How to Build a Serious Art Collection with a Small Budget and Turn an Inner City Community College Campus into an Educational Art Museum

In five years, at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, we acquired about 730 art works–500 by donation–and turned the college into an art museum, with permanent galleries of fine original art by major and emerging New Jersey and American Artists in every building’s public areas. You should do this too, because the pedagogical implications of a college art collection are significant. Students exposed to art do better in college. Research shows that fine art does the greatest good for learners coming from situations with the greatest cultural/financial deficit. In our communities, our students often have great resilience and intelligence. Art provides students with needed exposure to American mainstream culture, something most have not experienced before entering our campus. “Cultural capital” can be a vital tool for upward mobility.

How to build a serious art collection on a low budget for an inner city under-funded community college? Donors built every great American public art collection. The Met had J.P. Morgan. The National Gallery had Mellon. Few people realize that progress almost happened ONE DONOR AT A TIME. At your school, start with the Foundation Board and Development office. Find ONE Foundation Board member, or College Trustee interested in art. This person can be your sounding board, and help you make a master plan. This person has opportunities to ask wealthy people for money or art. Find trustee names on the college website. Google each name with the word “art,” and you’ll find your collaborator when you see who collects.

He or she can persuade the President about the low cost and high prestige value of an art collection. Our president, an English antiques collector himself, came up with the idea of turning our college public areas into an educational art museum. Talk to your board member about the research that shows improved college performance, especially among low income students, when art is present. Have your ally ask the college board of trustees AND the foundation board to match each dollar donation. Get a banker on the board to write a grant to a local community-minded bank or a large organization for seed funding. Get on the grants elist from your county cultural arts representative. Let your art department know about the prospect. Widen your net wider to include humanities, social science, science and other faculty as you find art that is relevant to their disciplines.

Faculty and/or staff members will know collectors. Contact your senators and congressperson’s offices to ask about arts-related matters, funding and projects. Be upfront with college leadership and Boards (even though no one will believe you) that your biggest expense is framing and installing materials. This requires your explaining to powerful people who are not art savvy why you can’t buy frames at Target. Installing with archival materials, often costs more than your prestige works by major American artists. You can train maintenance staff to install art works or do it yourself, but it still costs to frame it right

Urban areas have an arts “scene” and a concentration of artists and art buyers. Your underfunded college may be in a neighborhood with many artists because rents are so affordable. With the OK from your school, design and distribute a flyer that describes the scope and nature of the project (email me for ours). Get a basic how-to-donate-art website together (ours is at . Then you have materials to share with prospective donors and local press.

Your school is a good place to form an art collection because of the obvious need and potential for doing the greatest good. This appeals to philanthropically-minded art collectors who have a problem: too much stuff. You have the solution: a tax deduction for donated work. Their names should always be acknowledged as donors on the placard next to the work in addition to a well-earned a public thank you in the college newsletter. As your mom taught you, your most powerful tool is a prompt, professional, well-written thank you note on college letterhead that includes data that the IRS needs to give the person the tax deduction. (Never appraise a donation. That conflict of interest is not acceptable to the IRS. Appraisals are the donor’s responsibility.) Courtesy opens doors to unbelievable generosity.

What art should you buy with your tiny budget? Important artists’ works are your job to track down and purchase. Big names attract small ones, and FEW people know the prestige difference between a painting and an authentic limited edition print. Both are valid teaching tools for students and provide benefit. You can buy minor authentic works by major American artists for a few hundred dollars, sometimes less, if you are shrewd. For example, I paid thirty-six dollars for a limited-edition work by Roy Lichtenstein. Affordable, prestige work is out there, at auctions, art fairs, galleries, anywhere you can inspect work and verify condition and authenticity prior to purchase.   Your community will then find it easy to donate works by local artists.

Once you get a few pieces, how do you get them up on the wall? The hardware to bolt a work of art to the wall costs about a dollar. Good places to install art are corridors where security cameras are present. A plexiglas box bolted to the wall around a work of art is such a deterrent that, at worst, I’ve seen a soda bottle or a cigarette butt on top of the box. (Boxes are expensive. You’ll need College Foundation and/or Board of Trustees support for this part of the project.) Students like to look at stuff. Turn an institutional looking corridor into one full of images and ideas, and you’ll more likely have inspired students, than students who want to vandalize.

Educational placards are cheap. Order plexiglas rectangles with finished edges by the hundreds in the size you want, instruct the fabricator to pre-drill a hole in each of the four corners, and you can print out placards from your office computer. Get brads from Home Depot. If your college Communications office is on board with the program, they can generate placard data typeset. It’s inexpensive & elegant. An under- utilized librarian can write placards, as can a trained workstudy student.

You have infrastructure! Inner city colleges have pre-existing security forces and programs that are, by necessity, often superior to security provided by their more wealthy suburban siblings. Art gets installed (out of direct sunlight) at entrances of buildings with security present. Posting prestige pieces at the front desk means everyone who exits and enters sees the work. Your most valuable art can have full-time guards, just like the great museums’

How does this collection make art history stronger and more sustainable? Daily, each of our nearly 9,000 students encounter works by major American artists. For many, this is the first art they’ve seen. All public areas of our 12+ campus buildings have art installed with educational placards. Response from students has been outstanding. We now host a well-attended biannual artist talk series, where artists, curators and experts talk about their work. We now have Foundation student art awards for students who show exceptional promise in the fine arts. Our arts students are going on to four-year colleges to learn to use their skills in the marketplace, as illustrators, graphic designers, and even tattoo artists.

(c) 2015 Andrea Lynn Siegel, PhD. All rights reserved.

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