Are you an artist who wonders what motivates someone to want to own a piece of art? Are you an aspiring art collector curious to gain insight from those who have already taken the leap? WPA tapped some SELECT Gala attendees to find out what types of art interests them, why they buy, and how their art buying habits evolved. 

By Deena O. Hyatt

WPA: How did you initially find out about SELECT / WPA?

Brenda Hanning & Dr. Howard Gadlin: Through Dr. Frederick Ognibene. We quickly learned to share his enthusiasm for WPA.  We have been to all but one auction, I think—and that time we dialed in from out of town to make our bids!

Dr. Jennifer Baxter: I started attending WPA events in 2004 and attended my first gala in 2005. Dr. Fred Ognibene is a long-time friend and mentor - for both art AND medicine. He introduced me to WPA.

Nadine Gabai-Botero: The first WPA show I attended was Options back in 1993 or 94. In 1995, I started working for WPA as Development Director and attended my first auction that fall.

Jennifer Motruk: I worked as the program coordinator for WPA\C for a year in 1999 and was actually the auction coordinator as well. We had a skeleton staff back then (just three of us and an auction committee) to execute the whole thing. Back then we went with big themes of different sorts. That year the auction was called FAST FORWARD and it was held at the Corcoran in the upper galleries. It was huge, over 300 works of art. And, it was the first year we did table centerpieces. I've been to just about every auction since then, give or take one or two. I still have all the auction catalogues.

WPA's OPTIONS 2013 at Arlington Arts Center Colette Veasey-Cullors work at WPA's OPTIONS 2013

WPA: What was the first piece you acquired at the WPA annual art auction gala? Why were you inspired to buy it?

Brenda Hanning & Dr. Howard Gadlin: A Noelle Tan photograph, almost entirely black, velvety, that leant itself to a process of discovery.  As you stare at it, the subject emerges from the shadows.

Dr. Jennifer Baxter: Crisley McCarson's "Dance of the Bumble Bee" at the 2005 Auction.  It's a bright, exuberant, mixed-media piece, which has so much movement.  It spoke to me the evening of the auction, and has been doing so ever since.  It makes me smile every time I look at it.

Philippa Hughes: The first piece I ever bought at the WPA auction was a work by Hedieh Ilchi entitled “You’re Way Isn’t My Way.” I first saw her work in the MFA student show at the American University and was completely stunned by its beauty and depth. The details were incredible, there was so much to explore in her works, and I loved the way she mixed together different cultural images from her native Iran with American iconography. I remember just standing around her works for a long time and staring at it. I don’t know why I didn’t buy a piece on the spot but when I saw her work again at the WPA auction, I basically hovered over it until I won it in a stand off with another admirer of her work.

Nadine Gabai-Botero: We bought a photo by Natalie Cheung about six years ago. We just loved the piece, and knew exactly where we wanted to put it in our house! It was also great to talk to her in person at the Auction and hear her explain how she created it.

“You’re Way Isn’t My Way,” Hedieh Ilchi “Your Way Isn’t My Way,”
Hedieh Ilchi
Acrylic on Mylar,
31 x 20 in, 2011

WPA: What types of art are you typically drawn to?

Brenda Hanning & Dr. Howard Gadlin: Complex pieces that are visually or intellectually challenging, edgy pieces.  You need to continue to see new aspects of the work, over time.

Philippa Hughes: As I look around the room at the works that are hanging on my walls, I see paintings, photographs, skateboard decks, murals, and sculpture. There is no one medium to which I am drawn. However, all these works have a couple things in common: strong visual impact whether through bold color or imagery (not subtle or minimalist at all!) and they tell some sort of story.

Dr. Jennifer Baxter:  I am often drawn to big, bright, abstract pieces, although by no means exclusively.

Nadine Gabai-Botero: I tend to like more abstract pieces. I'm particularly drawn to a work that I know something about how it was made, the meaning behind the piece, etc.

Jennifer Motruk: I like a bit of everything – representational and abstract, all contemporary, drawings, paintings, photos, mixed media, sculpture.  

WPA: Do you consider yourself an art collector? It so, when and how did you start collecting? 

Brenda Hanning & Dr. Howard Gadlin: We like art.  We do collect it.  But “collector” implies an intentionality that we don’t have.

Dr. Jennifer Baxter: I enjoy looking at and displaying art.  I enjoy picking out pieces that resonate.  I am especially drawn to pieces in which artists have used their medium in an unusual way - stretching its limits.  Yet, I have very little formal training in art, so I hesitate to use the title of "collector."Much like a home cook can become quite accomplished in the kitchen, but that does not make them a chef!

Philippa Hughes: Sign of an art collector: you keep buying art even when you don’t have wall space for it. I had the bathtub taken out of my second bathroom and replaced with art storage racks to accommodate my growing collection. The racks are now filled up and yet I keep buying art.

Another sign of an art collector: I now have so much art that I occasionally rotate the works on my walls. I like being able to change everything every once in a while because it gives me a whole new perspective on the works when I see them in different places and it’s almost like getting new art every time I rehang something that I haven’t seen in a couple years.

I’ve collected art since I was in high school when I bought things that were affordable, like small works on paper, and editioned works. I also often bought small pieces from places I had travelled, typically folk art or native art, as souvenirs that weren’t just the usual touristy tchotchkes. As I grew professionally and my income grew, I started buying larger and more expensive works. But I have always been interested in discovering young, emerging artists, so my collection is a mixture of works by more established artists and works by street artists and everything in between.

Jennifer Motruk: I do – it started when I worked as the director of programming and facilities at the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City, MD. I worked directly with studio artists, instructors, and we had three gallery spaces that I was responsible for coordinating. I received art as gifts from some artists. I purchased what I liked on a very, very modest nonprofit salary, and it just grew and grew from there. When I was at WPA\C, I got the opportunity to preview work / install it / get to know the artists so I put claims on works early on and grew connections with gallerists and consultants from there.

Artist Caitlin Teal Price looking at the art work, SELECT 2012 Artist Caitlin Teal Price looking at the art work during the SELECT Gala 2012

WPA: Are you ever interested in getting to know the artist behind the work you’ve bought? If so, did you ever get to meet an artist whose work you purchased?

Brenda Hanning & Dr. Howard Gadlin:  Yes, always.  Whenever possible.  This is one of the most rewarding aspects of “collecting.”

Dr. Jennifer Baxter: Generally, no.  But I happened to meet Carol Brown Goldberg outside of the art world recently.  It was a lot of fun to meet this dynamic artist, having enjoyed her piece from the 2012 auction!

Philippa Hughes: It’s very important to me to know the artists behind the works that I own. In fact, meeting the artist of a work that I am considering purchasing -- and liking what he or she has to say about it --often convinces me to buy the work. A few of the artists whose works I own have become close friends. For example, I have known Cory Oberndorfer since he first moved to DC. I have been the object of an art prank instigated by another artist friend, Jeffry Cudlin I have donned roller skates on his behalf and been christened with a Roller Derby name by him (Pink Minx!), and I have let him paint all over the walls of my condo.

Jennifer Motruk : I am interested in knowing the artists – not necessarily getting really close with them, but to know who they are. It is important to know their work. For whatever it's worth, it's nice for them to know that I appreciate their work. I have met many of the artists that are in my collection, some purposefully, and some by chance, which is always fun.

_MG_2961 SELECT Gala 2013 


WPA: Did attending SELECT inspire you to engage more deeply in contemporary art? Do you go to a lot of exhibitions, if so, what kind?

Brenda Hanning & Dr. Howard Gadlin: Yes.  We go to the galleries whose artists are featured in the auction.  And when we travel, we always include visits to galleries and museums in that area.

Dr. Jennifer Baxter: With a busy personal and professional life outside of the art world, I have limited time to engage in contemporary art.  I rely on the WPA and Select curators to bring a wide variety of artists together.  Every year, I am awed by the range of artists and expression that becomes the Select auction.

Jennifer Motruk Loy: Yes, attending WPA auctions did provide some inspiration, but I was already pretty driven to engage in contemporary art in whatever ways I could, including attending exhibitions of all kinds. Once you're connected to an artist, you get on their mailing list (I still have postcards from hundreds of shows!!) and you get to know the spaces and follow the calendars and shows. I don't get to a lot of exhibitions these days, but to keep my art history eye sharpened, I rely on a mix of art spaces, commercial galleries, and other types of events where there is art.    


WPA: What’s your process for choosing art? Is it more of a methodical decision based on what would go with what you already have -- or more of an intuition, or even an impulsive decision?

Brenda Hanning & Dr. Howard Gadlin: A combination of impulse and discussion, with a large dose of intuition.  It’s surprising how our individual tastes have converged over the years.

Dr. Jennifer Baxter: It is intuitive. I do my homework about an artist or a piece. I preview all of the Select pieces in person or online prior to the auction.  But I make my decision standing in front of a piece.

Philippa Hughes: I don’t have a method to my art buying madness. The process is mostly emotional for me. I can walk around and see lots of works I like, but every once in a while, something grabs me and I can’t shake it and when I am still thinking about it long after I’ve seen it, then I know I have to go back and consider adding it to my collection. So the process for me is mostly emotional because I am not building an art collection as an investment. I am building an art collection that is for my pure pleasure. However, if I am considering buying something a little more expensive, then I will absolutely look at the artist’s credentials and consider a few things like whether it appears that the artist is serious about pursuing a career as an artist. I want to support working artists with my purchases so I want to see them growing as artists and my hope is that my purchase will help them along the way.

Nadine Gabai-Botero: I’d say a bit of both. Sometimes you go in looking for a particular type of work, but other times you just connect with a piece and feel like you have to have it.

Jennifer Motruk: I'm really an impulse and spontaneous collector. The older I get, the more consideration I make, but typically it's been on the spot – I am drawn to it – I really like it – it works with the other works in my collection – I WANT to live with the piece. Out comes the checkbook.

WPA: What compels you to take the jump from liking a piece to buying it?

Brenda Hanning & Dr. Howard Gadlin: We buy a piece when we can imagine viewing it over and over again.

Jennifer Motruk: Oh, I always want to buy something! The tipping point for me is usually the artist and the price – I'm a collector, but a modest one, in terms of overall collection value and my annual art spend, but if I like it enough, there are ways to purchase it – galleries and artists are always willing to work with you. (at least that's been my fortunate experience)  

WPA: Are there any pieces that you just can't stop looking at?

Brenda Hanning & Dr. Howard Gadlin: A photograph by the Starns twins (acquired at the third WPA auction), and Erik Sandberg’s work (he is represented by Connersmith).

Dr. Jennifer Baxter: Robin Braun's "Wave, Sea and Sky 2006" - acquired at the 2008 auction.  It is a moody, contemplative and realistic seascape.  I can get lost in it.

Jennifer Motruk:  My Colby Caldwell - 'How to Survive Your Own Death" piece – it was the biggest (size) and most valuable piece of work I've purchased (until this year). It meant so much to me that I'd earned it, had a great relationship with Hemphill and it has provided me with hours of introspection and meditation. I also really love a painting I have by Marc Denis that is highly realistic and just a really beautiful work.

Robin Braun, Wave, Sea and Sky, 2006  Oil on homemade gesso on Masonite | 24" × 24” Robin Braun, Wave, Sea and Sky, 2006
Oil on homemade gesso on Masonite | 24" × 24”

WPA: Any advice for art lovers who are just getting started with a collection?

Brenda Hanning & Dr. Howard Gadlin:  Look at a broad range of art, then see what you keep coming back to.

Dr. Jennifer Baxter: Buy pieces that you love. Don't worry if it will "match" - if it's a beautiful piece, it will fit somewhere. Support young artists, early in their career.

Philippa Hughes: Before you buy a single piece of art, look at a LOT of art. Go to museum shows, art galleries of all types and sizes, artist studios, art fairs, art auctions, and anywhere else there is art. Simply by looking at art, you start to train your eye to see things that you didn’t see before. And you start to figure out what you like and don’t like. Pay attention to your internal responses to different works that you’re seeing. Better to buy one expensive thing that you love that is amazing, rather than several less expensive things that you don’t love and are merely affordable. Don’t buy art just to fill up empty wall space. Wait for the right piece to come along. Never buy art to match your décor. Don’t worry what anyone thinks about your choices.

Nadine Gabai-Botero: Yes. Just jump in. Buy something small, or something you’re personally connected to, but just buy something.

Jennifer Motruk: Take seminars; talk to gallerists; see art everywhere, and depending on the budget, work with a consultant or gallerist directly to refine your taste, hone your vision and build a collection that you will want to live with forever. If your ambitions are higher, for investment purposes, you definitely need a consultant.


Meet more art lovers and be there when the bidding goes down on March 22 at SELECT 2014: WPA’s 33rd Silent Auction Exhibition and Gala from 7-11pm at Artisphere.

Find out more about the artwork, curators, event details and buy tickets for the gala here:




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February 20, 2014