A Beginner's Guide to Collecting Haitian Art

Much discussion has been dedicated to, "what is art, what Haitian art is, and what good art is. Historically, these definitions have been defined by the world of academia. They often include universities, museums, curators and critics-primarily from a European perspective. The general public was often told what good art was. Relative to the general population, collecting "good art" was done by few persons. Art collectors were often considered persons of means and distinction and were often European.

As the ethnic community enters its "age of awareness," it is clear the rules for collecting art must change. Both art critics and laypersons must understand the importance for understanding, acceptance and awareness. How many times have we heard, "I don't know art, but I know what I like." At times, what the public likes and what has been defined as collectible art are different. Starting a Haitian art collection can seem intimidating. While the standards for identifying quality art are changing, there are some basic rules that will guide you through the process.

Art is any form of personal expression that combines creativity with talent. The visionary artist transforms common objects into something imagined or realistic. Art may also reflect or address the beliefs of an individual or a community. These attributes are most characteristic of Haitian Art, which offers a brilliant insight into the history and culture of Haiti and the everyday struggle and survival of its people.

The art of Haiti is an outgrowth of a unique past involving socio-economic, ethnic, political, and religious phenomena. Since 1804, the year of Haitian independence, there has not been any other island in the Caribbean where so many great artists have created such large numbers of artwork that are "universally human." Voodoo, the religion inherited by individuals inside and outside of Haiti, continues to play a dominant role in the artistic expression of the Haitian artists.

The establishment of Centre d'Art in Port-au-Prince by the American painter Dewitt Peters and journalist Selden Rodman in 1944 was instrumental in the revival of the artistic movement in Haiti. They became the promoters of "primitive art", with scenes depicted in bold, vigorous colors, which have received both worldwide recognition and critical acclaim.

Since then, Haitian art has been widely exhibited, collected, and displayed at many museums and sold at many galleries and major auction houses.

Before you purchase any Haitian art as a collector, you must understand the rationale behind your purchase. Just what are you collecting? You must identify why you are collecting art and work within these guidelines when making your purchases. More often, a patron may have several reasons for collecting Haitian art.

If your purchases center on the need to harmonize your home, perhaps you view art as a way to enhance your decor. Most critics agree purchases made in this manner are not made by true art collectors. Still, the novice may not recognize his /her true motivation. If you consider where the art will be placed before you make a purchase, you may unconsciously be viewing art as an accent piece.

Art has long been seen as an investment, a hedge against inflation. As an investment, little attention is paid toward art's aesthetic values. Since the bottom line is a profit, you may not even like the artwork purchased. The trick, as with any investment, is to buy low and sell high. Investment collectors must be patient and willing to gamble. Many investment collectors become frustrated with the length of time it takes for art to appreciate. Harboring unrealistic expectations can cause collectors to become discontented. Traditional investments may double every seven years. While art may be traditional, it is not a traditional investment. It can be risky. Values are related directly to supply and demand. Scoring high profits by investing in an unknown artist is rare. Buying art from a proven artist with high name recognition comes with a higher price tag.

Acquiring art to satisfy the human spirit inspires most collectors. Haitian art and artist have revitalized pride within the community. Art is a statement of self and a declaration to others. Samuel Fredericks describes collecting art as "a personal journey." Your goal may be to reaffirm commitments and establish legacies for yourself, family and friends. You are not motivated by the rarity of the work but rather by your sense of emotional fulfillment. Collectors in this category often buy art to hand down to their children. Investments and color coordination have little importance for these collectors.

What are the ABCs to collecting Haitian art?
Avoid gimmicks.
Buy what you can afford.
Commit to knowledge.

Avoid gimmicks. Two-for-one may sound good, but two times zero is still zero. Elaborate framing does not increase the value of the art; it merely enhances its salability. In some cases, improper framing may actually decrease the value of the art. Unconsciously, framers can damage valuable artwork by mounting the artwork with mattes, glues, tapes and backings that contain acid. Recently a collector took her artwork to a framer to be reframed. When the framer dismantled the artwork, he and the collector were horrified to discover the cardboard mattes and cellophane tape used in the original framing had eaten through the print, thus destroying the expensive serigraph. Avoid buying artwork that has been personalized for someone else.

Buy what you can afford. How much can you afford to spend is an important question. You must place caps on what you will spend. If your budget is very limited, start small. A poster may be all you can afford, but eventually you will be able to buy something else. Prioritize your wants from your needs. Establish an "art fund" to save for the art you want. You may even be able to arrange a payment plan with a gallery that fits within your budget. Appreciate and accept the purchases that you have made. Artist Kelven Henderson notes, "Naturally, buying the original is best, but if you can't get an original, then buy a serigraph or a limited edition print."

Commit to knowledge. Read art history books and reviews. Subscribe to art journals and periodicals, and routinely visit galleries and museums. Attend panel discussions, or better yet, join a discussion group. If possible, meet the artist during gallery shows, exhibits and lectures so you can further understand his/her works. Find a reputable gallery owner or art consultant who will take time to answer your questions. It is important to get a sense of the gallery's commitment to the arts. If they don't have the time for you, then find another gallery. Lisa Tousaint has been collecting art for six years. Admittedly, she had no formal training in art and no prior experience in buying art. She now has established a comfortable art collection. She echoes the need to connect with art experts. "Most of them are happy to share information. Listen and learn all that you can, and take a chance and buy a piece of art." Education coupled with common sense are the basic tools for an effective collector, and the definitions below can help get you started.

To help you better understand Haitian art and its value, we have provided a comprehensive bookstore containing Haitian art books and auction catalogs, all with information that will help you to obtain a greater appreciation of Haitian art and its value.

Art is neither mysterious nor untouchable. It is a natural extension of ourselves. Art allows the viewer to visit sacred places. Collecting art is a journey that becomes easier with time. Fredericks has a simple solution: "If you visit a gallery and come back to a piece two or three times, and you realize that you cannot live without that art, you have begun your collection."

Special thanks to Debbie Yopp and Images "The Magazine for Today's New Ethnic Collector" for the Reproduction in whole or in part of this article.