Beyond Collecting: A Conversation with Craig O’Neil

Written by Lori Zimmer

Art collecting in today’s hyped-up art market is a complicated beast. Many want to simply support artists, but some collectors want to make a quick buck by flipping the hottest artists tomorrow at auction, while others are looking for long-term investment in the

art they think will appreciate in value. Then there are some collectors whose process goes beyond collecting and takes on a patron role that helps to foster the art movements they are investing in.

Craig O’Neil is not your average art collector. True, he has been amassing a sizable collection of urban art for the greater part of ten years, but the Florida entrepreneur’s intentions are not typical. Taking a cue from the great art patrons of the past, O’Neil has driven his collection to an end goal: a museum coupled with services for artists practicing in the current urban art movement. The National Institute of Urban Arts will open its doors officially in 2018 but will begin offering artists accounting, legal and career advice from their proxy office later this year. I talked to O’Neil about collecting with a greater purpose, and his precursor exhibition, UNCONTAINABLE, at the Thomas Center Galleries in Gainesville.

Craig O’Neil, all photographs courtesy Randy Batista

Lori Zimmer: When did you start collecting art? 

Craig O’Neil: We started collecting seriously in 2008.

LZ: What was the first piece you bought? Why? 

CO: The first piece of urban art I bought was a piece by Joe Iurato. I was drawn to it because it reminded my wife and I of that first really cold day in New York City when the air hurts your lungs a bit with crispness while walking down the street.

Axel Void, Homo Homini Lupus

LZ: What drives you to buy? Are you concerned with the investment? 

CO: We buy pieces that we feel connected to, where we can see ourselves and the artist in the work through our own narrative. I almost never think about buying for investment and anytime I have it’s been a sour experience.

LZ: Why is collecting art important?

CO: This is a tough one.  Personally, I feel drawn to it.  I never even considered if it was important. However if pressed for a reason, it is because art is how we document our time, it captures moments. All too often the very best of art is missed, and so we think it’s important to capture meaningful work and support those artists so their work reaches people and is remembered.  Artists are telling a truth, and the truth is in short supply.

LZ: The art patrons of the past took artists under their wings for sometimes a year or more, supporting their lives in exchange for art works and access. The model has changed as the art market has morphed. Do you think modern collecting reflects this relationship in any ways?   

Logan Hicks, Bella Florchi

CO: Actually, these art patrons of the past are great inspiration for us. The focus on making great work happen, providing honest critique and helping doors open is what has always mattered to us and it’s what we see in benefactors like Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Stein, etc. That sort of selflessness and impassioned dedication is what we as collectors aspire to. The door was opened by Marc and Sara (of Wooster Collective) and great examples were set by Tony Goldman. We hope we can bring something to the table by being focused on the art and not the money.

LZ: You’ve begun collecting with the idea of a private museum in mind. How did the National Institute of Urban Art (NIUA) come about? 

CO: It wasn’t the primary inspiration but it followed shortly behind. At some point, I have to imagine every collector starts with a thought of ‘what the hell am I going to do with all this?’ As well as ‘I would love for other people to enjoy this.’ However, NIUA has a wider mission, and that mission came together thanks to many conversations with folks like Logan Hicks. Through these conversations, we identified that the business of art, the accounting, the legal and career development, are common challenges that artists face and often struggle with. We can help support by buying their art, but we also decided that someone needs to be there to help with these career logistics- and that’s us.

LZ: Why did you decide to mount a precursor exhibition—UNCONTAINABLE—at a satellite location?

UNCONTAINABLE entrance, with works by Michael Reeder (left) and How & Nosm (right)

CO: We decided to launch a precursor exhibition for two reasons, primarily, the city of Gainesville has been inviting us to bring NIUA to the city, and that is going to require a fertile ground for us to plant the seeds in.  So the exhibition was a great way to evaluate how real the cities intentions were.  If we came and the experience was all we expected, we knew the wider NIUA plan would make sense.  We are still busy with our day to day businesses and we can’t afford to have to convince the city to embrace us, we would, however, be happy to dedicate time and resources to launching NIUA if the cities perceived support was as strong as it seemed when the rubber met the road.  Secondly, we have wanted to share our collection for a long time, in an institutional environment, and the opportunity was there, we couldn’t pass it up.

LZ: You’re still looking for a brick and mortar location. What do you foresee the NIUA to look like? 

CO: We open our offices in July 2017, with a goal of opening exhibition space by March 2018. NIUA will program 2 to 4 exhibitions per year. It will house a library of information that institutions can use for study, and it will be continuously available for legal, accounting and career development help for artists. It will host workshops throughout the year and it will be self-sustainable.

LZ: Why Gainesville? 

CO: To be frank, the initial motivation was a bit selfish, we love Gainesville, I personally visited there from 1996 till I moved there in 2000 and have a long and passionate affinity to the area. It is an amazing place with creatives everywhere. However, the justification really became that there is an authenticity to Gainesville and a history driven by self-taught artists.  As odd as it is, Gainesville came into focus as the most logical place to be, as it’s an affordable and easy going place where a creative can come and be surrounded by great creative energy with resources from UF, and Santa Fe college.  New York, LA, etc., are also great locations, but there is an energy there that makes it a bit hard to think. They are inspiring, but not the place one goes to take a step back to spend time creating, in order to take a larger step forward. Gainesville has this pastoral setting for discussion and study that is more a part of what we are, then the energy and excitement of NY or LA.

Swoon, Mortimer & Jenkins, Michael Reeder, The Observed Observer and Juan Traviseo, Continuous-Time Markov

LZ: Aside from showing your collection, what else will the NIUA offer? 

CO: Exhibition is a part of our focus, but there is as much attention to both academic and institutional study, and artist support, as there is for exhibition space. Urban art is a living movement, it has needs right now, the people creating it are dealing with real challenges of navigating tax liability, legal issues for VARA and copyright problems, as well as understanding how to develop their careers so they can make art a lifelong endeavour, as opposed to a flash from their youth.  We want to be sure the artists in this movement have long and successful careers, and we are dedicated to making that happen. 

UNCONTAINABLE, which is open through September 9, is the precursor to the forthcoming National Institute of Urban Art, featuring the collection of Craig O’Neil.

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