Collecting in the art world relies a lot on price and return on investment. But work today is more accessible than ever, with many entry points and reasons to buy beyond the bottom line. For the three Torontonians profiled here, Michelle Koerner, An Te Liu and Mia Nielsen, how they acquire, curate and live with their pieces is deeply individual.
“It’s aesthetic,” says Koerner, articulating why she’s drawn to certain artworks. “Though I’m very happy when there’s a theme that I feel strongly about.” Over time, Liu has layered materials, objects and artworks (his own and others) into “tableaux and still lifes” that capture his personal history. “For me, it’s like growing up,” he says. Nielsen, meanwhile, advises new collectors against seeking out that big painting to go over the sofa. “I promise you, you don’t need it,” she says. Instead, she practises a form of curation that seizes on the serendipity of a lucky find.
Rather than filling space, these collectors make statements.
THE ART INCUBATOR
Mia Nielsen is the curator and cultural programmer for The Drake, a Canadian design institution with boutique hotels in Toronto and Wellington, Ont., restaurants and a newly reopened live-performance venue. She calls what she does visual storytelling, sharing sensory ideas of what it means to be situated in the here and now, presented in a space where “literally everyone is welcome,” she says.
But the stories she tells aren’t limited to The Drake’s many properties, including a new motor inn in Prince Edward County, Ont., opening this summer. They start in her home in Toronto’s Seaton Village, where she experiments with objects and ideas in space. “I almost think of it as a studio. And it’s always changing,” she says. “If I wake up on a Sunday morning and don’t have any plans that day, I’ll start moving things around. That’s the best day of my life.”
Nielsen gravitates to smaller-scale, ephemeral, atypical or even non-art artworks such as textiles, photographs, jewellery, books, Danish krone coins or watercolour blotting paper from Victoria-based artist Rick Leong, and is careful about organizing the pieces in meaningful vignettes on walls and tabletops. It’s in the combination of things – how they relate to one another and why – that the stories crafted in Nielsen’s mind find articulation. “All of the things on a wall may reflect or refract light – it can be that basic,” she says. In her living room, a Rebecca Ladds hand drawing, set off the wall so that it casts a shadow, is paired with a lantern slide, a light-splashing crystal and a Corey Moranis lucite necklace. “There’s something luminous about all of them.”
THE WOMEN’S SPACE
A powerhouse in Canadian art, Michelle Koerner sits on the boards of the National Gallery Foundation and the Art Canada Institute. “I’m an advocate for women in the arts,” she says, explaining the impetus for another project, the Women’s Art Initiative, a multiyear fund to support exhibitions and publications by women artists. Three years ago, Koerner took the idea to Stephan Jost, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s newly minted CEO. “He was very keen and on board immediately,” she says. Koerner’s larger ambition, beyond creating a community of women supporting other women, is achieving parity in the AGO’s overall collection. “It’s a lofty goal, but an important one,” she says.
In her own home in the city’s Rosedale neighbourhood, Koerner says she’s been “gravitating towards and collecting art made by remarkable women.” Montreal-based photographer Jessica Eaton created her series Cubes for Albers and LeWitt using geometric shapes, gels and multiple exposures. “Her work is very abstract and colourful, and the process is fascinating,” says Koerner. She discovered the work of Zanele Muholi, a South African self-identified “visual activist” for LGBTQI rights, at the Ryerson Image Centre in 2014. “It was one of those art moments that just stays with you,” says Koerner of her chance encounter with Muholi’s Faces and Phases exhibition.
Rebecca Belmore’s Madonna, featuring the artist enrobed in craft paper and cradling driftwood, also hangs on Koerner’s wall. The Anishinaabe multimedia artist’s 2018 retrospective at the AGO is now on at the Remai Modern in Saskatoon. Koerner unwaveringly calls Belmore “one of the most important artists working in Canada today.”
THE PERSONAL GALLERY
Artist An Te Liu’s home previously doubled as a studio. But since his practice shifted toward sculpture, much of it in bronze, ceramic and concrete, he’s relocated his artmaking to a nearby, dedicated workspace. Though he keeps some artist’s proofs (or hors-série) in the Kensington Market loft, he admits the space is “more domestic now, a bit of a salon, and for entertaining,” he says. “And I do use it a lot to display works.”
Those works run the gamut from artifacts to artworks by friends to students he teaches at the University of Toronto, as well as other pieces he’s acquired along the way. “There’s a lot of personal history in almost everything here, whether it’s by me or someone else, whether it’s art, furniture or decorative art,” he says. “There’s a lineage, like a residue from certain passages in my life.” By keeping these items close, as touchstones, he’s reminded of the things that are important to him.
Family photographs of his great-grandfather, a land prospector, and grandfather, an academic who studied divinity and founded Christian churches in heavily Buddhist Taiwan, hang on the walls. A graphite drawing of pages from an art-history textbook and a painted cover of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind, both by Roula Partheniou, remind Liu of his time as an art history and architecture student. A chromogenic print of particles colliding, by German artist Thomas Ruff, belies an interest in theoretical physics and “the secret life of our physical world,” says Liu. He got it after he sold two of his own works. “Sell a piece, buy a piece,” he says.
Photography by Rodrigo Daguerre. Styling by Cynthia Florek.