Getting Started as a Collector

by Cindy Grisdela

How do you get started as a collector of fiber art? For many people, the journey begins with one piece that speaks to them on an emotional level. For others, it’s the opportunity to own a piece by an artist they admire or to add something different to displays of their own artwork.

Carol Larson, a mixed-media textile artist from Petaluma, California, began collecting Navajo rugs during trips to the Southwest a number of years ago. In the past 10 years, she has added art quilts to her collection for contrast and color. She looks for work that provokes an immediate response because of composition, color, media, or a combination of all three. “I see it. I love it. I want to have it in my home,” Carol said.

Eleanor McCain, an artist and collector from Shalimar, Florida, began her collection by purchasing work she admired from a gallery show she attended in Atlanta in the mid-1980s. This included pieces by artists Pamela Studstill and Susan Shie.

“I’d never seen anything that exciting,” McCain said, adding she went back to see the show every day for three days to absorb it all.

First steps

How many pieces make a collection? If you own more than one art quilt made by someone other than yourself, you may have the beginnings of a collection, even if you don’t yet think of yourself as a collector.

A good starting place is the annual SAQA Benefit Auction, where you can choose from hundreds of 12×12-inch pieces of art. Shirley Neary, an artist and collector from Omaha, Nebraska, has an extensive collection of fiber art, much of which she has purchased from SAQA auctions and exhibitions. “SAQA plays a huge role in my collecting,” Shirley said, explaining she enjoys supporting the organization and is drawn to the high-quality work and reputation of the artists. Carol takes advantage of the fact that the auction quilts are posted on SAQA’s website for several months before the September event. “I preview all the quilts in the auction before it starts, making note of the pieces I respond to viscerally,” she said. She consults those notes as she decides which pieces to bid on.

Michele Hardman, a collector from Illinois, also recommends starting out with the SAQA Benefit Auction. “There is amazing work at all price points,” she said. Other avenues Michele recommends for adding to a fiber art collection are international quilt shows, show and tells at the Professional Art Quilt Alliance, quilt show and exhibition catalogs, the Internet, and magazines.

For Shirley, going to art exhibitions is a key part of the process. “I go to art exhibitions to see lots of art, and occasionally, I buy from those,” she said, noting she collects paintings, drawings, and folk art in addition to fiber. In one instance, she sought out an artist’s studio while traveling and purchased a piece directly.

What to collect

Art quilt collections are as varied as the people who own them. Some have a particular focus, such as Carol’s collection of pieces that are blue and/or have circles in the design. She purchases these artworks for her office/guest room. Michele collects work that appeals to her without an overarching theme. “I know it when I see it,” she said. Laura Krasinski, an artist from Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, enjoys collecting pieces unlike any she makes herself, such as abstract or mixed-media work.

For Shirley, it’s important that the work be something she won’t get tired of looking at. “As an artist, I appreciate the design and workmanship, and more importantly, the ideas, in each piece that I collect,” she said. Collectors generally don’t buy art to match a living room sofa, although some start out with decorating in mind. Collectors of fiber art don’t buy work as an investment.

A collector from the Washington, D.C., area, who prefers to remain anonymous, offers this advice: “Think of your purchase as a piece of beauty that you find enjoyable, that you want to look at many times every day. Think of it as food for your soul.”

Considering space, budget

Most collectors at some point face the issue of space. When Shirley found her collection had expanded beyond space in her home, she opened a storefront showroom in Omaha to exhibit her collection. “I began to collect for my personal enjoyment and support of SAQA,” she said. “Then my purpose evolved to the idea of sharing my collection with Omaha and the surrounding area.”  She operated the showroom for two years before closing it in December 2012 to free up time for other pursuits.

The Washington, D.C., collector advised not worrying too much about space: “You always have more room on your walls, or if necessary, you can take some pieces down and put others up. You will see different aspects of the art when it is in different settings — so move it around.”

Collectors also consider budget. Laura recommends starting by buying small pieces, like fabric postcards or small wall pieces. “For me, such pieces are affordable, and I can always find a place for them on one of my walls.”

When Eleanor came home from that first gallery show, she went to the bank and opened a savings account earmarked for purchasing art. A year later, she was able to return to the gallery to buy her first art quilt. She recommends adding a set amount to an art account each month; soon you’ll have funds to begin, and then, to add to your collection.

Once Carol has created her preview list of SAQA auction pieces, she decides how much she will spend during the auction. Her budget helps her winnow her wish list. Since it’s a reverse auction, the price of each piece starts at $750 and drops each day until pieces are $75 each at the end of the auction week. Waiting for the price to drop involves risk. The work you want may not be available at the price you’d like to pay.

The first year Carol participated in the SAQA auction, she waited until the price dropped to $150, then bought two pieces. Another year, she fell in love with a piece by Albuquerque, New Mexico, artist Betty Busby and decided to buy it early. “For me, making the list based on my initial responses helps keep me focused on the prize, so I don’t jump into the fray of bidding as a competitive sport,” Carol said.

Eleanor lamented that it has become more difficult in recent years to find pieces to buy as galleries have downsized or closed. The SAQA auction allows her to add to her collection of artists whose work she knows and admires and introduces her to artists she isn’t familiar with.

Knowing the artists

Whether to establish a relationship with the artists whose work you collect is a decision that varies by collector. For Michele, getting to know the artists is important. Relationships she has cultivated with artists have led to collaborations and friendships, she said.

Laura agreed. Her collecting process often starts with the artist rather than the work, except for pieces she purchases from the SAQA auction.

“I buy auction pieces that catch my eye,” she said. “When I buy an auction piece, I always want the artist to know I have their artwork. Contacting the artist sometimes starts a new, online relationship.”

Shirley tends not to establish relationships with the artists in her collection. “What I do enjoy is learning about the artist, the work, and the location where the work is done,” she said. “Having a fiber art collection is a joy to me. The process of acquiring it is a joy. As time goes by, it becomes more valuable to me because I remember what I was thinking at the time. It’s like a marker in my artistic  journey, mostly of appreciation these days rather than actual art making.”

Collecting fiber art can be a satisfying experience, whether your aim is to support the art form and the artists who create it, to gain inspiration for your own work, or to decorate your walls. There are pieces to fit every budget available through a variety of venues from the SAQA Benefit Auction to galleries to large exhibitions, such as Quilt National or Art Quilt Elements. Visit venues where fiber art is sold online and in person. Make notes of the pieces that catch your eye and look for common themes, such as color, design elements, texture, and composition. With this information, you will be well on your way to beginning or building a collection of art that speaks to you personally and that you will enjoy living with over time.


Reprinted from the SAQA Journal, Fall 2013, page 30-35

Cindy Grisdela of Reston, Virginia, is a Juried Artist Member of Studio Art Quilt Associates. To see her work, go to