Building a More Open, Inclusive and Diverse Arts Scene

An Interview with Art Collector Dwight Smith

“Dwight Smith is such a great asset to our art community. Along with his enthusiasm to collect, he is also an advocate for young emerging artists. Kansas City could use a lot more champions of the arts like Dwight!”
— Stephanie Leedy

Since he began collecting art in the early 1990s, Dwight Smith has established himself as one of the leading collectors in Kansas City, specializing in works by women artists and artists of color.

Smith is a fixture at art openings and events. As gallery owner Bill Haw recently remarked, “Dwight is about as active as anybody in Kansas City in terms of end-to-end support of art. He collects across a wide range of price and medium. He volunteers time and money for worthwhile art-related nonprofit activities, and he always brings the enthusiasm.”

Smith also represents artists, and as Bruce Hartman, executive director of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art observes, “While some collectors exclusively prefer the world of galleries, art fairs and museums, Dwight is eager to engage with artists themselves. He is captivated by their ideas and visual pursuits.”

Recently, Smith served as honorary chairman of the 2020 Kansas City Artists Coalition auction. Last summer he joined other eminent local collectors on a Future Collectors Club panel at Kemper Museum.

Arts KC’s Heather Beffa admires Smith for encouraging people to participate in the arts and cites his key role serving on committees for the ArtsKC Catalyst Mission Grant and Catalyst Project Grant in the last two years. She is also impressed by Smith’s collection, noting its “high level of craftsmanship and the boldness of its messages.”

“I look at what I’m doing as a blueprint for other young collectors, especially Black and Brown collectors,” Smith says. “I’m looking to create a more robust exchange within the art scene, one where folks who look like me are present and share in the development of a truly open, inclusive and diverse arts scene.”

Recently, our contributing writer Harold Smith (who was once represented by Smith and has a piece in his collection), asked him to elaborate on his collecting philosophy and what drives him as a collector.

Harold Smith: You are from San Francisco, a city known for its art scene and beautiful scenery. Has your upbringing in San Francisco had any bearing on your current activities in art?

Dwight Smith: What I took from growing up in the Bay was a very clear vision of what inclusiveness truly is. The Bay Area and its progressive vibe has been at the forefront for many issues that folks today consider hard left, and I was experiencing that “hard left” vibe since I was a kid. You know, stuff like treating all people with respect regardless of their sexual orientation, religion, race, sex. Allowing people to exist as they are without an asterisk, and then actually interacting with those people. It’s easy to talk the talk, but actually putting yourself in space and working in your community TOGETHER is what the Bay Area gave me, and it’s what I try to share and practice with everyone I come in contact with.

Harold: Let’s talk about your collection. Is your art collection focused on any one style, movement, genre, etc.?

Dwight: For starters, the focus of the collection is on women artists and people of color. I’m looking to constantly build on making the art world more inclusive: one, through participation, and two, through focusing the collection on traditionally marginalized markets. As far as style and genre I am all over the map, but I’m a sucker for ceramics. I also am a big fan of mixed-media collage and fiber art. Fiber folks out here are taking the medium to new extremes. I love that energy, and those are the types of processes that capture my attention.

Harold: How did you get involved in collecting art? 

Dwight: Growing up in the Bay Area my parents had all kinds of artist friends — poets, painters, singers, you name it. We lived as a family with a very high level of arts immersion, so from early on I knew that the arts would always be a part of my life. The collecting art bug actually grew out of me collecting comic books. I became obsessed with not only acquiring books for the collection but also the archival elements of protecting and maintaining the collection. As I grew older, I began to here and there grab a piece of art for the home. This practice really kicked off after I was stationed in Germany, in the early ’90s.

Harold: Congratulations and thank you for your many years of military service. Are there skills that you acquired in military service that you are applying to your art collecting?

Dwight: After 26 years of service, I have found many immensely valuable skills that lend themselves to the art world. I know for an absolute fact that I could take my old Company that I commanded during Operation Iraqi Freedom — people with absolutely no art knowledge — and build one of the most influential art entities around. Above all, you need self-discipline in order to maintain and achieve your goals. Ingenuity and motivation are other valuable characteristics.

Personally, the element of Planning Operations that I was able to study in depth here at Ft. Leavenworth while attending CGSC (Command and General Staff College) and then put into practice in theater (over and over again) has given me the best skill set I could ask for when it comes to collecting art.

Harold: Can you identify three or four works in your collection that you are particularly proud of?

Dwight: This is probably the toughest question I get asked!!! All of my babies are special; they provide me with so much light, but If the house was burning down, I’m definitely grabbing the Alison Saar, “Mirror Mirror” (2018). This piece is particularly special as it draws on cultural elements within the diaspora that aren’t readily apparent to many outside the culture; it is both sad and sublime and addresses painful issues like colorism and the effects it has had and continues to have on Black peoples. Another favorite is Derrick Adams’ “Game Changing” (2015). I just love how Derrick in this instance takes something trivial — a playing card — and transforms it into something aspirational. I love how Derrick takes everyday Black life and gives us uplifting positive affirmations that make me say “hell yeah” every time I see it.

Another piece that speaks volumes is by a KCAI student (class of 2020) named Jada Patterson. Her “Mother of the Stolen” (2017), a five-foot terra cotta, glaze and hemp sculpture, is a truly breathtaking monument. I remember seeing it at the KCAI student show a few years back, and the power and pride I felt in this piece was off the charts. Finally, I have a fantastic piece I first saw at Charlotte Street by brother William Toney. It was hilarious because I was trying to buy that one right off the walls during the “Basic Essentials” show back in 2018. It’s just a fantastic piece: I tell Will every time I see him that he is my “Isaac Hayes” of the aesthetic. His work brings you a distinct viewpoint of our culture that I just love.

Harold: You served in the military, and your wife, Beth Low-Smith, works with KC Healthy Kids. It appears that public service is important to your family. Does this also translate to your approach to art and collecting?

Dwight: I think it does; I for one believe we (Black folks) have an obligation to maintain connections to the arts so we can continue the dialogue on what our culture is, what it was and where it is going. I’m doing my small part by maintaining my own repository of fine art within the Black space. You never stop serving.

Harold: A few years ago, “The New York Times” reached out to Black art collectors and asked them to “show us your wall.” Do you believe Black art collectors get the same amount of attention that non-Black collectors do? 

Dwight: I think they are starting to, and this is very important. As we see more collectors of color and focus on who and what they collect, we begin to see new elements emerge — like what this work means to other Black people. I find it very interesting to see how Black collectors operate in the art space, and I find myself taking notes, corresponding, and, when possible, meeting in art spaces to fellowship.

Harold: Does the fact that you are a Black art collector influence your choices and collection processes? If so, how?

Dwight: It absolutely does; I see it as my duty to be an ambassador for the culture. I take pride in being able to support the arts community, especially art from Black and Brown folks and women. What better way to acknowledge and uplift those within the art space than to actively seek out and acquire their works. I see it as a way to reaffirm what these fantastic artists are doing by putting that stamp of validation of the work through a purchase.

Harold: Do you have any words of advice for those who are engaging in the process of collecting art, especially for aspiring Black collectors?

Dwight: You belong here . . .

Harold: Are there plans to publicly exhibit your collection? 

Dwight: I’d love to have the collection travel; right now I always ensure that if necessary, the pieces are available to the artists if they need the work for a show, and while I love having a house full of art, the ultimate goal is to share the work with the public. Down the road I’d love to have a collection that educates and entertains the world as it travels from museum to museum. For me that would be the zenith for any collector.

Harold Smith

Harold Smith is an educator and multimedia artist who lives and works in the Kansas City area. Most of his work is focused on his experience within the American black experience.

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