A Patron Though Poor

In Collecting Art, Clint Boelsche Supports Artists

I am the friend of the artist.
I must be available from the beginning to the end.
I offer my spiritual, empathetical, and financial support.
I work for them as they work for me.
And may their creations make our earth a better world.

-- Clint Boelsche

The most recent issue of ARTnews, a national art magazine, devotes itself almost entirely to art collectors. Color photographs of stylish men and women living in well-appointed apartments fill the pages. They all look very "uptown." Clint Boelsche of Austin looks, well, sort of "downtown" -- downtown-Austin-south-of-Town-Lake. He keeps his blond-brown hair at a disorderly shoulder length and tends to dress his slim, compact body in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals. The man appears pretty ordinary compared to those folks in the magazine, and yet he is a serious art collector, no less obsessed (if considerably less well-heeled) than the men and women who appear in ARTnews. Mummy and Daddy didn't give him his first David Hockney print to start him on his way. His name doesn't appear on museum board lists, and his small home isn't likely to appear on the cover of an art magazine. But his commitment to the arts runs deep. "I paint cars for a living," he says, "but my real job is to collect art."

photograph by Bruce Dye

From June 26 through August 2, selections from Clint Boelsche's collection were on exhibit at St. Stephen's School in the Helms Fine Arts Center's gallery. Curator Chuck Cooper chose only Texas artists for this particular show, although Clint Boelsche is also justifiably proud of the work he owns by internationally recognized artists Miriam Shapiro, Liliana Porter, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (a Montana-born Native American artist whose work is currently featured in an exhibition at the Austin Museum of Art at 823 Congress). He aggressively collects paintings, works on paper, and constructions by women of color. His purpose, he says, is to find out the stories that are behind the art and make them available through the collection. It's all about "transmitting culture" for this collector who speaks of his quest with quiet missionary zeal. "What I look for from women of color is to be taught by them [about their culture]." His preoccupation with the ability of art to change society permeates our discussion. His intuitive attraction to art and his willingness to back up that intuition with a consistent acquisition program boggle the mind. Boelsche's fine eye and his commitment to buying art, even when purchases threaten his marginal lifestyle, set him apart. Even his family, he says, is at a loss to explain his obsession with art. None of them attended the opening of the show at St. Stephen's.

Born 44 years ago, Boelsche grew up mostly in Austin. He spent a little time in college in Nacogdoches, then returned to Austin, where he has lived in the same house since 1980. In 1984, he divorced, which freed him up, he says, to spend whatever money he made in whatever way he saw fit. A year later, he decided to spend his money on art and committed himself to building a collection of work by 100 different artists over the next 131/2 years. He imagined spending an average of $1,000 on each work. So far, he says, he's pretty close to his goal, with some 75 artists in the collection (some represented by multiple works). This arts supporter rarely pays for anything outright, managing instead to schedule small payments over time to art dealers and artists across the state with whom he does business and to the New York gallery through which he has purchased work over the years. He says he can remember only one month since 1985 when he didn't owe somebody something; his combined monthly payments usually total $600-700. He says he's never missed one, although for a couple of years he let his health insurance lapse. Occasionally, he skimps on meals. "I am living proof that marginally poor people can collect art," he said to me the first time we spoke.

Inside Boelsche's home, in the dimly lit room next to the kitchen, sits much of the work this man has spent the last 13 years collecting. Even with 25 pieces out of the house, the room is filled with things to see, a hard task given the absence of good light. I nearly miss the Howard Finster in the corner. The most spectacular works in the room -- in an understated way, of course -- are little white flannel pajamas by Mike Montero that lay on the cluttered table, clipped to hangers. He found them in Montero's masters thesis show at UT. The pajamas are patterned with tiny guns and syringes, naked women and dollar bills, instead of cowboys and Indians or Mickey and Donald. They remind me of another work in Boelsche's collection: Charles Hancock's "Baby's First Blanket," a small pink coverlet with a pink satin binding and guns printed all over. He obviously has an interest in things that are and aren't appropriate for children.

The window in the living room is draped with an old Disney bedsheet. On the floor, along almost every wall, are children's toys found at Goodwill or rescued from his own childhood. Much of the furniture in the room was also rescued from Goodwill, including an astonishing free-standing ashtray with a glass orb, near the base, filled with red plastic roses. A red glass bowl on a nearby table holds a dozen gold pecans that Boelsche painted for Regina Vater to use in an installation. She was going to hand-paint hundreds of pecans herself, but Boelsche insisted that his professional skills might make the job go faster. He works at the Austin Body Shop. When, with a 9-to-5 job and another part-time job, does he find time to go to art galleries and artists' studios and exhibitions in museums and non-profit spaces? "I make that time," he says emphatically.

For Boelsche, it is through looking at art that he absorbs most of his information about art. He has bought work not only from auctions, but from exhibitions at Mexic-Arte and Women & Their Work and museums in Austin and San Antonio. To his credit, the collector follows artists' careers, watching and waiting for the particular piece that speaks to him. Unfortunately, by relying primarily on seeing work first-hand, his access to new information is bound by limited opportunities to travel outside of Austin. He favors The New York Times' coverage of the arts to that in art magazines and prefers reading resumés provided by galleries to tomes on aesthetics. Above all, he learns from talking to artists.

"I enjoy interacting socially [with artists]," Boelsche says. "I believe you have to do that." A number of the works on paper that he owns are dedicated to him. He pulls a thick stack of letters out of a drawer in the living room and begins reading through them. All are from artists whose work he has purchased, in whom he has shown an interest. They range from Judy Chicago to a local woman who writes, "You hold the honor of being my first benefactor." It is this correspondence as much as the art itself, I believe, that motivate this collector. While some collectors clearly show no interest in -- or actively resist -- getting to know artists, Boelsche seeks them out to offer advice and encouragement. "It was her time...," he says repeatedly, trying to explain what has moved him to buy a trompe l'oeil ceramic sculpture by Ginger Geyer that he saw at the ACAGallery@ArtPlex. One might suspect that the wily collector simply anticipated that it was good time to buy before the artist was "discovered" at an upcoming gallery exhibition in Washington D.C., and prices rose. But Boelsche sees himself as a true patron of the arts, seeking to lend his support to deserving artists when they most need reassurance. There is no sign that this collector regards himself as an investor, looking to make the right financial move. He is as likely to buy work by lesser-known artists as established ones, unapologetically trusting his own eye, trusting his gut. He buys often, and often buys well, as his tiny house, filled with paintings and objects, testifies. "I had no idea it would be like this," he says, gesturing around him. "It [collecting art] has paid me back by the good fortune of the people I know."

If Boelsche were of a mind to sell off some of the work -- which he isn't -- his passion for collecting might pay him back in other ways. His three small Melissa Miller acrylic paintings on paper are stunning; one, Black Demon, was shown at the Corcoran Gallery in 1994. The San Antonio Museum exhibited String of Pearls, a piece by Houston artist Rachel Renta which is in Boelsche's collection. One of his Lance Letcher sculptures -- an untitled child-size wheelchair -- was mentioned in ARTnews. Letcher's marble sculpture depicting the arm of a small child resting on a round wooden table is equally breathtaking. In most cases, Boelsche not only selects work by significant regional artists, he selects solid work by each artist. This is the first rule for serious collectors: Buy the best work you can afford by any artist rather than inferior work by better-known artists.

Clint Boelsche's favorite works of art hang in the entryway of his house; they haven't been exhibited in museums and galleries. Six small, naïve paintings of faces and flowers and landscapes are displayed together, the first things you see when you walk in the door. They caught Texas First Lady Laura Bush's eye when El Paso art dealer Adair Margot took her to Boelsche's house to see his extensive collection. The artist is Clint's great-grandmother, and Mrs. Bush agreed that the work was her favorite, too. So Clint gave her one of his great-grandmother's flower paintings. Her thank you note, included in his packet of correspondence from artists, says that the picture now hangs in her peach-colored dressing room in the mansion. Clint is delighted.

He is no less delighted when a little-known artist whose work he has discovered at the Dougherty Center returns his call. It appears, listening in on his end of the conversation, that the woman is confused about what he wants from her. "I'm looking for women of color artists, and I saw your work at the Dougherty," he explains. "The reason I called was I wanted to buy one of your pieces."

He slips on his half-glasses so he can read the notes he's made on the exhibition checklist and plays with a blue pen in his mouth. "I feel it's very important as a collector to back artists. I'm interested in knowledge passed through the collection, assimilated out... ideas and cultures being transmitted through the art."

His words are a little awkward, but his voice is gentle. It seems he is winning her trust. I wonder if those ARTnews collectors are ever as solicitous to the artists whose work they hang in their fancy New York apartments.

"You go create me a mask," he tells the woman finally. "I would appreciate it immensely."

Next: The Collection of Philip Dempsey.

Rebecca S. Cohen is an arts writer and recovering art dealer.

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