Highlights of the dining room include paintings by Dan Namingha, Tony Abeyta, and Michael Kabotie as well as pottery.
By Gussie Fauntleroy
“I saw your eyes get big,” Betty says to a visitor who has just stepped into the front hall of her home. Betty smiles. She’s used to seeing amazement and pleasure on the faces of guests the first time they walk into the southwestern home she shares with her husband Marvin.
Virtually every square foot of the home’s wall space—in the living room, dining room, every hall, the bedrooms, office, kitchen, even the bathrooms and laundry room—is covered with art. Most of it is contemporary Native American art by such acclaimed artists as Dan Namingha, Allan Houser, Fritz Scholder, Helen Hardin, Tony Abeyta, Michael Kabotie, David Johns, Joe Maktima, Stan Natchez, Clifford Beck, and dozens more.
The master bedroom wall displays three realistic paintings of downtown Gallup, NM, by Navajo artist Laura Shurley Olivas plus recent works by Hopi painter Joe Maktima.
In their 3,000-square-foot home, with art all the way up to the 9- and 12-foot ceilings, the couple at last count had more than 360 works of art on the walls. Another 80 or so pieces of Pueblo pottery grace the shelves, and more than a dozen small sculptures round out the collection.
Intermingled with the North American Indian art are masks andother works by indigenous artists from various countries Marvin and Betty have visited, including Australia, Argentina, Iceland, Ecuador, and Peru. There are even a few paintings by non-Indian southwestern artists on the walls.
This is what happens when a couple collects art not as an investment or for prestige but because they love to live with it: The house gets full. Each new acquisition leads to a round of “musical art,” as Betty and Marvin creatively rearrange to find a place for the new piece. Then, periodically, the couple makes room for more by donating works to museums or giving them to their children. Not a single piece in their collection is stored away; it’s all out to be seen and enjoyed.
The living/family room features artworks by Dan Namingha, N. Scott Momaday, and others as well as rugs, pottery, sculpture, and artifacts.
When Marvin and Betty began collecting Native American art in the early 1980s, they knew little about it except what they liked and didn’t like. Their collecting odyssey began when they came across an article about Chiricahua Apache sculptor Allan Houser in the June 1981 issue of Southwest Art. They liked what they saw. Shortly afterward while driving through New Mexico, they got a firsthand look at Houser’s work at a gallery, which led to the first acquisition in their collection, a small Houser bronze.
Before long they settled in the Southwest and began learning about American Indian art. They spent time, in particular, at the student gallery of the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, where several now-renowned artists were students at the time.
Acrylics by Helen Hardin adorn a curved master bedroom wall; a Richard Hunt mask is featured on the kiva fireplace.
“We began collecting Native American art because we felt we could be personally involved with the art and artists. The Native American art community is relatively small, so we’ve been able to meet most of the artists whose works we’ve collected,” says Marvin as he leads the visitor on an art tour through the house.
Marvin stops in the dining room in front of a large Corn Mother painting by Navajo artist Tony Abeyta. “Part of enjoying this,” Marvin says, smiling, “is that most of the pieces come with a story.”
Just after Abeyta graduated from the IAIA, Marvin and Betty saw a smaller version of a Corn Mother painting at the IAIA student gallery and asked about the artist. They were told he had gone to Italy to study art.
“A few months later the phone rang, and someone said, ‘Hey Marvin, this is Tony! You still want a painting?’ I had to think for a minute to figure out who Tony was,” Marvin recalls, chuckling.
“So Tony came here in a torn T-shirt and torn jeans and said he could do a painting for us.” Marvin asked the young artist how much money he had, and when Abeyta said very little, Marvin volunteered to give him a loan or advance toward the painting. Two weeks later Abeyta brought the painting, and he said, “Be careful, she’s still wet!” Now, 12 years later, Abeyta is an award-winning, internationally acclaimed artist whose paintings command as much as $15,000.
At each stop on the art tour there are more stories. In the front hall, Betty and Marvin recall the time they successfully searched for the Zuni Pueblo home of painter Patrick Sanchez and purchased some of his work. In the master bedroom Marvin talks about seeing figurative paintings by Navajo Laura Shurley Olivas for the first time at the Gallup Intertribal Indian Market and being taken with their similarity to Edward Hopper’s work.
Across the bedroom next to the fireplace is a wall of works by Helen Hardin of Santa Clara Pueblo descent. Betty first became aware of Hardin when she heard the artist give a lecture and saw one of her paintings. “I went home from the lecture feeling overwhelmed by Hardin’s work,” says Betty. “What struck me were the lines, color, patterns, and detail.” The couple bought their first two Hardin paintings at a gallery in 1985, the year after Hardin’s death. Today they have one of the largest private collections of works by the late artist.
The back hall is full of artistic gems small paintings and works on paper. They’re best seen up close, which happens to be the only way to view them in a narrow hall. One small painting has the words Nez-nah written on it, which Marvin and Betty at first thought might have been the artist’s name. So when another Navajo artist, Shonto Begay, was visiting their home once, the couple asked him about the Navajo words.“Means ‘number 10,’” Begay replied. “That’s our mystery artist,” Betty says, laughing.
While the couple clearly has fun building their collection, they are also serious about cataloguing and keeping records of what they own. They photograph each piece and write up information on it and the artist. Marvin and Betty also keep note of each time any of their artists appears in a publication. Shelves of magazines and books in the couple’s office attest to the broad attention earned by the artists whose work they collect.
In almost 20 years of collecting, Betty and Marvin have watched a generation of southwestern American Indian artists mature. At the same time, the collectors themselves have grown in their understanding and appreciation of the art.
“We almost started backward. We started more in the contemporary field, and in the process of that we’ve grown to appreciate the older Indian art as well,” Marvin reflects. “What we really like is discovering new artists. We enjoy going to the markets and finding new, emerging artists—that’s what we look for.”
To those who would like to begin collecting art, the couple has simple, straightforward advice: Purchase what you like. And in Betty and Marvin’s case, it has to be art they both admire; they both have veto power on any potential purchase.
“Go to the markets, meet the artists, decide on the style you like, and buy a little the first time,” Marvin advises. “A lot of it is follow-up: We see work that we like and we say to the artist, ‘Get in touch with us.’”
To be sure of the authenticity and quality of the art, he and Betty concentrate on certain well-known and well-managed markets such as the annual Santa Fe Indian Market, the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Market and smaller markets on the pueblos, and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair in Phoenix.
The collectors’ other primary piece of advice is not to approach buying art as an investment. The art market can be extremely fickle, and collectors rarely are able to market their art in a profitable manner, Marvin says.
“If we collected to make money we’d be broke. We collect because we both enjoy it,” he says. “We started with young artists, with inexpensive art, and with that grew our appreciation for the art.”
The couple also enjoys showing their collection to friends and visitors. Some people, Marvin says with amazement, walk in and hardly seem to notice the art. But most are fascinated, and those with a knowledge of Indian art, in particular, are appreciative viewers.
Betty likes to recount the time the director of a major Indian art museum took the tour of their home. About halfway through, the director turned to Betty and asked, “Can I move in for a week?” Surely it would take at least that long to absorb the depth and quality of this unique collection.
Featured in August 1999