Collector's Corner

Collector’s Corner: Ryan Kortman

Kortman and his wife Jessica at the opening of "Buying Friends"

Kortman and his wife Jessica at the opening of ‘Buying Friends.’

Collector’s Corner is a recurring interview feature on the ARTnews website that checks in with art collectors around the world.

Ryan Kortman, started collecting art at the ripe age of 25, after he finished school at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago. Since then, Kortman has moved to Los Angeles and back to Chicago, where he currently resides with his wife Jessica and a collection of over 80 works by 44 different artists, including Brian Belott, Gina Beavers, Sayre Gomez, and Adam Scott.

Recently, things have come full-circle for Kortman in the form of “Buying Friends,” an exhibition of his collection that is on view at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts through February 15 in his hometown of Grand Rapids. ARTnews spoke with Kortman about viewing art on Instagram, spending your savings on one piece, and much more. —John Chiaverina

You started collecting really young. What prompted you, at 25, to start collecting art?

Some of my first jobs were in museums and auction houses so the idea of collecting was always something familiar to me. The real catalyst was when my apartment started leaking from the roof and the management company gave me a free place to live. It ended up taking six months to repair the leak so I decided to start using rent money to buy art.

What were some of the first pieces you bought during that 6-month period? Any of them stick out as being particularly important to you?

I went to school for painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago so the first few pieces I bought were from SAIC alum. There was a painting that Mariano Chavez exhibited in our BFA show in 2003 that I had always loved. This was before I had a cellphone or Facebook and I depended on random encounters with people. One night while parking my car on the street I saw Mariano lying on the sidewalk after being doored on his bike. He was a little out of it but I was able to get his contact information and we ended up working out a deal for the painting.

What is the biggest work you have in your collection? The smallest?

Currently the largest work in the collection is a painting by Ben Foch and Chelsea Culp that measures 132 by 60 inches. The smallest would be a sculpture by Ben Stone that is 4 by 1.5 inches.

How do you acquire most of your works? Do you travel to New York often? Art fairs?

Most of the work I acquire comes from social media. I follow a large number of artists and galleries and it allows me to see a lot of what is going on without traveling. Collecting art on a budget like mine leaves little for travel but if I were able to afford both, New York would be the first place I would go. As far as art fairs, I go to Expo Chicago because it’s close to home.

Do you find that looking at art through social media is an accurate representation of the work? Are you ever disappointed when you end up actually seeing something in person?

I would say 80 percent of the works I currently own have been purchased sight unseen either through social media or jpegs sent from a gallery. There is definitely a risk involved when doing it this way and I have been disappointed on a few occasions but overall it’s been great and things usually just end up looking better in person.

What part does local art play in your collection?

It’s always great to be able to see the work in person so I would say local artists have an advantage in that they are easy to access.

How did the UICA show come about?

Three years ago I submitted an exhibition proposal to the Grand Rapids Art Museum. I used to be a security guard there and I thought that being a former employee would be an interesting way to frame the show. I had one meeting with the director but after that I never heard from them. About two years later, one of the people from the museum took the curator job at UICA and they called me to do the show there instead.

What do you find the biggest challenge is in being a young art collector?

I think the biggest challenge I face is financial. I have a very regular person’s income so when I see something that I feel is a “must have” but am already on multiple payment plans for works that were “must haves” three months ago, it’s frustrating.

Is there a medium or style or era that you prefer collecting?

I like painting and sculpture that is being made right now.

Do you ever have to sell pieces from your collection?

My goal is to build a great collection and in my view, the strength of it comes from the sum of its parts, so selling work is not a part of that vision. It’s tempting at times, especially when I am overextended or running low on money but love for the pieces I own keeps me from exploring ways to sell.

What is the most expensive piece in your collection?

There have been multiple occasions where I have spent my entire savings on a piece of art. It’s a scary thing to do at first but after a while you forget about the price. For me, the benefit of being able to show support to working artists and live around beautiful and interesting things outweigh the security of a padded bank account.

Below, images of “Buying Friends,” which runs through February 15 at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids. Click any image to open the slide show.

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