville says. He and Walker visited it every few weeks for more than half a year. “Finally, Clint said, ‘You boys are not leaving here today without that work and an instalment plan.’” D’Arville didn’t even know that was possible. “And I’m somebody who worked in the visual arts. But still, the [prevailing] idea is collecting is not for me, it’s for somebody else,” he says. “That started us down the path.”

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Some years later, having amassed more work than wall space, D’Arville can safely call himself a collector. “We didn’t have a mandate, we just bought what we liked,” he says. But looking back on their acquisitions, he’s identified a common thread or idea: “The works that really resonate with us are by people trying to find their place and using their art practice to figure that out.” A Michael Snow sketch of his iconic Walking Woman silhouette lives alongside a Sandra Brewster photograph and a large Kim Dorland canvas of a graffiti-spattered wall. Nearby is Suzy Lake’s test print of her Choreographed Puppet performance, wherein the artist, secured in a harness, is manipulated like a marionette from above. All these works recall bodies in motion, and, D’Arville says, “I find it to be endlessly exciting to think of those pieces talking to each other.”

Furnishings are mostly antique or second hand and have a lived-in feel. D’Arville works from home and craves comfort. He counts consignment shop Of Things Past and local vintage stores Machine Age Modern and Zig Zag – whose owner has “the best eye for sixties and seventies Italian lighting,” D’Arville says – among his favourites. A Wardian case – a kind of terrarium – was a flea-market find, made with obvious care. D’Arville and Walker use it as a plant starter and “literally, to keep the cat from bothering the painting,” he says. They have a seven-month-old who’s overly rambunctious and D’Arville pauses more than once to extricate the kitty from a potentially art-threatening situation.

But the benefits to living with art outweigh these near scares. “It’s a fantastic privilege. It changes how you interact with the world outside your home when you live with these big ideas as part of your day-to-day,” he says. “It colours your perception of reality.”

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