The motivations for collecting art are as varied as the collectors themselves, from casual buyers to art lovers to investors for whom art represents financial opportunity. But it’s rare that collectors concentrate on what’s right under their noses, much less foster the careers of the local artists working next door. “Seeing Is Believing: The Collection of Ray Griffin and Thom Robinson,” at the Upstairs ArtSpace in Tryon, is a rare chance to appreciate the collectors’ vision as well as the variety and quality of Western North Carolina’s artistic landscape.
Work by 34 regional artists drawn from the Griffin/Robinson collection includes works on canvas and paper, photography, sculpture and outsider art. “I always wanted to do a show about collecting,” says Nancy Holmes, the show’s organizer who met Ray and Thom as fellow directors of the Asheville Art Museum. “Ray and Thom share a passion for art and they really have a plan. They’re very focused on regional artists, and their collection’s quite varied.”
Represented in the show are well-known regional artists such as Hoss Haley, Margaret Curtis and Galen Frost Bernard, along with others in early or mid-careers like Nava Lubelski and Sean Pace. “Thom and Ray have put together the greatest local contemporary art collection I have ever seen anywhere,” said the Asheville artist Taiyo La Paix, one of whose newer works on canvas, Stardust 2012, is part of the collection and included in the show. “They are truly sweet, kind human beings and their knowledge and understanding of art is truly encyclopedic.”
Both men grew up in the Carolinas — Thom in East Flat Rock and Ray in Dillon, South Carolina — and met in 2004, when they had both returned to the Asheville area after completing careers in city planning (Ray) and advertising (Thom) in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, among other places. “Our parents selectively had small collections,” Ray explains. “Our collection grew as we responded to those works that caught our eye and our interest.” The two rarely disagree on what pieces to add to the collection. “We look for strong imagery, use of color, ability with the medium and graphic strength, and the play between representational and symbolic,” Thom says. “Abstraction isn’t our first interest.”
In their nine years together, Ray and Thom have become fixtures of the intensely creative art scene centered on Asheville. They’re known not only for collecting but also for visiting studios and at times actively participating in the creation of new work. Their support has been vital to the careers of many artists struggling for recognition in a wider market more interested in star-status names or more fiscally reliable work by past masters. “It’s fabulous that they’re such huge advocates for the local arts community in their support of artists of differing genres and points of view,” says Ursula Gullow, three of whose works are in Ray and Thom’s collection. One of them, an unusual folk art-inspired view of a traffic accident, is in the Upstairs show. “Their collection values the narrative and conceptual aspects of an artist’s work over the purely decorative,” she adds. “They’re serious about the investment they’re making, and their collection captures a unique time in Asheville’s budding art scene.”
Julie Armbruster, whose highly colored and inventively bizarre series of mixed media work featuring running characters like Potato Boy and the Little Fatties, credits Thom and Ray with helping her create the piece on show at the Upstairs called 20th Century Saints, commissioned by the two men just after the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf Of Mexico in 2010 and taking the form of a Buddhist wall painting. “I did a sketch and then we worked together on modifications,” Julie says of the work’s development. “I found Thom and Ray’s suggestions to be very insightful. It’s rare to have a commission request where the patron is respectful of the artistic process and is able to give helpful criticism in a way that improves the work.”
Like the other artists represented in the show, Julie’s also created a new work specifically for the exhibit and available for purchase to benefit the Upstairs, another example of Thom and Ray’s support at a time when public funds for the arts are shrinking at an alarming rate. “Thom and Ray have not had easy lives and have worked hard to be in a position to be able to sponsor artists,” Taiyo La Paix points out. “They have the vision, confidence and genuine love of art to seek out the most cutting-edge art in the world, being created right here at home.”
The nearly 70 works exhibited include 34 specially commissioned works for sale to benefit Upstairs ArtSpace. Ray and Thom will lead a panel discussion titled “Why Collect Art?” on Tuesday, August 6th, at 7pm. A companion show, “Crossing The Line,” exhibits folk art incorporating found objects collected by Bonnie Bardos and Charlotte Fowler.