Carl Grauer, Double Portrait of Jared Spencer and Joshua Dumas
Passage Arts: Please tell us about yourself.
Jared Spencer: When I was nine years old, my grandmother brought me from Connecticut to New York City for the first time. Immediately, it became my dream to live in the city, and I feel very grateful that I’ve been able to live that dream for the last 18 years – I’ve never been off the island of Manhattan for longer than two weeks since I came here for college! While I’m very lucky to have a job I love, I have always looked at my work as a way to fund my ability to engage with the arts here in the city. I feel very privileged to be able not only to give back to great artistic institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera, but also to purchase original works from artists who create their work here. The heart of this city comes from people who create art – definitely not from people who work in finance like me!
PA: How did you become interested in art?
JS: My grandmother – the same one who brought me to the Met 27 years ago – was a public school art teacher who was passionate about teaching the history of art to elementary schoolers – she went way beyond glue sticks and glitter! She took me to an art museum for the first time when I was only three years old, and she taught me to think about the artists and the times and places in which they created their work, and where and how that work would have been displayed originally. I don’t come from a wealthy family with a “distinguished” art collection or anything, but almost everything on the walls as I grew up was original work created by friends or purchased while traveling. Every piece had a story – nothing was “wall cover.”
Living room of Jared Spencer and Joshua Dumas. Photography credit: Jacqueline Claire (https://www.jacquelineclair.com)
PA: How did you start collecting art? What was it like growing your collection from your first work of art?
JS: To talk about myself as a “collector” makes me sound fancier or more strategic than I am – in reality, I’m just someone who is in awe of the talents of creative people and who is fortunate to be able to bring home some of their work. The first original piece I bought myself was a large abstract acrylic on canvas by a Hunter MFA student – and that happened to be her first-ever sale. I guess you could say that I was bitten by the bug of purchasing work of living artists: I was so thrilled that I asked her to come to my apartment and advise me on where to hang it, and when I got a job that came with a private office, I went back to her studio and bought two more pieces because I already knew how much I loved living with her work.
PA: Why is it important to you to buy the work of living artists?
JS: While I can’t say I wouldn’t love to afford to hang a Rubens or a Pollock on our walls, frequent visits to the Met compensate for not having the budget of a John D. Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan. And I find it incredibly rewarding to get to know the person who created the art my husband Josh and I live with – not only does it enrich the story behind the work, but it also gives me an opportunity to support artists who make the world (and New York City specifically) a more beautiful and meaningful place. For example, I discovered the work of the artist Elisa Valenti (www.elisavalentistudio.com) at an art fair, and we now have a few of her prints and acrylic studies – and part of the joy of looking at her luscious work is that I see her messages about body positivity and I think of her personal story as someone who left a career as a pharmacist in order to paint full-time.
Another reason I love living artists is that there can be an opportunity to commission something new – talk about enriching the story behind the work! For example, an Instragram hashtag brought me to a gorgeous portrait of gay activist Harvey Milk by the artist Carl Grauer (www.carlgrauer.com). A conversation with Carl via DM ultimately led to me and my husband commissioning our own portrait – and we worked with him to decide on a few “Easter eggs” to include in the portrait, including a magazine with Harvey Milk’s face on the cover. Later, we bought Carl’s portrait of the gay activist Larry Kramer.
Similarly, John MacConnell’s (www.johnmacconnell.com) life drawings are part of the fabric of the gay world in New York City; I sat for some of his iconic blue pen sketches, and then later commissioned a larger graphite portrait as a gift for my husband. Although we don’t collect only gay artists, it is uniquely meaningful for me to support their work, particularly work that embraces openly gay themes, which would have been necessarily secret or coded until fairly recently.
PA: Can you tell us about the logistics of collecting?
JS: To be honest, I don't gravitate to collecting via brick-and-mortar galleries: while I have tremendous respect for the work they do to find and promote artists, as a young collector with a more limited budget it can be intimidating to have to ask for a pricelist and then have a gallerist hover over me. To me, much of the gallery world seems to be confusing and opaque by design: some gallerists only want to sell to “distinguished collectors” or post artificially high prices because they want to create a false impression of demand and they expect you to haggle anyway. I much prefer to visit an art fair like SuperFine or online galleries where prices are clearly listed and all buyers are welcomed equally, or to purchase directly from an independent artist. That said, we have had some good gallery experiences -- for example, after Carl Grauer painted our portrait, we visited his show at his gallery, where we ended up purchasing his Larry Kramer portrait.
Jared Spencer, Joshua Dumas, and artist Carl Grauer
PA: You and your husband collect together. Can you please tell us how you collect as a couple? What advice do you have for other collecting couples?
JS: I think it helps that my husband Josh and I both have an eclectic sensibility and we both value the story behind each piece more than the piece’s monetary value or whether an expert would say it “rounds out” what we already have. Josh’s late father, Jorge Dumas (www.jorgedumas.com), was a painter and printmaker from Uruguay, and Josh’s mother, Susan Dumas (www.susandumas.com), is a fiber artist, and her parents collected some spectacular pieces when they were in Japan in the 50s and 60s. So we love the eclectic energy and personal significance of one of Jorge’s oversized Latin American Cubist portraits on a wall opposite Josh’s grandparents’ gold eighteenth century Japanese six-panel screen, even though a decorator or art advisor might say that juxtaposition is a no-no. We also give each other art as gifts, usually when one of us knows the subject matter will resonate with the other and we can think of a place to hang it. And part of the fun of traveling for us is picking out smaller pieces of art together.
PA: Can you tell us more about what it means to live with art and build a livable art collection?
JS: For us, livability goes back to not caring whether an individual piece “matches” other pieces in our collection – it’s all about what the individual piece means to us. It’s probably worth mentioning that we don’t buy anything we can’t hang in our apartment, which keeps us disciplined but also gives us a good rubric for livability: is this a piece we want to look at every day when we sit at the dining table, or when we sprawl on the sofa in the living room? That mindset means we tend to gravitate to art that tells a story, and that we find beautiful.
PA: What advice do you have for other young collectors and art lovers?
JS: Two pieces of advice: First, and most important, don’t be intimidated if you feel like you don’t know a lot about art. Great art should be able to reach you even if you know nothing about art history, and once you have a work of art that truly captivates you, you’ll find that looking at it over and over again will help you look at other art differently – you don’t need to read a million books! Second, if you don’t already, or you aren’t one yourself, get to know an artist (or two or ten). Hearing what inspires them, what they love about their artistic practice, what challenges them, and where they see their place in the continuum of art history will help you see art – and maybe even your own life! – in a deeper, more meaningful way.