Collector has more art than money

July 17, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Al Meyers has at least two strikes against him as an art collector. One, he doesn't have a lot of money. And two, he's colorblind.

But he hasn't let either of those things stop him. Since moving to Baltimore 13 years ago, he has put together a collection of about 200 works of art. The art he buys is mainly by emerging local artists -- 90 percent of them women -- and costs in the $200 to $300 range.

Recently, in addition to collecting, he started having shows of parts of his collection at his apartment to give the artists some exposure.

"He's like a patron saint, and artists should have more of them," says gallery owner Walter Gomez, one of the people from whom Mr. Meyers buys art. "To anybody starting to collect he's a great example. The beauty of collecting is not necessarily in collecting names, but in falling in love with a piece that you can afford."

Ruth Channing Middleman, one of Mr. Meyers' favorite artists and a friend as well, agrees. "I wish they were all like Al because he buys what he loves. He's not one of those people who have to be investing in the work."

Mr. Meyers, 51, a systems analyst at Morgan State University whose other interests include music and cooking, shudders at the thought of buying art for investment. "I've never thought of making money out of it. That would ruin it for me. I just love living in my own little museum, with art, records and books."

"He lives and breathes art and culture, and it's wonderful," says Jimmy Rouse, owner of Louie's Book Store and Cafe in downtown Baltimore, a favorite haunt of Mr. Meyers -- and one from which he has bought numerous works of art.

Mr. Rouse thinks Mr. Meyers offers a lesson for potential collectors. "You don't have to spend $1,000 to but a piece of very good art, and particularly in Baltimore. I's a great city for attracting artists to work in, but there's not a large market here. It's not a wealthy city, and there are not as many opportunities for these artist to show -- not as many galleries or outlets."

Mr. Meyers, in person open and unpretentious, lives very simply in an unremarkable downtown apartment house, where his rooms proclaim both his love of art and his limited means.

In the center of his "living room" is a small rectangular kitchen table with a white top, on which he can go through his boxes of carefully kept prints, photographs and drawings, kept on another table nearby. At the open window, a fan brings air into the un-air-conditioned room, its drone all but drowned out by the sounds of traffic outside. There are no chairs, but there are pictures on the walls.

In the center of the "dining room" is a slightly larger, round kitchen table. When Mr. Meyers has a visitor, he gets a couple of folding chairs out of a corner. That's it for the dining room. Except, of course, for the art.

While the rooms are almost bare of furniture, the walls are crowded with art by Ms. Middleman, Carole Jean Bertsch, Susan Henderson, Joanne Goshen, Mercedes Linton, Lisa Hillman, Mia Lyren, Cathy Leaycraft, Anne Jones, Ruth Pettus and many others.

Mr. Meyers says he doesn't know how much he spends for art. "And I don't know if I'd want to tell you if I did. Really, I budget everything else and what's left over goes for art. It's all my vices rolled into one. I don't gamble or smoke or play the horses. I'm always telling other people that you can get really nice stuff for $200 or $300 and less. Really nice stuff."

Collecting isn't heroic or philanthropic to Mr. Meyers; it's an activity from which he gets more than he gives. "It's such a great thing to live surrounded by art. It's the same as listening to music; blank walls would be like not having a radio or records. It's an aesthetic thing of wanting something beautiful near."

In the right place

Originally from Illinois, he moved to Baltimore in 1981. Recently divorced at the time, he had a job and an apartment downtown. His walk between the two took him through the Charles Street gallery area, which reinforced a long-standing interest. "I was always interested in reading about art and going to museums, but I didn't pursue being an artist. I was drawn to representational art by Klee, de Chirico, Modigliani and others.

"A great love all my childhood and adult life has been 20th-century music," he continues, noting that he also collects records and CDs. "I wanted to become a composer, and have always been interested in the interaction between 20th-century art and music."

So collecting art came naturally. "I had early exposure to seeing art I could afford, and made some friends among artists. The first picture I bought was for $54 by Cathy Leaycraft, and the second was for $75, by Anne Jones. I still have them both." Leaycraft and Jones have become two of his favorite artists.

Mr. Meyers' interest is in representational work, with an emphasis on the human figure. Most of the work is contemporary, though he also has some 19th-century work.

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