Inside My Collection: James Whitner

Around 2012, the North Carolina–based fashion entrepreneur James Whitner felt his first pull to collect art. He bought four four-foot sculptures in an online auction. And he never looked back. In the years since, Whitner has been surrounding himself and others with a formidable contemporary art collection.
Whitner is the founder and CEO of The Whitaker Group, which runs multiple fashion brands such as Social Status and A Ma Maniére (the latter of which is releasing a new, highly anticipated Air Jordan 3 collaboration on April 21st), as well as boutique hotels, a restaurant, and community-based social impact projects. Last year, Whitner collaborated with esteemed artist on a custom Chuck Taylor sneaker; the project tapped into salient contemporary issues including Black Lives Matter, LBGTQ+ rights, and the 2020 presidential election. The design even attracted Vice President Kamala Harris, who visited Whitner’s Social Status store in Charlotte, North Carolina, while on the campaign trail to preview Abney’s sneaker.
Whitner sees his engagement with contemporary art as curating more than collecting. “I’m curating how I want to visualize my life and how I want others to see my world,” he said. That impulse has led him to build a collection that quickly outgrew the walls of his home and office, and to begin curating external spaces, too. He’s brought art into his retail and lifestyle properties, as well as community projects and a forthcoming gallery space in Pittsburgh.
While his earliest purchases included popular street art and works by buzzy contemporary artists, over time, Whitner found that the art that meant the most to him was being made by artists who were not yet well known—so he committed himself to supporting rising talent and sharing their work with others. Nowadays, he’s living with works by Julian Gaines (a.k.a. Ju Working), Nina Chanel Abney, , , and others. Ultimately, Whitner’s collection retains an ethos that resonates with the masses while still encapsulating his own authentic take on contemporary art.
I recently caught up with Whitner at his Charlotte home to learn more about how he started collecting, the art on his walls, bringing art to communities, and what it means to be supporting emerging artists.

Charles Moore: How and when did you start collecting art?

James Whitner: In 2012 and 2013, I was mulling over the idea of collecting. The first thing I bought was a set of KAWS four-footers. I remember thinking at the time that I didn’t have a mentor who collects art or anyone who’s into this. I work in isolation and there’s no one I can really bounce my ideas off of.
Installation view of four KAWS “Companion” sculptures  in James Whitner’s home in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

Installation view of four KAWS “Companion” sculptures in James Whitner’s home in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

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The Hakka Foundation was selling them in Hong Kong; it was a set of six and I was bidding on them. I only bought four because I remember thinking at the time, “Am I crazy?” I called one of my friends to do a sort of pressure test. He said, “Don’t buy all six, just buy four.” In my heart of hearts, I wanted all six. Letting him convince me to buy four was probably one of the worst mistakes I’d ever made.

C.M.: If you had known me at the time, I would’ve said buy all six.

J.W.: My thought process at the time was just about curating my space and my comfort. Art gives me energy and I get excited by space and energy. When you get to curate the feel of your space, that uplifts your environment and your spirit.
Around 2013 or 2014, I was chasing these North Star artists, while saving up for a legendary piece. Once you do that for a while, you eventually realize, “I’d rather be looking at things that are more meaningful to me, that I can discover.” It’s a journey, a process.

C.M.: I’m with you on that. You mentioned when you started collecting, you didn’t have somebody to bounce ideas off of, or a mentor or other collectors in your circle. What about now?

Installation view, from left to right, of works by Peter Saul and Dana Schutz. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

Installation view, from left to right, of works by Peter Saul and Dana Schutz. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

J.W.: Now, yes—I have good people like Jacob Lewis and Anthony Curis. But the biggest source for discovering what’s next is other artists. Because when you look at that circle of influence, they understand what connects to you; they’re looking at you to see which of their pieces you gravitate towards. Once they understand your psyche, they can help you check out what’s new.

C.M.: I understand completely. So, let’s go back to right after you bought these KAWS sculptures. What were you collecting after that over the next few years?

J.W.: For a while it was just KAWS, which was influenced primarily by street culture—because I’m into luxury street wear. If you go back to that time, KAWS was already buzzing; he had a big name, but his pieces weren’t as available as they might be today. So it was just the right time. After that, I got some works by , , and .

C.M.: How did you transition from street art to what you buy now?

J.W.: I started living in my space. For a long time, I had way more art than I had walls. A lot of what I do is curating experiential spaces—living, eating, and community spaces, in addition to a gallery space we are doing in Pittsburgh. It’s all about lifestyle in community and designing space so people understand what our reality is supposed to look like. When I started co-existing with things in a space, I also got really sharp on my purpose. Because you work in an industry, you’re established in who you are and you’re building on it—working to just build our experience.
And then it started to hit me, what our reality was. I really like communicating with my community. I really like uplifting the people around me.
Installation view of a painting by Jammie Holmes. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

Installation view of a painting by Jammie Holmes. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

My inspiration is the process of collecting and my preoccupation with getting everybody else out there with me. I’m inspired by things that just speak to my story and the pieces that mean so much to me. For example, when you start seeing pieces that Julian Gaines is making, how he expresses himself through art. The same with Pat Phillips, Nina Chanel Abney, and . When you start to see those things, that is incredibly meaningful to me. Anthony Curis pointed me to Jammie Holmes and I discovered just by walking through a gallery.
It’s really about looking at artists who turn me on to people, like Anna Park. I was in New York and Jacob Lewis from Pace Gallery, who’s a good friend, invited me to a charity event. Before all the artists had set up to show their art before the dinner, I spotted Anna Park! This was great! I bought two or three works and those are the moments when you want to support somebody, in the beginning, and help promote them and their message. I know it’s cool to be a collector of , but I feel equally accomplished having people like Julian Gaines in my collection.

C.M.: Where and how do you buy most of your art? Pre-pandemic and now?

J.W.: I prefer galleries to auctions. The only things I’ve ever bought from an auction were those KAWS four-footers. There are other experienced collectors that I speak to who say there is a place for art in auctions, especially when you start talking about established artists and pricier works. But I have come to realize that I don’t want to be on that side of collecting. If I missed it, I missed it.
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Installation view, from left to right, of works by Tomoo Gokita and Pat Phillips. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

Installation view, from left to right, of works by Tomoo Gokita and Pat Phillips. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

Right now, I have to be a part of picking up the new, up-and-coming artists. I want to help enhance their voices and be a collector who really supports their movement. In 20 years, people might be saying, “Oh wow, you should see James Whitner’s collection! It’s from this particular era and he has all of these artists that were speaking about this time when it was both a pandemic and a racial revolution. And now he’s in his seventies, but his collection is going to be shown at this museum.”

C.M.: How do you discover most of your artists? Is it always through galleries? Or are you using Instagram or word of mouth?

J.W.: Instagram, word of mouth, and I also get randomly approached by people who reach out because they understand what I stand for. Sometimes they think my method of collecting is crazy. They’ll say, “I’ve got an early piece,” and they try to put it in front of me but I turn it down. For me, it has to be organic. I’d rather it come to me the right way—through other artists, through galleries, and through just exploring Instagram and finding works I like.

C.M.: Was there a point in your collecting that you just woke up and said, “Wow, I’m an art collector!” Or did you always feel that way from the start?

J.W.: I had no clue I was an art collector until my team said, “We need a space for your art in the warehouse—your art is everywhere, in your office, all over the place!” Now, my office is a kind of an open floor plan where we all work. So it quickly became art storage.
Even now, I only consider myself a collector because people call me one. I consider my work more like curating. I’m curating how I want to visualize my life and how I want others to see my world. I’m not just collecting art: I’m also into real estate, I’m community-building, I’m developing space. I’m developing positive energy around the Black community. I’m helping to redefine what retail looks like—I’m doing all of these actions as I don’t want to be single-minded in any one pursuit.

C.M.: Now, you obviously have art in storage. What’s on your wall?

J.W.: Julian Gaines, Todd James, , Eric Parker, KAWS, , Nina Chanel Abney. Also there’s Matthew Marquis from Atlanta, a young artist; ; Tomoo Gokita; Peter Saul; ; and a few others.
View, from left to right, of KAWS, Isolation Tower, 2016; Anna Park, Mayo, 2019; and KAWS, Piranhas when you’re sleeping, 2016. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

View, from left to right, of KAWS, Isolation Tower, 2016; Anna Park, Mayo, 2019; and KAWS, Piranhas when you’re sleeping, 2016. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

There’s art on the walls, floors, and the windows because, even my house, it’s all about curating space. So it’s not just about art, it’s about having walls and space, and it’s also the mix of materials—like having all the floors made from reclaimed barn wood.
In fact, the main part of my house doesn’t have any art, but certain rooms exude a tangible vibe and a mood. It’s super intentional—all the spaces reflect my lifestyle.

C.M.: Are you at the point where you’re mentoring other collectors?

J.W.: The short answer is yes. So, just depending on where you’re coming from as a collector, my approach will be different. I think the advice should always be based on what your goals are.

C.M.: Were you going to art museums or galleries as a kid?

J.W.: Not really. My desire to curate literally started within myself. It started with the idea of wanting to have a better concept of myself, and then it just kept expanding to everything in my life. I want things to exist in a better way, I don’t want them to just be better curated. Everything’s done with purpose and develops as life unfolds. You’re blessed enough that life works, and it just continues to grow and grow—who knows, I would love to curate a whole city!
Installation view of a work by Julian Gaines. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

Installation view of a work by Julian Gaines. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

When you think about community development, specifically in the Black community, that’s really what we’re doing. The other part of what I do is buying real estate. Now my interest is, how do I go into Black communities and influence the way revitalization should look? Because we lose out as Black folks in gentrification, right? Who can go into these communities and develop the community tastefully but keep a large percentage of our people there and help them value home ownership and help them curate their space and how it looks? Look at what happened in Detroit—how they put murals, tastefully, on vacant buildings—there’s a way to make these things feel different for us and uplift our community at the same time. And it’s not just about being pro-Black, because we need white people with us, too. But it’s about the idea that we can all be better.

C.M.: I’m agreeing. Go ahead.

J.W.: To put it another way, you could say, the museum is practically free. So if someone has the exposure and wants to spark their kids’ taste in art, it’s something you can do. But that’s the very reason we have to build our communities and stress the importance of teaching it young. If we don’t take ownership of our communities, people just come in and take, endlessly.
Most collectors just want to come into our communities to build and collect. They may not want to teach—that’s the community part. I am trying to build a collection of all these elements that coalesce. And if I do it right, we can present the idea of how we can change cities and the idea of how we look at politics and how business connects back to government. It is one ecosystem, and we have to change parts of it in scale to be able to represent it across society. If we can do it in our lifetime, then we’ve won.

C.M.: So you want to build from what we’ve already have, not from ground zero?

Portrait of James Whitner with works by Nina Chanel Abney (left) and Todd James (right. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

Portrait of James Whitner with works by Nina Chanel Abney (left) and Todd James (right. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.

J.W.: Yes, because then it starts the conversation of, “Do we change your system, or do we create our own?” I think it’s a bit of both. I’m just getting to 40 and I know that there have been other 40-year-olds before me fighting this fight, but I think 40 years old is the intersection of your youthfulness with your older wisdom.

C.M.: So in a sense, you are on a mission with a community of like-minded believers?

J.W.: Yes. The only way we’re going to get people interested in Black people in art is by getting Black people in art. I’m only as good as the network of people around me. One specific person is Nico Fearn, who works for Nike right now. He works with Julian Gaines and probably about five or six other brothers out in the Northwest.
Our goal is to build this community of us, one we won’t talk about until we’re so strong that things are moving. That’s the only way we’re going to move community: move art, get the power to purchase things, and get things done.
Charles Moore
Header image: Portrait of James Whitner with a KAWS sculpture. Photo by Sir Will for Artsy.