A Collector’s Perspective

Anthony Petullo
President, Anthony Petullo Foundation

Anthony Petullo
Anthony Petullo Foundation

An art collection usually starts innocently with one print, a watercolor or a drawing – then another, and another. At some point in the collecting, the fever strikes, buying accelerates and all is lost. It’s the point at which a casual art buyer becomes a serious art collector. Before long there is no more room on the walls, on the floor or in the closets.

And then comes the inevitable question, “Where did all this stuff come from?” Which is followed by, “I must stop buying!” It’s a resolution rarely kept, for the addicted collector can always justify the purchase of one more piece that is essential to the collection.

What drives these people to collect so much art? It’s a disease, really – it can be contracted by one person or a couple. If a couple, it does help if both parties are driven by this madness. Some critics call this condition obsessive-compulsive behavior. Art lovers are fond of calling it passion.

Most people buy art because It’s enjoyable to look at. Art frequently defines the ambiance of their homes and offices. For serious collectors, art can quickly begin to define their lives. The enjoyment factor is soon coupled with the challenge of finding more and more of their favorite art. What they set out to find is another matter.

Defining The Search

Some art treasure-hunters limit their search to a small segment of a genre or even to a single artist. Some stay within a broad category, such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Surrealism or Art brut – or Impressionism – if one has an extremely large bank account. A few are very specific, going as far as restricting their choices to one medium within a genre, such as German Expressionist fine prints.

Other collectors have more eclectic tastes, preferring to have a house full of art representing many styles. Yet a skillful connoisseur can mix dissimilar artworks and fashion them into a cohesive collection. What makes it all come together is the collector’s taste and preference. If the collector truly loves all the artwork, and has not succumbed to pressure from other people, then the collection will most likely be a fairly accurate reflection of the collector’s personality.

For those preferring a specific movement or genre, there is the question of which artists to include. This is an important matter, for it is the essence of a collection. If the collection is to be an all inclusive, encyclopedic grouping of a movement, then the most important artists, at least from an art historical standpoint, should be included. If, on the other hand, the collection is to be based solely on the assembler’s personal preferences, then it doesn’t matter which artists are included.

The Collector’s Contribution

The art world has five principal players: the artist, the collector, the dealer, the curatorand the critic, and each can have multiple roles. Obviously, nothing happens until the artist creates something. But each of the other players has an important role. The dealer is usually the primary promoter of an artist’s work. She has readymade buyers, does advertising and public relations, and mounts exhibitions – usually not an artist’s favorite activities. The curator educates and informs us about the art, and coordinates exhibitions at museums. The critic reviews art gallery and museum exhibitions, commenting on the artwork and the artist, usually in newspapers and magazines.

The collector makes several contributions. Most importantly, collectors provide the money that drives the commercial art world. Artists, dealers and auction houses make their living off of these ardent art lovers. Without the art collectors, artists would starve and dealers and auction houses would not exist.

A collector can also be the initial advocate for an artist. This is especially true in the selftaught and outsider genre where avid collectors have sought out and promoted artists even before dealers entered the cycle. Interestingly, many collectors of self-taught and outsider art have been well-known trained artists ( Dubuffet, Picasso, Klee, the Chicago Imagists). Regardless of who discovers the artist, a prominent collector purchasing a piece of art can do wonders for an artist’s career.

Schooners, ca. 1939

Alfred Wallis
Schooners, ca. 1939
Oil and pencil on cardboard

In addition to keeping the art world afloat, collectors are the primary art donors to museums. Without these benefactors, art museums would have very small collections indeed. In fact, there would be far fewer art museums. Art institutions simply cannot afford to buy what collectors can donate. The next time you visit an art museum notice the little wall plaques next to the artwork. There you will see the name of the artist, a description of the work and usually the name of the donor. It’s not unusual for one art museum to receive dozens or even hundreds of gifted artworks from a single donor.

Most important art collections are destined for one or more art museums. A few collections will go to auctions but, as they say in the trade, it is usually because of one of the three Ds – death, divorce or debt. Furthermore, large art collections rarely survive the first generation. In most cases, children do not have the same parental love for the artwork or a place to display and store the art or the money to maintain it. So museums are the lucky beneficiaries.

But why do art lovers give their treasures to museums? It’s because they want to share the joy of the art with a greater audience. It’s kind of an adult game of ‘show and tell’. The collector finally gets to show off all his hard work. Now everyone gets to enjoy it.

The Petullo Collection

The Petullo Collection is commonly known as the Anthony Petullo Collection of Selftaught & Outsider Art. But the broader collection includes works by many well known trained artists. There are more than 600 pieces in the collection. Many of the early acquisitions are gone. Some were given to art museums, others to family and friends. Some are still around but in the closet. Why in the closet? Because I really didn’t love the work in the first place. Someone unduly influenced my judgment. It’s all quite a normal collecting process. All collectors make some wrong choices – wrong for them. The works may be very good. They just don’t suit the collector’s taste.

The Astronaut Filigree Lady, 1971

Bill Traylor
Brown Mule, 1939
Pencil, crayon, and gouache on paper

Like most young people who can’t afford ‘real’ art, this art lover started with posters – nice ones mind you. And nice frames too. A few years later I added a couple of affordable oil paintings and fine prints. But I had no grand plan to build a collection. The collector’s fever came on slowly as I added a few more pieces each year.

Until twenty years ago, two printmakers – Graham Clarke (UK) and Warrington Colescott (US-WI) were the best known artists in the Petullo Collection. A number of lesser known self-taught artists were represented but still, there was no blueprint to build a unique collection.

Getting Serious About A Collection

By 1990 I began to think seriously about forming a cohesive collection of some of the finest European and American self-taught artists. This grand adventure started in January of that year when I purchased a work by Alfred Wallis (1855-1942), the famous UK primitive painter, and one by the well known American Bill Traylor (1854-1949), born a slave in Alabama.

More than 150 works were acquired between January 1990 and the opening of Driven to Create: The Anthony Petullo Collection of Self-Taught & Outsider Art exhibition at the Museum of American Folk Art (now the American Folk Art Museum), New York, in September 1993. The 95-piece exhibition, organized by Russell Bowman and Margaret Andera of the Milwaukee Art Museum, was then displayed at the Milwaukee Art Museum, the University of Illinois – Krannert Art Museum, Akron Art Museum, Tampa Art Museum, and Arkansas Arts Center. Since that time, selected pieces from the collection have been loaned to many museums for special exhibitions. And permission has been granted to use art images for numerous publications in many countries.

The collection is now best known for European and American self-taught works, with special emphasis on artists from the UK. Of course, It’s a very subjective collection, featuring only those things that appeal to me, the collector. It’s filled with figurative drawings and paintings, many are colorful and many are storytelling. It’s a very livable collection.

When the French artist Jean Dubuffet spoke of his collection of ‘art brut’ artists, what we now call ‘outsiders’, he said that their art is “work produced by people immune to artistic culture in which there is little or no trace of mimicry.” Broadly speaking, this definition applies to many of the ‘untouched’ artists in my collection. That is, those artists who are untrained and relatively uninfluenced by outside forces. They are truly inventive and frequently driven by their own visions. Not included in this group would be the ‘Sunday’ painter and other artists who produce work in response to the whims of the art market.

The Self-Taught Artist

The all-inclusive self-taught genre – if, in fact, it can be called a genre – is filled with many controversial terms (folk, primitive, naïve, visionary, spiritual, untutored, art brut, outsider, etc.) too difficult – and too hazardous – to define here. Some works are childlike, others so sophisticated It’s difficult to distinguish the work from that of a trained artist. Some are so inventive and unique that famous trained artists have been inspired by the art or even adopted a similar style. One of the most obvious being Jean Dubuffet, whose later works look remarkably like those of Swiss mental patient Heinrich Anton Müller.

The history of the self-taught genre is replete with stories of trained artists discovering and collecting the works of untrained artists. The trained artist sees something unique, fresh and inviting in the work of the untrained artist. In many cases the discoveries have been made when the trained artist was looking for the next ‘new thing’. Other times it was the fascination of the artist breaking all the standard rules of art and yet producing a marvelous image. British notables Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood were fascinated by the work of Cornish primitive Alfred Wallis.

The purest and untouched of the self-taught artists have a few things in common.

  1. Almost all are inventive.
  2. They rarely change their style from the beginning of their career to the end, unlike many trained artists who experiment with styles and mediums.
  3. There is little or no mimicry, as Dubuffet stated.
  4. They usually don’t respond to specific image requests.
  5. In many cases they are unable to replicate an image – it was a vision and It’s gone – as was the case with Scottie Wilson, Albert Louden and Madge Gill, all represented in the Petullo Collection.

The great artists Van Gogh and Gaugin have been called ‘self-taught’, meaning they had no formal studio training. But they did go to great lengths to learn from other artists. So they really were trained artists. They just had a different type of classroom.

It has been said that “the great self-taught artist is at the beginning of their career where the trained artist hopes to be at the end of their career,‘ which is a reference to the artist’s uninhibited freedom to do what they really want to do. There’s no market-driven production, no attempt to create the next ‘new wave,’ no shock and awe. The statement might be an exaggeration but there are sufficient examples to give it some merit.

There is also a bit of rebelliousness present in the works of the untrained. It’s a trait that has been applied to this collector, as well. And there may be some truth to it. I have had no formal art education – not even an art history class. But I did want to learn from others – collectors, artists, dealers, curators and critics. All have been instrumental in helping me build a unique collection.

Have I collected enough art? Yes, but I do add a piece here and there. It’s addictive. Chocolate anyone?

Written on the occasion of the exhibition, “The History of an Art Collection: Thirty Years of Collecting,” October, 2004. Revised June, 2009.

Books by Anthony Petullo

Art Without Category: British & Irish Art From The Anthony Petullo Collection, Petullo Publishing 2009

Scottie Wilson: Peddler Turned Painter, Petullo Publishing 2004

Self-Taught and Outsider Art: The Anthony Petullo Collection, University of Illinois Press 2001


Buy the Book

Scottie Wilson: Peddler Turned Painter
Anthony J. Petullo and Katherine M. Murrell


Research the Artists

James Lloyd
Boy with Lambs, n.d.
Gouache on paper

Credit: © 2019 The Anthony Petullo Collection of SELF-TAUGHT AND OUTSIDER ART


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