Inside My Collection

Art

Inside My Collection: Schwanda Rountree

Cornelia Smith
Jul 23, 2021 6:07PM

Upon finishing law school and moving to Washington, D.C., Schwanda Rountree’s interest in art transformed into a lifelong passion for collecting. She began exploring the city’s museums and galleries in her free time and made a pact with herself to support the arts however possible. Around the same time, a mentor invited her to a series of artist talks and salons and introduced her to the social dynamics of the art world, as well as the works of groundbreaking artists like Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, and Sam Gilliam. “I remember going to these art salons and really just loving the whole environment and the energy surrounding it,” Rountree recalled. It was a pivotal moment for the young lawyer as she started becoming a patron of the arts.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and Rountree has amassed a formidable art collection of work exclusively made by Black artists in her Petworth home. And beyond that, in addition to being a full-time attorney, she runs a thriving art consultancy, serves on the boards of various museums and art organizations, and regularly participates in art talks and studio critiques.

Over the years, Rountree has collected the works of esteemed artists including Sanford Biggers, Nina Chanel Abney, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Shinique Smith, Renee Cox, and Kehinde Wiley, among many others. Her approach to collecting, however, is not based on following recognizable names. Rather, she conducts thorough research, tracks artists’ trajectories, and forges long-term relationships with them in order to support their careers in a lasting, meaningful way. “One of the things I try to stay committed to is continuing to collect work over time by the same artist,” Rountree said.

With a tenacious, research-driven, and philanthropic approach, Rountree considers herself a “custodian” of the works in her collection. “The work is not mine, it is just in my care,” she said. “I feel strongly that there is a certain level of responsibility collectors should have as custodians of a work.”

We recently caught up with Rountree at her home in D.C. to learn more about her ever-growing collection, her support for artists throughout their careers, and her work with fellow collectors as an advisor.

Artsy: How and when did you start collecting in earnest?

Installation view, from left to right, of Nina Chanel Abney, Two Years and Counting, 2018; and works on paper by Andrea Chung, Chioma Ebinama, Toyin Ojih Odutola, and February James. Photo by Schaun Champion for Artsy.

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Schwanda Rountree: I began collecting slowly and studying artists’ practices in tandem, around 2005. I was intentionally taking my time with the collecting process. Then, it sort of naturally sped up over the years, from making connections with artists, going on studio visits, and becoming more selective and intentional about what I was adding to the collection.

Artsy: How did you become interested in art? Did you grow up going to see art?

S.R.: Interestingly enough, I was not exposed to art growing up. It wasn’t until after graduating from law school and moving to D.C. that I made the connection. My interest came through one of my mentors, a lawyer and now dear friend, Gloria Sulton, who has an amazing art collection in her home. She used to host salons where artists would come and speak informally about their work, and we would have wine and cheese. I remember seeing work by Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, and Sam Gilliam on her walls, and loving that.

Naturally, she and I would go to art openings together. There used to be a self-guided art walk called “First Friday Dupont” here in D.C. It pretty much happened every month, where galleries, embassies, and historic houses in the neighborhood would keep their doors open late to showcase art. Going with Gloria to those events and to museums bloomed beautifully into my love for contemporary art.

While I was introduced to the art world through modern master artists, I turned my eye to emerging artists who were fresh out of MFA programs—paying close attention to the art that’s being produced right now. My focus has continued to be on emerging and mid-career artists.

Artsy: You’ve started your own art consultancy, curated exhibitions, been on panels, and have served on the boards of multiple arts organizations. What drove you to become so active in the arts?

Installation view of Shinique Smith, Leda and the Swan, 2016. Photo by Schaun Champion for Artsy.

S.R.: I think art is a difficult and challenging field—so any level of support is extremely important. That’s what sort of drove me to being involved in various organizations. It’s also interesting to see the starting point for some of these artists, how they develop, and where they end up.

Artsy: Has meeting artists and speaking with them inspired you to collect their work?

S.R.: Yes, definitely. Years ago, I would go up to New York every weekend, attending art openings or visiting studios. I remember going to New York to visit Shinique Smith’s studio back in 2004 or 2005. I went to Titus Kaphar’s studio, maybe around the time when he was in residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He was sharing a studio space with Wardell Milan and Demetrius Oliver. I used to go literally every weekend to Renee Cox’s studio to look at archival photography; I was and still am so intrigued by her work. At that time, I was really engaged with visiting studios, and a natural part of that was adding work to my collection.

Once I visited Shinique’s studio, I reached out to her gallery and acquired a work. One of the things I try to stay committed to is continuing to collect work over time by the same artist. Shinique is one of the artists I added to my collection very early on and have added additional works by her to the collection. Rozeal Brown (who was formerly known as Iona Rozeal Brown) is another artist whose work I added to my collection early on and have continued to add. I have two of her works and just recently acquired a new work from an exhibition she recently had in D.C.

Artsy: How has living in D.C. shaped the way you collect art? What is the D.C. art scene like?

S.R.: There are a couple of elements of the arts community that solidified my love for art here in D.C. One is the Howard University Porter Colloquium on African American Art, which is an annual symposium with lectures from artists, curators, and scholars in the arts community. I would go every year, and was eventually selected to serve on the colloquium’s executive committee for a number of years. There have been amazing scholarship and presenters at the colloquium in the past, including Lorna Simpson, Torkwase Dyson, Renee Cox, and Hank Willis Thomas. That was a wonderful opportunity to engage with artists, scholars, and curators in a smaller, more accessible setting.

Also, the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland is located nearby. On several occasions, I had the honor of speaking with the late Dr. David Driskell, who was the cornerstone and legend in pushing forward artwork by artists from the diaspora.

Installation view, from left to right, of Jerrell Gibbs, Sweetness Oil, 2019; and Kennedy Yanko, Untitled, n.d. Photo by Schaun Champion for Artsy.

Danielle McKinney, Passion Fruit, 2020. Photo by Schaun Champion for Artsy.

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I often find the bulk of my art engagement has been outside of D.C.—traveling to international fairs and sourcing artwork all over the world for collectors. I have made more of an effort to engage more with the D.C. art scene by serving on the organizing committee for the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA), which recently hosted its annual benefit auction on Artsy.

Artsy: When you’re thinking about buying a work, what do you do? What kinds of research and considerations go into it? Do you feel comfortable buying work without seeing it in person first?

S.R.: Many collectors connect with artwork by seeing it in person first. However, I have been collecting for a while now and know specifically what to look for, so I am comfortable buying a work without seeing it in person. I will say, depending on the medium—for example, a sculpture—I may want to see it in person. However, if I’m familiar with an artist’s practice, I would be comfortable acquiring the work online.

Before buying artwork, I consider the artist’s CV to get a sense of past shows and institutions that have work by the artist in their permanent collection. I also reach out to artists and request studio visits. If it’s extended, I will definitely engage and visit.

Being an artist in today’s art market can be extremely difficult and competitive. Unfortunately, there are only a few artists who really make it. I definitely want to support artists, yet I also want to make sure that the artists I’m pouring into will stick with it—that this is their life’s work. Part of a collector’s research should involve exploring the long-term trajectory of the artist’s career.

Artsy: How do you prefer to collect—via galleries, auctions, online? Can you tell us a bit about your experience buying art online?

S.R.: I think the online art market has grown at light speed. Though it was already headed in this direction, I think the pandemic really kicked it up a notch. I think if you’re really familiar with an artist’s work, you’re less hesitant to buy it online. When I’m working with collectors, we often discuss what is ahead for the artist. I think if you have all the information, you’re less hesitant to push the “go” button without actually seeing the art in person. I feel as if the online art market has shifted in that way.

Nina Chanel Abney, installation view of Untitled, 2015. Photo by Schaun Champion for Artsy.

In terms of acquiring work, the majority of the work I acquire for my collection is through galleries. I tend to support galleries that I’ve acquired works from in the past. If they bring in a new artist, I’m paying close attention to that artist, and I’m willing to support the new artist and their programming. It has taken years to build relationships with these galleries, and I honor that.

It is not always easy to acquire work, no matter how many resources you have. I think collectors are trusting and relying on art advisors more now to help steer them in the right direction or build relationships with the galleries. I’ve seen more clients willing to trust the process.

Auctions can be a great resource as well. I have gotten some nice works through online auctions, including on Artsy. I bought a really nice work by Toyin Ojih Odutola through Artsy years ago from the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation benefit auction. I think that may have been the first online auction experience I had.

Artsy: Have you bought many works from auctions since then?

S.R.: Buying that Toyin work was a pivotal moment for me, in terms of saying to myself, “Okay, you can actually find some affordable art pieces via an auction by notable artists like Toyin.” After that, I started paying close attention to auctions, and definitely paying closer attention to Artsy in particular.

The big auction houses like Phillips, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s can be intimidating to a novice collector, so I had not engaged with their auctions before. Now that I consider myself a more developed art collector, I do look at what is being offered through the major auctions. As an art advisor, I’m always looking at what is being sold, even if I’m not bidding. It’s just important to have that market data.

Reginald Sylvester II, Selah, 2020. Photo by John Berens. Courtesy of the artist and Maximillian William, London.

Kennedy Yanko, Untitled, n.d. Photo by Schaun Champion for Artsy.

I acquired a beautiful Mequitta Ahuja painting from Christie’s in 2018. I remember seeing her work in a show at the National Portrait Gallery back in 2012. The painting I bought was in that museum show. It’s really interesting how things come full circle. I was admiring the work in an institutional setting, where it seemed really monumental and unreachable, and now it’s on my wall. That’s one of the pieces I look to for inspiration as a collector, because you never know where you’ll end up. I felt like it was an incredible opportunity for me to be a custodian of this work.

Artsy: How do you discover new artists?

S.R.: I’m in constant conversation with other collectors. Whether it be via text messages, Instagram, or email, we’re always talking and sharing what we’re looking at. I’m also friends with artists and have conversations with them about work they admire as well. I love visiting artist-curated shows. Nina Chanel Abney curated a show titled “Punch” at Jeffrey Deitch in both New York and Los Angeles in 2018 and 2019. Rashid Johnson and Vaughn Spann have presented exhibitions by fellow artists as well.

I also pay close attention to newly acquired works in museums’ permanent collections. I think that’s very important. I love looking at the work from the Studio Museum in Harlem’s artists in residence. I look at the Nasher Museum in Durham, North Carolina, and the Pérez Museum in Miami, too; I love the level of support that Pérez and Nasher are providing to younger contemporary artists.

Artsy: How do you describe your collection? Are there certain threads that run throughout—that drive you as you continue to build your collection?

S.R.: I’m trying to refine my collection a little bit more now in terms of what I’m adding, so that newer works can have conversations with other works that are already in the collection. The most obvious thread is that every work on the wall is by a Black artist. In the beginning, I was heavily collecting works by women artists. A lot of the work in my collection is abstract, so that’s another common thread that I’ve always enjoyed and haven’t shied away from.

As of late, I’ve ventured out into more figurative work. The Mequitta Ahuja work is figurative, though there are a lot of landscape elements in it that I love. I recently acquired a Danielle Mckinney work as well. I have a lot of collage work in my collection and I haven’t been afraid to acquire works on paper—I know that some people are a little hesitant with works on paper because they can be difficult to preserve. I also gravitate toward work that challenges the viewer and makes them question what they’re seeing.

Artsy: Do you collect work of all different mediums?

Installation view, from left to right, of Jamea Richmond Edwards, Venus, 2010; and Rozeal Brown, Untitled II (male), 2003. Photo by Schaun Champion for Artsy.

Derek Fordjour, installation view of Surreptitious 50, 2020. Photo by Schaun Champion for Artsy.

S.R.: I have paintings and sculptural work. I have an editioned sculpture, a white bust, by Kehinde Wiley, called After La Negresse (2007). I also have a Kennedy Yanko sculpture.

And I have fun with art, too. I have art in my kids’ room: a Nick Cave punching bag, a Mickalene Thomas collage print of her dog Priscilla, and two Yinka Shonibare prints. One is a really cool print that I got from James Cohan Gallery of two ballerinas mirroring each other in their posture. I also have these lovely Yinka Shonibare fabric kites suspended in the kids’ room.

During the pandemic, I acquired work by Chioma Ebinama, who does these really beautiful small paintings on paper. I have works by February James, who makes loosely figurative watercolors with mysterious imagery. I have very thought-provoking, scholarly works by artists like Bethany Collins, who I love.

In terms of new works that I’ve brought to the collection, I recently added an Alteronce Gumby work, a Brittney Leeanne Williams painting, and abstract paintings by artists Reginald Sylvester II and Ryan Cosbert. I also acquired a beautiful Caroline Kent painting during the pandemic.

Ryan Cosbert, 40 Acres, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

I collect photography, too. I have Allison Janae Hamilton’s work. I also have a collage by Sanford Biggers, and a collage by Nina Chanel Abney. And then I have a couple of prints: the small editioned print I mentioned by Toyin Ojih Odutola, and a Nina Chanel Abney print that I got from Pace. It’s called Two Years and Counting (2018) and depicts a basketball player against a pink background. I acquired a Christopher Myers appliqué, embroidered fabric. His work is quickly being added to museum collections.

Artsy: Is there a piece that you consider the beginning of your collection? Or a major piece that you were really excited about?

S.R.: I began acquiring Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor’s works at the genesis of my collecting. I have several paintings by him and consider his work a significant part of my collection. The late Michael Platt is another artist that was literally one of the first few artworks I acquired. It’s a photograph on canvas that I still have; it’s lovely.

Artsy: In your opinion, what goes into being a collector beyond just buying work? What does it mean to you to be a collector?

S.R.: For me, it means having a commitment to philanthropy and supporting the arts in the long term. It’s very important that it’s not fleeting—that collectors find various opportunities to support the arts.

I’m on the national advisory board for the Ackland Museum in Chapel Hill, as well as the national advisory council for Creative Capital, which supports artists in the sustainability of their careers. I support the Joan Mitchell Foundation through formal studio critiques, and serve on selection committees and panels.

Artsy: As an art consultant, how do you go about establishing relationships with clients who are looking to build their collection? What do you find most rewarding about helping individuals or institutions collect work?

Installation view, from left to right, of Kehinde Wiley, After La Negresse, 2007; and Sanford Biggers, The Floating World: Lotus (125th), 2012. Photo by Schaun Champion for Artsy.

Ryan Cosbert, Lunar, 2021. Photo by Schaun Champion for Artsy.

S.R.: At this point, it’s definitely word of mouth. There are people who reach out to me based on relationships I have with other clients. I was Peggy Cooper Cafritz’s buyer for years before she passed away. That was a really special opportunity for me to engage with a collector on that level, to help shape what was coming into her collection. She lost the bulk of her collection in a fire, and I started working with her shortly thereafter to rebuild the collection.

I really love getting photos from my clients when they mount work in their space. I love working with clients in developing a collecting plan. Some novice collectors don’t know where to begin, so helping them map out a plan is really meaningful for me as an advisor.

Artsy: Where would you advise a new collector to begin?

S.R.: I would say read and view as much art as possible from various sources. Whether it be visiting a gallery or museum show, informally perusing work on Instagram, or reading an article from Artsy, ARTnews, or Art in America—just read. Consume as much information about art as possible. And have fun with it.

Cornelia Smith

Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Schwanda Rountree with, from left to right, Bethany Collins, “Well, They Just Don't Match Up II,” 2014; Derek Fordjour, “Surreptitious 50,” 2020; and Danielle McKinney, “Passion Fruit,” 2020. Photo by Schaun Champion for Artsy.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019