As an artist, Mickalene Thomas challenges entrenched hierarchies in the art world. As a collector, she does the same. Her own collages, installations, photographs, videos, and paintings—intricate acrylic, enamel, and rhinestone pieces for which she is best known—turn art history on its head and spotlight women, people of color, and queer identities. A similar line runs through the creators with whose art she surrounds herself.
Although Thomas is now a cultural powerhouse, her work is in world-class collections like MoMA and the Guggenheim; she has received numerous grants and awards; and she counts Solange among her collaborators—her collecting journey began more humbly, exchanging pieces with other artists. Her profile and collection continued to grow, and the latter now includes artists of varying degrees of star power but sharing a similar commitment to expanding the visibility of traditionally underrepresented communities: Kehinde Wiley, Wangechi Mutu, Joiri Minaya and many more others.
Artsy recently caught up with Thomas to talk about how she discovers art that inspires her, how she builds relationships with galleries, and how collecting can be an important way of shaping art market dynamics.
Can you describe your collection in one sentence or less?
My collection consists of a diverse group of female artists, African American and/or LGBTQIA+.
Why did you start collecting art?
My collection started early in my career. I started swapping art with other artists like Wangechi Mutu, Deborah Grant, Louis Cameron, Derrick Adams and Kehinde Wiley. Then I started buying works on paper and photographs by artists like Malick Sidibé, Barkley L. Hendricks and Kerry James Marshall. The very first paintings I bought were by Angel Otero, Huma Bhabha, Arlene Shechet and Leslie Hewitt.
What is one piece that you own that people are often drawn to or are asked about frequently?
My most recent purchase, which others are often attracted to, is a sculpture by Leilah Babirye, Namubiru of the Kuchu Mamba (Lungfish) clan (2021). Leilah Babirye is a Ugandan-American artist who works with found materials in sculpture to explore ideas of queerness, identity, history and human rights.
Can you tell us about an artist you discovered through Artsy?
Joiri Minaya is a multidisciplinary artist whose work examines the female body within identity constructions, multicultural social spaces, and hierarchies. She works in digital media and video, performance, sculpture, textiles and painting and is influenced by her Dominican heritage.
Can you tell us about a piece you recently purchased from Artsy?
I regularly support museums and other institutions that use the Artsy platform. I recently acquired a mixed media work from Abigail DeVille in support of the Bronx Museum’s 50th Anniversary, who collaborated with Artsy for their virtual auction. It’s exciting to see that artists like Abigail have the opportunity to reach a wider audience through online platforms like Artsy.
What is your collection process like?
I just buy art that I love and that inspires me. I buy art that I want to be with and that makes me feel good and gives me positive attitude – art that shows passion and love.
What is the biggest challenge you face as an art collector? how did you overcome it
Sometimes I see art that I want to buy but can’t pay for. However, when I really resonate with a work on a deep and profound level, I invest in collecting because I feel it is a worthy investment for myself and for the artist.
How do you build relationships with galleries?
I develop relationships with galleries over a long period of time, as well as with the collectors who frequent them. These are places and people who have seen my work and believe in it and are now interested in their market. I want galleries I work with to understand that I am a partner in the relationship and not just the artist. We play an essential role in the art market.
When deciding whether or not to buy an artist’s work, what are the most important pieces of information to help you make that decision?
I don’t collect by popularity; I’m always looking for artistic work that speaks to me. In this sense, I look to see if the art itself appeals to me personally. My collection is not a monolith and contains many types of art.
What do you enjoy most about being a collector?
I enjoy supporting other artists and creating new opportunities for artists’ work to find its way into collections. The institution of collecting can be a powerful tool to change the dynamics of the art market, be it between the artist and the collector or between the artist and the gallery.