The Agora Culture

Teaching the Nuts and Bolts of Collecting and Art Appreciation

John Welch

Today’s vibrant art market, due in no small measure to the flourishing of contemporary art, is prompting long established art museums, celebrated collectors, gallerists and auctioneers to embrace the significance of this art category with renewed zeal. The promise of legions of new art collectors, donors, and art enthusiasts resulting from varied approaches to contemporary expression, especially diasporic art representing a global cultural transmission and interplay, is seen as a vital component of the future for art making, collecting and arts support.

Innovative, and often grass roots initiatives, are emerging on the ground in communities and on the web; while art museum building expansions and new curatorial or programmatic efforts proliferate in response to our current fever for art of today. Though seemingly humble by comparison to the effort and resources of mainstream cultural organs, smaller initiatives share with cultural giants the overarching ambition of educating public taste, collecting practice and interpretation with an eye to cultivating the esteemed collectors and donors of tomorrow.

Jessica Stafford Davis, 6/4/2013, Maya Darasaw of M.A.D. Works PhotographyIn 2013, Jessica Stafford Davis, a former AOL executive residing in McLean, Virginia just outside Washington, D.C.  embarked on a web-based project, The Agora Culture, as an outgrowth of a private exhibition she held in her home for artist Mequitta Ahuja in 2013. In a recent interview with IRAAA+, Agora Club representative Carita Parks notes this online endeavor is a multi-Mequitta Ahujacultural arts platform with two objectives: First, to educate new and seasoned collectors on how to navigate the art world and purchase investment-grade original art. Second, to connect those collectors to emerging to mid-level investment-grade artists. In other words, those artists who are on the trajectory to having their work placed in notable private and public collections.

Jessica Stafford Davis says that at the outset of her own art collecting in the early 2000s, she applied her business acumen to the project. First, researching and then making inquiries of industry professionals about approaches to achieving her goal to collect fine art. As a business woman she wanted to learn where to find the highest quality art work and to learn more about art as an investment—the ROI (return-on-investment) surrounding particular works. Davis quickly ascertained it is hard to know who to trust in pursuing such information as she struggled to find reliable counsel to navigate the art world.

As early influences helping her advance as a collector and art enthusiast, she credits her mentor, Myrtis Bedolla of Galerie Myrtis, Baltimore Maryland, with whom she interned, and Bedolla's advice that she closely follow the International Review of African American Art  journal.  

In those early years of collecting Davis learned that African American art was among the most undervalued work in the international art space and that there was a dearth of diverse art collectors involved in the international arts conversation who collect investment-grade art. She resolved to help remedy this predicament.

Today, she maintains a growing network of seasoned collectors, curators, and art museum professionals for The Agora Culture community who provide vital information to help new and existing collectors become more engaged with the art world through increased levels of collecting and eventual arts patronage. The focus of Davis’ collecting, and those she assists through her web platform include African and African American diaspora art, as well as Latino and Asian art.Art Basics 101, 1/6/2015, The Agora Culture

Move through The Agora Culture website and it is easy to ascertain the possibilities of ‘relationship’ that are a hallmark of Davis’ effort here. The economic aspects of art collecting, on all levels, are daunting to many people.  In a recent Forbes profile on her group, we learn that Davis’ approach to providing access to both museum grade art and work for the small investor of $1000 to $25,000 is personal yet comprehensive. The Agora Culture offers trusted access to galleries and auction houses making collectors of museum grade pieces aware of works they did not know existed and helping them to better understand the inner workings of the art market.  For small investors the group brings on board artists who are selling at their level affording direct access to these artists and their work through a range of events. Davis says, this way people do not feel pressure to have to ‘be’ in a certain category or box to invest in themselves.  In their art.  In their future.

Artist Sheldon Scott presenting John Henry series at Art on the Vine in Martha’s Vineyard, The Agora Culture, 8/22/2015, Kelley DeBettencourt PhotographyOngoing events for those benefitting from The Agora Culture experience include its educational and highly sociable art salons, workshops and guided tours. Examples of recent such events include private tours to New York City for a director-led preview of Maya Angelou’s collection at Swann’s Auction by director Nigel Freeman. An annual Martha’s Vineyard gathering, ‘Art on the Vine’ which featured a reception this year for performance artist Sheldon Scott and a recent art salon in partnership with writer and curator Julie Chae debuting New York City based artist Elia Alba’s Supper Club.

The Elia Alba event brought together a diverse group of collectors, scholars and visual artists in DC for an intimate dinner and conversation about the prospects of race relations post President Obama. The Agora Group also offers an Art Basics 101 course that teaches art appreciators and new collectors the top 10 things they need to know to start an investment-level collection. Topics include: identifying your theme, honing your eye to identify key pieces, how to navigate a museum, attend an auction, the contemporary art fairs to keep on your radar, and much more. This in-person workshop experience will also have an online version as of the first quarter 2016.

By meeting nascent collectors where they are, so to speak, and helping more experienced ones to enhance their knowledge and aesthetic sensibilities, The Agora Culture is a web-based project whose intent and relevance to diverse audiences may someday reach its ambitious vision of scaling up to the broadest possible global public. Certainly, for its current base of enthusiasts and collectors of contemporary artists of color, this shop is connecting people of varying backgrounds and socio-economic levels to a national engagement with art of the global moment in ways that are significant to them as individuals and potentially to us all as common nationals.Dr. Hassan Minor Jr. & Wife at Art on the Vine, The Agora Culture, 8/22/2015, Kelley DeBettencourt Photography

The Agora Culture Supper Club Dinner, Washington, DC, 11/7/2015, Arvin Eskandarnia The Agora Culture Owner Jessica Stafford Davis, Artist Elia Alba, and Curator Julie Chae debut The Supper Club with Art Salon and Dinner in Washington, D.C., 11/7/2015, Arvin EskandarniaIn a 1985 speech, "The Arts’ Key Role in Society," historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. recalled that 19th century art critic John Ruskin once said great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—"the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art…of the three the only quite trustworthy one is the last. The acts of a nation may be triumphant by its good fortune; and its words mighty by the genius of a few of its children; but its art only by the general gifts and common sympathies of the race."

The Agora Culture seeks cultivation and connection for all citizens to arts’ ennobling cultural significance.  It nurtures and guides its diverse band of citizens toward the role of tomorrow’s art lover and supporter. The success of entities such as this, born of organic experiences with art on the ground, helps to bring us all closer, perhaps, to writing that national autobiographical manuscript on art foretold by Ruskin.Jessica Stafford Davis, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Simon Leigh, Uri McMillian, The Agora Culture Dinner, 11/7/2015, Arvin Photography