Dave H. Williams is the author of the memoir Small Victories: One Couple’s Surprising Adventures Building an Unrivaled Collection of American Prints, about his experiences with his wife Reba as print collectors. Read more about the book here.
Bloom: You launched your journey in print collecting by veering off the beaten path and seeking the little-known: “Moving with the herd offended my investment sensibilities. Living artists and fresh-off-the-presses prints provided little opportunity to discover new fields or obtain new insights. What could we contribute?” In addition to your finance background, what do you think shaped your inclination toward the road less traveled?
Reba: I saw an opportunity for research, to be able to add to the body of art history knowledge. We might be able to resurrect some work, some artists, who were once well-regarded, but since forgotten.
Bloom: Did you also discover artists who simply never rose above the din to attain recognition? What were some examples?
Reba: In the first category, I’d put the color woodcut artist Blanche Lazzell. Her realistic florals and genre scenes got eclipsed by Abstract Expressionism. You could probably say the same about other color woodcut specialists, Edna Boies Hopkins and Luigi Rist. Maybe Rist is in your latter category. He never got what he was due, until the 1990s, long after he died.
Bloom: Is your sense, generally, that there are a significant number of artists who were never discovered? Or do you think, as some do, that good art always rises to the surface without having to look for it?
Dave: Given the intense interest in art in the late-20th, early-21st centuries, it’s hard to imagine a never discovered artist from earlier years. But no doubt some work being produced today will not be recognized and well-regarded until 50 years from now.
Bloom: When Reba went back to school for her art history PhD, she was initially wary of CUNY Hunter because of its relative lack of prestige; but then was impressed by her professors and the program. Did you two have other similar experiences in relation to supposedly less prestigious art institutions over the years?
Reba: The Gibbes in Charleston is not a global name, but their curatorial staff is tops in color woodcuts.
Dave: You could say the same about the Amon Carter in Ft. Worth in regards to pre-1950 American prints.
Bloom: Small Victories is so much a story about meeting helpful and knowledgeable people, and learning from them. Can you talk a little about your experiences of competitiveness versus collaboration in the collecting and exhibition worlds?
Dave: The New York Print Fair is something of a stampede on opening night, as collectors rush around to get first shot at dealers’ inventory.
Reba: Dave tells a story of a collector/friend snatching a print out of his hand, and buying it before he could react. It’s true—I was there!
Bloom: I was interested in your varying approaches in relation to aesthetic quality. You wrote, “why not see if we could build a 1950s print collection within our collection and prove that the print world hadn’t quite died, but had embraced Abstract Expressionism, with occasionally decent results?” and, in relation to your collection of prints by African American artists, “In our opinion, the quality of the work varied greatly, but we wanted this exhibit to serve as a historical documentation, as well as an art show.”
As curators and collectors, what are some things you learned about the “value” of works of art?
Dave: I learned I’m no judge of value in art. Looking back, I would never have predicted some of the price changes for certain prints, say, 1990 to today. For example, Louis Lozowick. The prices of his prints have probably gone up ten times in 20 years. Martin Lewis nearly the same.
Reba: We didn’t collect for investment purposes, and I’m not sure anyone should. The illiquidity of art makes it a risky investment for most people. Then there’s the retail-wholesale spread, which is huge. If you pay 100 to a dealer, another dealer will probably pay no more than 50 if you try to sell immediately.
Bloom: And did you find that your eye for curation began to influence your aesthetic tastes?
Reba: Yes. We did collect with a view toward creating exhibitions. So we sometimes sacrificed aesthetics to get an image or an artist that fit a larger purpose.
Bloom: You write candidly in Small Victories about learning from mistakes, about the challenges of earning trust from galleries and artists, and also about running into conflicting goals and values with certain museums and artists. What were some of the most challenging moments in your journey as auto-didact collectors as you look back on it now? And what were the most valuable “mistakes” you made, i.e. the mistakes from which you learned the most valuable lessons?
Dave: Selling anything was a mistake. Not just for the lost value, but missing the object, regretting not having it to look at.
Reba: Sins of omission. I still remember prints we didn’t buy—and never got a chance at another impression.
Although like the proverbial sheriff, we nearly always got our man. But it sometimes took a long time. Dave searched for Charles Sheeler’s Yachts for years, even got paranoid about it—and I finally found it for him the conventional way, by calling a dealer.
Bloom: You both went back to school as a second act/second career – Reba for art history, Dave for writing. Tell us about what it was like to be a student again after being out of school for some years.
Reba: The question doesn’t apply to me. I’ve never been out of school. I’m always enrolled in something, frequently short courses, either in class or by distance.
Dave: For me, it’s been exhilarating! I loved Reba’s art history classes I monitored (and took a few for credit). Writing school was fun, especially forcing me to read stories and books I’d otherwise never touch.
Bloom: How long did it take to write Small Victories? Did you two share in both writing and editing? Did it go through many drafts? What was the process of finding a publisher for it?
Dave: My first attempt was at a Spalding University residency in 2008. I started seriously working on it a year later—2009—and submitted the manuscript to David Godine in 2013—so I’d say four years.
Reba: I did not read Small Victories until it was finished. I did not want to get into an argument with Dave about details, such as “was it Philadelphia or Boston where we bought that print?” He did ask my opinion about inclusion of certain events, especially where there was risk of lawsuit, or embarrassing an individual.
Dave: It was too easy to get a publisher. I hesitate to tell this story to writers, who struggle to get an agent, then a publisher. David Godine was the only publisher I showed my manuscript to, and he accepted it immediately. No agent involved.
Bloom: Your story is about finding your passion and thinking strategically about how to keep it interesting and meaningful. You had the resources to collect and exhibit art; what would be your advice for people looking to explore/pursue a passion who don’t have the same resources?
Dave: Not all collectibles are as expensive as art, and there are segments of the art market that aren’t that costly.
Reba: I point to religious imagery in prints as feasible to collect on a modest budget.
Dave: Staying with prints, 19th century etchings—other than Whistler, Moran and a few others. In Small Victories, I mention Winslow Homer wood engravings that were published in Harper’s and other magazines. Nearly all available for well under $1000, even today.
Bloom: In a more general sense, apart from print collecting, is there anything you learned or would offer to readers about conceiving and strategizing toward passions, regardless of resources?
Dave: Understand motivations. Why are you passionate? The beauty of the object? The story behind the object? We answered yes to both these questions.
Reba: And added another: Discovery. We really wanted to make discoveries, find aesthetically fine objects that had stories that no one knew.
Click here to read Sonya Chung’s feature piece on Small Victories.