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Topics in Art


The private art collector is a phenomenon that developed during the Renaissance and continues to this day. The d'Medici family may well have been one of the first, and in their case, even went so far as to collect artists, not just their work, by providing a collegiate-type atmosphere--a safe haven for them in which to work, learn, share ideas, and develop. During succeeding generations, kings and princes, like the Medici, continued to amass palaces and villas full of art to the point that the palaces and villas themselves became works of art. With the advent of modern Europe, wealth and wealthy collectors began to include more than just rulers and noblemen. As more and more money flowed from business and industrial ventures, the art collection status symbol dispersed with it and the truly "private" art collector was born. Nowhere was this the case more than on American shores with the fortunes of the so-called "robber barons" of business and industry of the late 1800s. John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and Winslow Homer were the darlings of this nouveau-riche crowd. And after the turn of the century, the Impressionists, Cubists, Surrealists, even Dada artists became collectible in this country.

Donald Nichols thus comes from a long tradition of wealthy American art collectors. In many ways he is typical yet in some ways not. A native of North Carolina, his money came from real estate and the development of shopping centres in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. He is 57 years old, and like art collectors before him he made mistakes. Initially he started out collecting that which was popular, in his case American Impressionists. But in so doing, he was just one of the pack of dozens of others, his collection no better nor worse than theirs, his impact and that of his collection, minimal insofar as the rest of the art world was concerned. Then in 1985, he did something radical. He started dumping his American Impressionists back onto the market in favour of something he found he really loved--American Abstractionists.

A quotation from the American Abstractionist, Hilla Rebay encouraged him: "...genius does not wait for consensus." He did his homework. He knew the work of early 20th century artists such as O’Keeffe, and Motherwell and Rothko from the post-war 40's and 50's, but came to realise that no one was then collecting that which came in between. Like the Medici household, he discovered that Black Mountain College had been a Mecca for artists from this period and began his search there. He discovered Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder and dozens of lesser-known creators of American Abstraction. Today his work has resulted in a 200-piece collection of paintings, drawings, and sculptures from the 1930s and 40s that contains not just a sampling of work from these artists, but the best they were doing during this time. American Abstractionists from this period chose not to think of themselves as citizens merely of this country but of the world, and with the openness that this mindset offered, they developed a modernity that sowed the seeds of all that post-war art was to become, here and abroad. Largely for this reason, Donald Nicols' collection is considered the best and largest of its kind in the world. A significant portion of it was recently on display at his alma mater, Wake Forest University.

contributed by Lane, Jim

25 October 1998
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