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G-Sync: Making friends with art

Ryan Kortman

Over the years, G-Sync Editorial has looked at our many festivals and community events, and we've discussed the impact of these place-making activities on our local economy. Rarely do we take a moment to think about what it is to collect art. This week, read on for a look at the way one important collection was born.
Over the years, G-Sync Editorial has looked at our many festivals and community events, and we've discussed the impact of these place-making activities on our local economy. We have examined house parties, gallery art shows, special festivals and touring exhibitions that enrich the lives of this community, but rarely do we take a moment to think about what it is to collect art.
Backing up my belief about the importance of looking at our community through the lens of its art collections is an actual art exhibition at one of our cultural centers in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, where a former security guard from the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Ryan Kortman, presents at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) until Feb. 16 "Buying Friends" - one of the finest modern examples and inspirations as to how people can easily welcome art into their lives.
Over the past many months UICA has presented a fascinating (if quiet) positive force devoted to the vision a curator reveals, with many of these exhibitions, from Mary Ann Aitken to the soon-to-close Kirk Newman (closes Feb. 8), focusing on the collections assembled and amassed by individuals who form a living relationship with these artists.
And while each of these other UICA shows is fantastic in its depth of presentation, I really am drawn to Ryan Kortman's collection because of his appetite to build a collection of diverse voices within the contemporary art field, as many of these works present a fresh and personal point of view emerging in art today. Kortman and his wife call Chicago home now but his roots in West Michigan is what makes this collection presentation in Grand Rapids possible – and provides a visual feast for local audiences.
The concept of a local amassing an art collection is nothing new, but the manner by which we start is often the most telling.
For locals Fred and Lena Meijer, collecting art led to growing one of the nation's greatest outdoor sculpture parks, now backed up by the collection they have shared with us at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park.
Another resident whose impact on our local arts culture is felt in her and her husband's devotion to knowing more in their exploring is why the names Miner and Mary Ann Keeler are featured throughout the arts community here.

Both couples over the decades have shared in-depth stories with me about how they started their journey wanting to know more. And, by god, they explored it with an appetite unrivaled today. That is, until I met with Kortman. In my attempt to get into the mind of the collector, Kortman and I sat down to discuss some of the tips and methods he has used to build the collection he has assembled in just over 10 years of buying art.
"I started buying art from those around me right after my time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But you might be shocked as to how I came to secure an artwork," says Kortman.
And he was correct.
"Ten years ago I was thinking of artist Mariano Chavez earlier in the day. I had seen his work at a show but because I was a late adopter of contemporary technology I was not using a cell phone nor did I have a Facebook page to use to easily find people," says Kortman. "But later on the same day, I ran into Chavez on the street…literally, next to his bike as the artist was recovering after being door'd by a vehicle on the Chicago street."
Kortman reconnected with Chavez, exchanged phone numbers, and shortly thereafter purchased one of his first works of art.
Technology may not have been a part of his life then, but it certainly is now; many of the works on display have been secured via many social platforms -- with a major nod to Instagram, where he has connected with many artists as a friend as well as a patron of their art.
Now, if I have lost you -- as no doubt the size and scale of such a collection on display at UICA over two floors seems daunting -- Kortman has a few bits of advice for hopeful collectors based on his own experience that are worth sharing here.
For starters, you often do best when you are starting out to attend BFA and MFA shows where artists are just beginning the next stages of their career paths. For Kortman, this is where his first friendships with artists in the Chicago area were started.  This led to connections in other cities as artists migrated from this incubator of a city to the coasts.
Secondly, and probably above all, it is very important to Kortman "to gravitate to what you like." This is where your focus begins to take hold.
Lastly, by venturing onto the web you are able to see examples of your style and vision take shape, and by expanding your own art education art from the outside, you are in a sense welcoming the local to begin to "converse" next to the international. When we welcome this outside voice, we witness a fresh new depth as it begins to appear.
Kortman's collection provides clues into his personality, and this is what makes this collection really rise above most others I have seen. There is no sense of the "keeping up with the Joneses" at work here even though many of these works are by artists we will no doubt be hearing more and more about in the decades ahead.
Sure, it would be easy to be jaded and think that this collection is a fancy retirement savings account for Kortman. But in fact, when asked if he has had to sell any works to secure one he really wanted, he quickly shoots down this idea; the collection is such a vital part of their home. Recently the couple purchased a condo in Chicago and renovated it to display nearly all of their collection, now just over 100 pieces (80 of which are on display at UICA).
Kortman even encourages folks who might be shy or intimidated about attending a gallery showing to consider making a studio visit appointment to the artist. This is a time-honored way of getting to know an artist and discuss ways to add a piece once thought of off-limits pricewise. In many cases, Kortman has secured a few works of art by asking for a payment plan or forgoing dining out with friends to save the money needed. And he began this journey just over ten years ago when he was 25 years old, so knowing many of his works only cost him $500 - 700 apiece should  dispel the myth that you need millions in order to secure a piece of art you really enjoy.
According to Kortman, buying art is a form of philanthropy. He backs this up by saying that this patronage helps artists live as well as enables them to create more for us to see as they evolve their personal vision.
One of the challenges of being an artist in this region has been that we have been isolated for so long, but this is starting to change. Many artists have passed through here, bringing a change within our region, but our local artists are beginning to understand to venture outside of this region is part of the journey. I think collectors like Kortman remind us to look at what is available to us both locally and nationally. The art-loving public is thirsty to see and experience more.
This is what I really enjoy about Ryan's philosophy of buying art: he connects with the artists and their work first (not relying on what an art futures site tells him to buy), and in doing so, has crafted a personal collection that is just as much of a joy to experience as the collector is in real life. 
So the next time you are at a friend's home, look around -- not at the toys or trappings of consumerism, but at the types of art they elect to bring into their homes. These markers of our time on this planet are telling; no matter how big or small the work of art they choose to display, it is a part of how they view and connect with the art of this life.
The Future Needs All of Us.
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
Want to witness the culture-shifting power of place-making activities firsthand? Visit G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!
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