Beyond the Bio is a series that takes you past the canvas and into the minds of the artists and curators who build the contemporary arts community.

Collectors Joel & Elisa Sumner will be featured at grayDUCK Gallery’s upcoming exhibit, Collectors Show. Join Art Alliance Austin for an exclusive preview of this show, including conversation with the collectors moderated by gallery owner, Jill Schroeder, on May 17th as a part of our Austin Art Break series. RSVP to rsvp@artallianceaustin.org

Tell us about your collection.

We bought our first piece of art in 2003 in Austin and our collection has slowly been growing since that point – to somewhere around 150 paintings, sculptures, and other objects. Most were purchased from artists or galleries in Austin. We like contemporary work that is layered and challenging but still approachable. We like work where we’ve met the artist and gotten to know more about the context and motivation for their work. We have access to fantastic artists in the Austin area so we rarely need (or want) to look elsewhere. It feels better to us making that local connection. Calling it a “collection” is still a little strange to us. Others started calling us collectors long before we considered ourselves that way. We’ve always seen ourselves as just passionate about art and artists.

When (where) did you start collecting? Was there something specific that caught your eye about the piece that started it all?

In 2003, Elisa was working for Dell and decided she wanted to use her bonus on a piece of original art. We got it from Brian Joseph, who had his own studio on 6th street at the time. He had made t-shirts for our children’s school to sell for fundraising. It was our second time in his store and he remembered us. He was happy we had come back after we told him we would and offered us a discount on the painting. He was so sweet and friendly and helped us find something we liked and he put it in a beautiful frame. We were so excited to bring it home and put it above the mantle where there happened to be a nice light already installed. We purchased our second piece 6 months later at EAST, again directly from the artist and again from someone in Austin. We loved that Daniel Burns had created a beautiful, fiery piece of art out of the Intel Shell, which was our favorite place to park when heading downtown to see music, usually at the old Antone’s. Unlike most people, we cried when they tore down the building from the significance that place had to us. That was an indication of what our collection would become.

How do you choose the artworks that you purchase?

We usually have a pretty immediate reaction to the subject, the technique, the emotional content, or all 3. We like art that can be difficult or painful to look at. We like art that accomplishes the artist’s goal simply. The two of us gravitate toward different areas – Elisa leans more toward figures and Joel a bit more toward abstract. We mostly choose original paintings or sculpture and rarely purchase photographs unless they use interesting techniques that are more abstract than representational. Sometimes we have a social relationship with an artist whose work is interesting to us but hasn’t hit that level, and then they make an adjustment that pushes their work over the top for us.

We commonly find out about new artists from the connections we have in the community or from other artists. Many artists generously tell us who they like and respect. The wonderful thing about the Austin arts community is that everyone is so eager to share what they think is cool or interesting.

Early on, every piece was a discussion. The first few East Austin Studio Tours, we would wait until the end of the day and discuss all of the things we saw and decide on “the one”. To this day, the best pieces in our collection were ones where we both studied all of the work in a particular show, discussed aspects of all of them, and centered on “the best” one. We each see different things in a work and sometimes we each have a favorite but realize that there is a third that captures all of the best aspects of the two we initially picked.

Over the years, we’ve gotten more confident in our choices and our tastes. We agonize less over a particular purchase, especially items with a higher price tag. Our philosophy of what we look for has stayed rather constant.

We are both employed in high-tech and we wish there were more techies who were collecting Austin art. That’s been our white whale – to find more of us.

Is it important for you to collect a body of work by an artist or are you only interested in singular pieces?

We intentionally try not to focus on any particular artist. Early on we decided we’d buy at most 3 pieces from any artist to keep us from getting fixated and also to force us to find other people to buy work from artists we liked.

Is there a particular theme to your collection?

Beyond focusing on contemporary art, the biggest theme is that the art was found locally. We like to show people the impressive work that can be found here. All of the work in our house is labeled so that visitors can easily pick something they like and potentially reach out to the artist who made it.

Do you live with all of the artworks that you purchase?

Our collection is large enough that we can’t have everything up at one time. We have some walls that we rotate, especially when something new comes into the house. But our goal is to live with everything. It’s all very personal.