The Art of Art Collecting
An expert art adviser shares her secrets to curating a collection in your home
By Kathryn Stouffer
Portraits by Jenny Antill
Texas native Illa Gaunt has traveled the world studying and discovering fine art. Now based in Houston, she helps clients curate personal collections and has transformed her Instagram account into an accessible platform for arts education.
With a Vanderbilt education, Christie’s training and numerous gallery openings under her belt, Gaunt can tactfully identify a true work of art and proceed to transform a house, her blank canvas, into a gallery of its own.
After years advising for galleries, Gaunt began to share her knowledge in more intimate settings. She says, “I always knew I wanted to go out on my own. With the flexibility I have now, I have a wider lens of what I can sell.” Gaunt also speaks to the importance of expanding her clients’ knowledge and appreciation for visual art in their own environments. “It’s really about opening people’s eyes to what’s out there,” Gaunt adds.
In addition to advising in cities like New York, Los Angeles and London, Gaunt’s work spans across Texas. From the Holt Cat headquarters in San Antonio and the Lawndale Art Center in Houston, to numerous residences in Houston, Austin and beyond, many Texans have benefited from Gaunt’s discerning eye. While the epicenter of Gaunt’s work is in Texas, she continues to think globally when it comes to sourcing pieces for clients. “The other day I was placing an artist I found in Ireland that does amazing abstracts,” she says. “I can be the eye all over the world of what’s going on.”
Gaunt has harnessed the reach of social media to educate others about the importance of the arts. Each Sunday, viewers can tune in to her Instagram feed, @_ig_art, for art history lessons, where she recently covered topics like the famed Fabergé eggs created for the Russian imperial family and the land art movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
When asked what holds people back from exploring the world of fine art, Gaunt says, “People feel intimidated by the process. The art world has a reputation of being intimidating and elitist. If you’re a buyer, you’re a buyer. Galleries are always willing [to sell].”
Whether you’re finally surrendering a decade-old concert poster or knee-deep in outfitting your walls with original works, Gaunt has advice for art aficionados at every stage of building a collection.
The Guide to Collecting
For the postgrad poster junkie
Akin to fast fashion, “fast art” graces the walls in homes of millennials and Gen Xers alike. Glossy prints and canvases from your nearest home goods store offer a quick fix but fail to tell a story or provide you with valuable, collectible and shareable works of art.
“It’s important to support artists rather than buying pieces that are merely decorative,” Gaunt says. “I encourage new and seasoned collectors to visit galleries and art fairs to experience a variety of artists and media and take photos. This will help you develop a discerning eye as well as give you more insight into what you like.”
Finally, Gaunt encourages budding collectors to research the artist and their work. “I tell my clients to buy art that is meaningful rather than trying to match it to your home’s décor,” she advises. “A worthwhile source is Uprise Art, an online gallery with an affordable price point.”
For the curious and budget-conscious
For those who want to be serious about art but are limited by budget, Gaunt suggests photography and prints as a beginning point for collecting.
“Prints are a wonderful way to purchase artists you like but whose prices might otherwise be beyond your budget. But be sure you’re buying from a trustworthy source and request a certificate of authenticity. As for photography, Texas has its own renowned international photography biennial in Houston, FotoFest, which is a wonderful resource for learning about emerging and established photographers.”
“Most of the auction houses host an annual auction aimed at first-time buyers of postwar and contemporary art that includes both established names and the best cutting-edge or emerging artists. For example, the one at Christie’s is called First Open, and the one at Sotheby’s is called First Look.”
For the seasoned collector
When your refined tastes, desires and resources align, it can be a serendipitous time to garner more fine works and build on the foundation you presumably have been working on for years.
Gaunt suggests getting involved with local museums and art communities as a stepping stone for discovering your new favorite pieces.
“Museum patron groups are a valuable resource for learning about artists and gaining in-depth insight into their practices. They also enable you to keep your finger on the pulse of what museums are collecting.”
For Austin-based art aficionados, Gaunt recommends The Contemporary Austin. Its membership benefits include studio visits, lectures and curator-lead tours.
“I had the privilege of visiting Deborah Roberts’ studio in Austin earlier this year with the museum, and it was insightful. I’ve since procured her work for a client and purchased a piece for my own collection,” Gaunt says. “And when visiting new cities, try to carve out time to visit galleries and introduce yourself. I keep my eye on the up-and-coming artists on the rosters at blue-chip galleries — think Gagosian, David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth.
“While visiting, be sure to ask for an artist’s CV to see what collections have bought his or her work — this is an important indication of value and collectability. All this can become complicated and time-consuming, and that’s where I come in: advising clients on purchases and negotiating with galleries.”
Gaunt’s skillful work and impeccable taste speak to her mastery and her passion for guiding others in developing their own artistic tastes. It’s something to consider when plotting your next investment.
As for staying up to date on the Texas art scene, Gaunt is an avid supporter of The Contemporary Austin, frequently checks in on what Christie’s has on view and reads quite a bit.
“Reading auction catalogs,” she says, “is like getting the September issue of Vogue.”