Collector has more art than money


Al Meyers has at least two strikes against him as an art collector. One, he doesn't have a lot of money. And two, he's colorblind.

But he hasn't let either of those things stop him. Since moving to Baltimore 13 years ago, he has put together a collection of about 200 works of art. The art he buys is mainly by emerging local artists -- 90 percent of them women -- and costs in the $200 to $300 range.

Recently, in addition to collecting, he started having shows of parts of his collection at his apartment to give the artists some exposure.

"He's like a patron saint, and artists should have more of them," says gallery owner Walter Gomez, one of the people from whom Mr. Meyers buys art. "To anybody starting to collect he's a great example. The beauty of collecting is not necessarily in collecting names, but in falling in love with a piece that you can afford."

Ruth Channing Middleman, one of Mr. Meyers' favorite artists and a friend as well, agrees. "I wish they were all like Al because he buys what he loves. He's not one of those people who have to be investing in the work."

Mr. Meyers, 51, a systems analyst at Morgan State University whose other interests include music and cooking, shudders at the thought of buying art for investment. "I've never thought of making money out of it. That would ruin it for me. I just love living in my own little museum, with art, records and books."

"He lives and breathes art and culture, and it's wonderful," says Jimmy Rouse, owner of Louie's Book Store and Cafe in downtown Baltimore, a favorite haunt of Mr. Meyers -- and one from which he has bought numerous works of art.

Mr. Rouse thinks Mr. Meyers offers a lesson for potential collectors. "You don't have to spend $1,000 to but a piece of very good art, and particularly in Baltimore. I's a great city for attracting artists to work in, but there's not a large market here. It's not a wealthy city, and there are not as many opportunities for these artist to show -- not as many galleries or outlets."

Mr. Meyers, in person open and unpretentious, lives very simply in an unremarkable downtown apartment house, where his rooms proclaim both his love of art and his limited means.

In the center of his "living room" is a small rectangular kitchen table with a white top, on which he can go through his boxes of carefully kept prints, photographs and drawings, kept on another table nearby. At the open window, a fan brings air into the un-air-conditioned room, its drone all but drowned out by the sounds of traffic outside. There are no chairs, but there are pictures on the walls.

In the center of the "dining room" is a slightly larger, round kitchen table. When Mr. Meyers has a visitor, he gets a couple of folding chairs out of a corner. That's it for the dining room. Except, of course, for the art.

While the rooms are almost bare of furniture, the walls are crowded with art by Ms. Middleman, Carole Jean Bertsch, Susan Henderson, Joanne Goshen, Mercedes Linton, Lisa Hillman, Mia Lyren, Cathy Leaycraft, Anne Jones, Ruth Pettus and many others.

Mr. Meyers says he doesn't know how much he spends for art. "And I don't know if I'd want to tell you if I did. Really, I budget everything else and what's left over goes for art. It's all my vices rolled into one. I don't gamble or smoke or play the horses. I'm always telling other people that you can get really nice stuff for $200 or $300 and less. Really nice stuff."

Collecting isn't heroic or philanthropic to Mr. Meyers; it's an activity from which he gets more than he gives. "It's such a great thing to live surrounded by art. It's the same as listening to music; blank walls would be like not having a radio or records. It's an aesthetic thing of wanting something beautiful near."

In the right place

Originally from Illinois, he moved to Baltimore in 1981. Recently divorced at the time, he had a job and an apartment downtown. His walk between the two took him through the Charles Street gallery area, which reinforced a long-standing interest. "I was always interested in reading about art and going to museums, but I didn't pursue being an artist. I was drawn to representational art by Klee, de Chirico, Modigliani and others.

"A great love all my childhood and adult life has been 20th-century music," he continues, noting that he also collects records and CDs. "I wanted to become a composer, and have always been interested in the interaction between 20th-century art and music."

So collecting art came naturally. "I had early exposure to seeing art I could afford, and made some friends among artists. The first picture I bought was for $54 by Cathy Leaycraft, and the second was for $75, by Anne Jones. I still have them both." Leaycraft and Jones have become two of his favorite artists.

Mr. Meyers' interest is in representational work, with an emphasis on the human figure. Most of the work is contemporary, though he also has some 19th-century work.

"I think he has an excellent eye for a certain kind of thing," says Ms. Middleman. "For the conceptual, the offbeat, the quirky, and for certain formal things about the work that most people don't mention. He notices composition. And he has a great sense of humor and appreciates humor in art."

His colorblindness at first created a barrier.

"I always used to flunk art class in grade school because I'd use the wrong crayon for everything. I can't tell green from brown, and sometimes I can't tell blue from purple," he explains. "For a long time I collected almost all prints and photos, mostly black and white. I didn't shun color altogether, but I was a little shy about it.

"But I became very conscious of having an apartment full of black and white stuff. And as I became a more seasoned collector I started trusting myself to collect things with color. Now I don't understand why I was so timid about it."

'Collector's logic'

Mr. Meyers collects women artists' work because of a deep response to it.

"Women's art is special for me, but it's a gut-level thing that I've never been able to figure out completely. That's not to say there isn't excellent art by male artists. But every piece of art I buy is a gut thing for me."

But there's also what he calls "collector's logic." "A collection that has some kind of focus is better than a collection without focus," he says. "Also, women's art is still very undervalued, sometimes by a factor of 10 or 20. I sometimes feel I'm taking advantage of that, but it's true.

"And then the focus is self-perpetuating. There has never been any kind of romantic interest [between him and the women artists], but women artists have been supportive. There's mutual support, and it's self-perpetuating."

In the past year Mr. Meyers has had a couple of shows in his apartment, complete with announcements and openings. The first was of six women artists, the second of works bought at Louie's over the years.

They aren't really for the purpose of selling. "The art is nominally for sale, but the chances that something will sell are small," he says. The idea is to give the artists exposure. "There isn't enough gallery space for all the good artists around town."

Cutting costs by framing

Several years ago Mr. Meyers learned to frame and mat his

works in an effort to reduce costs. "I was interested in taking a museum approach, so I called people at the Baltimore Museum of Art and they were wonderful. I was self-conscious about it, but their framers and paper conservators bent over backwards to help me so I can run a little museum of sorts."

Janice Collins, the preparator in the BMA's prints, drawings and photographs department, was one of those who helped. "I was impressed," she says. "Most people who have the money to collect have the framing done for them. You can spend a lot of money having it done. He wanted to know how to do it himself to have as much money for the collecting as possible. It was really admirable."

There are a couple of drawbacks to the kind of collecting he does, Mr. Meyers says. "Sometimes a difficulty of collecting women artists is if you ask to see the work it's like a rephrasing of 'Come up and see my etchings.' So sometimes it's awkward. That's another use of Louie's. I have a battery-powered slide viewer, and artists bring their slides there."

He has also at times had to point out to dealers and artists "that I don't have more money than I do."

But Mr. Meyers is not one to emphasize the negatives of anything, especially collecting. On the contrary: "So many positive things have come from it," he says. "The art community is a nice bunch of people."

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