(Published by the San Jose Mercury-News and its affiliates on October 18, 2014.)
“Art” in many homes means a framed $30 poster, which makes Cathy Kimball sadly shake her head. “When you think that you could be buying a unique work of art by an artist in this community rather than supporting Pottery Barn,” sniffs the petite blonde.
Given the fact that Kimball is the longtime director of the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), her view is understandable. But she insists that putting real art on your wall doesn’t require a last name of Sobrato or Ellison. “Sometimes the price differential isn’t that big,” she says, between a work of art and a mass-produced something-or-other that was purchased to match the upholstery.
And by her thinking, a poster isn’t likely to deliver the intangible benefits of owning art, like “fulfillment and happiness and pride and joy,” she says. She should know, walking the walk by filling her spacious ranch-style home in Los Altos with more than 100 contemporary works that are displayed in every room, including the bathrooms.
Rather than cluttering up her house, Kimball’s art is an integral part of it, from the massive, abstract, paint-on metal piece lighting up the end of her dining room down to the touchable, textured, three-inch carved apple beckoning from a shelf in her living room. Not all the works are only for viewing. Her gorgeous dining room furniture was made in the early ’70s by noted wood artist George Nakashima and inherited from her parents but has also facilitated meal consumption for two generations.
Unlike poster art, Kimball’s pieces all have a story to tell, which she does with passion. There’s the oversized child’s alphabet block with a faint phallus on one surface. The artist nearly died from a childhood cancer that retarded her development so now “her work has a lot to do with adult/childhood references as well as gender issues,” Kimball explains.
The photography from another artist was inspired by a period of severely impaired vision so some of his work explores the tension between darkness and sight. Kimball’s piece might look at first glance like a grayish screen but “There’s so much there if you take the time to really look at it,” she says.
One doll sculpture resembling a stylized ancient Asian princess dressed in fine fabrics is particularly personal for Kimball. She commissioned it as a way to use clothing her mother once wore before her death — pieces of a scarf, a special robe. “Now, instead of them being in a box in my closet, they’re out every day. I can look at them and remember those little moments,” she says.
Kimball’s art — paintings, sculptures, photography, works on paper, even a very adult snow globe — can be dramatic, humorous, tactile and sometimes moving. There’s a tiny nest holding a little glass egg embedded with the 9/11 towers. Whimsy is seen in several of her pieces on display, such as a sculpture called “Denial” in the master bath that shows hands holding plucked gray hairs.
“I just love the placement of those hands in the bathroom, exactly where you’d be pulling out your gray hair,” she laughs.
Kimball’s art-loving path might be preordained. “When I was 12 years old, my parents got me a membership to the Museum of Modern Art for my birthday,” she recalls, and she made trips to New York’s MOMA with her dad, who was an executive at CBS across the street. Her career has been spent curating art at various establishments and during her 14 years running ICA, she has reinvented the organization — building new exhibition space, increasing its funding and attracting a bevy of talented modern artists.
She has been an art owner for years. Early in her marriage, “When we’d go on a trip, we’d look around and buy some little thing,” she says. “But you don’t think of yourself as a collector or realize you’re putting together a collection for a really long time.”
She and her husband bought their large suburban house in 1995 partly with the idea of showing off their art. “It was the only house we saw that I thought, there’s potential here,” she recalls. After removing some walls and making other adjustments, the airy space nicely accommodated art as well as her family of four. At this point, her adult children, now living on their own, “are not going to put posters on their walls because this is how they grew up,” she says.
Even though Kimball says, “I’m running out of wall space,” she still buys 10 to 15 new works a year — mostly at the ICA auctions and other auctions by non-profits, since this is a thriftier way to purchase art. Fortunately, her art habit is not a marital issue. “I’m married to a guy who wouldn’t say, wait a minute, time out,” she relates.
When compared to older works by famous artists, contemporary art like that in the Kimball home is usually in financial reach for upper-middle-class collectors. But that doesn’t mean Kimball can buy every exciting piece she’s encountered. “A lot of things I’ve seen, I had to be moved just in that moment because I couldn’t afford to take it home,” she sighs.
Tips on Displaying Art at Home
While art collecting isn’t particle physics, some sound advice from pros like Cathy Kimball can be useful for those who’d like some original contemporary art in their home. “The first thing you’ve got to do is look and look and look,” she says, suggesting people go to the museums and galleries that offer admission-free days or are free all the time.
“Go and see what you like, see what resonates,” she recommends. For those not financially equipped to pick up a $20 million Monet, the silent auction at ICA running until October 25 is a good place to find contemporary works priced as low as $100.
“In general, the things that cost less are works on paper and photography and (work from) emerging artists,” Kimball reports. Short-edition prints are another less-costly choice. Budget-minded art lovers seek out open studios and fund-raising auctions by non-profits like ICA to find the best deals.
The next step for budding collectors is where to display their new art. “You want to put it somewhere you’re going to enjoy it every day and you’re also going to take pride in people seeing it,” she notes. In hanging art, Kimball focuses on “sight lines,” meaning how something looks from different angles. But don’t fret over placement mistakes. “The worst thing is, it’s just a little hole in the wall, so move it,” she says.
How much displayed art is too much? To Kimball, that happens “when you’re hanging work together that doesn’t show respect for the individual piece,” she cautions. “If you’re hanging things together and they look good together, you’re still in safe territory.”