Backstory: Adoption for art lovers

Instead of writing a check, an art lover writes from the heart about a work – and the artist takes it in exchange for art.

Brece Honeycutt is taking a break from copying the Emily Dickinson verses she will later etch onto sheets of copper for an art installation in the gardens and cultural center of Wave Hill in the Bronx. Leaning over an open drawer brimming with folders of earlier work, she picks up a monotype in which the beginning letters of the alphabet dance between two soft-edged squares of blue.

"I think maybe this one," she says, setting it aside. The next is vivid pink with blue swirls. "That doesn't work," she decides, returning it to its folder. "I don't want anything that I wouldn't sell. It's not a remainder bin."

Ms. Honeycutt is not preparing for an exhibition or awaiting a visit from a collector. She is selecting artworks to give up for adoption.

This is how it works. Artists post images on with information about themselves and their work. When visitors spot a piece with appeal, they e-mail the artist, stating who they are and why they want to adopt. An exchange ensues, and if the artist decides this adopter will provide a good home, they discuss logistics.

Rose Aquilino of Rockville, Md., adopted "Freaky Cat," an ink drawing that reminded her of a mischievous kitten she and her artist husband, John, adopted when they moved from New York after the dotcom bust. In her correspondence with artist Jill Henderson, Ms. Aquilino, now a development officer at a school, committed to pay for shipping and framing.

In an art world where money and status loom large, a transaction that revolves around one person's response to another person's art is not only unusual, it is potentially subversive.

"Ideally, the work is going to people who would not otherwise own the artwork," says Adam Simon, the Brooklyn, N.Y. artist who set up Fine Art Adoption Network (FAAN) with the support of Art in General, a Manhattan non-profit that supports new work. Adopters might be institutions with no art budget, individuals with little disposable income, or families who haven't considered making art a priority.

Mr. Simon got the idea when his mom moved from a house to an apartment, and he found himself regaining possession of two large paintings he'd made years before. That's when the light bulb went on: Artists have more art than they can store, while plenty of people who love art have no way of owning it. So why not use the Internet to facilitate art adoptions?

To ensure quality, Simon and his collaborators decided that artists could participate only if invited by other artists. Many FAAN artists sell through established galleries, but they also tend to show in alternative exhibition spaces and work on public art projects. More than 80 have posted works since the site went live in April. Most are smaller pieces, often a few years old, ranging from conceptual projects to figurative painting and sculpture. Honeycutt, for example, goes through her year 2000 folder and, to keep packaging simple, decides against offering any of her paper-cast sculptures.

Usually, people who want to own art must write a check. Adopters instead bring to the transaction their response to a work, a willingness to articulate it, and the courage to risk rejection. This kind of currency Nicholas Salvado has aplenty. A police academy recruit, he's headed for a career in forensics; but with "a ton" of college debt, buying art is out of the question. So when a buddy showed him the FAAN site, he browsed and spotted "Study for a Contemporary Portrait: Duccio," a pencil drawing by Brooklyn artist Cathy Nan Quinlan. He wrote to her. "It was a little bit of an essay, like applying for a job," he says.

The décor of Mr. Salvado's living room in a rented split-level in West Falls Church, Va., consists of a couch, a chair, a floor lamp, and a 56-inch TV that belongs to a housemate. The walls loom white and bare. But in his bedroom, the face of a Madonna hangs, framed, above the bed, gazing serenely at Salvado's pillow.

"I'm not very religious," he says, "but going to my job, where there is a certain amount of danger, I find it soothing and comforting – something about having a mother figure always there."

When Salvado expressed this to Ms. Quinlan, he gave her more than a warm, fuzzy feeling. He gave her valuable feedback by answering the very question that inspired Quinlan's drawing: Do people today need the kinds of images demanded of artists in the 14th-century like Duccio? Galleries looking for cutting edge might say "no"; Salvado gave a heartfelt "yes." Could it be, Quinlan now wonders, that art adoptions might in time challenge the monopoly that galleries, museums, and the very rich have on determining what is good and bad in art?

Were it not for FAAN, Salvado might never have discovered Quinlan's work or communicated with her. Buyers typically speak with gallery owners; when they do chat with artists neither can ignore the fact that this is also a business transaction. In adoptions, Honeycutt says, "you hope – and it has proved so – that people really like the work; that they're not adopting it because it has commercial value, but for the work's sake." The conversations are, she adds, "direct and, at the same time, anonymous. I like it because it is outside the system; it goes against the grain."

All this makes FAAN an exciting addition to the art world, observes Hope Daniels, the editorial director of three Rosen Group publications for collectors, art retailers, and artists. "Anything that helps artists helps move the entire arts community along – [though] not, perhaps, in the way high-end galleries and collectors would like." If the latter might like to keep art pegged to monetary values, FAAN, she believes, serves the ideal that "we are all entitled to create a space to live in that uplifts us."

FAAN artists aren't worried that by giving work away they're hurting their chances for commercial success. There is already evidence that people who've adopted once will consider buying the second time. And given that some adopters are as young as age 12, FAAN may be educating future collectors – even perhaps subverting the social order by introducing art to youngsters who don't meet the art world's criteria of money and status.

For now, however, adoption's most tangible effect is satisfaction. Aquilino is visibly tickled to have "Freaky Cat," even though she and her husband have not yet agreed where to hang it.

And, if Honeycutt is taking the time to pick five more pieces for adoption, it is because she has reaped more rewards than she expected when she signed up. One adoptee now hangs in New Jersey, where a young mother and a 4-year-old daughter like it because "it is happy." Another resides in a Florida home-care facility for the elderly, this one adopted by the administrator, who recognized in Honeycutt's drawing a lyrical reminiscence of a past era – "she really got the work," Honeycutt beams.

Honeycutt also regularly hears about another adoptee, a drawing that Peter Gorham, a fifth-grade teacher in Fredericton, New Brunswick, has used as the springboard for student projects – including getting them to choose a work on FAAN and articulating why they wish to adopt it. A far more challenging task than writing a check.

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