Top Chicago Art Specialist Zachary Wirsum on How to Start Your Own Collection

Plus, the artists the Hindman Auctions director has on his own walls

December 2, 2022 6:35 am
Woman hanging picture frame on wall at home
What a world-class art dealer wants you to know about starting your collection
Westend61 via Getty

Zack Wirsum didn’t really stand a chance.  As the son of artists Karl Wirsum and Lori Gunn Wirsum, a career in art was in the cards. “I did go through a phase in seventh or eighth grade, where I considered being a lawyer,” he admits. “I liked to argue in favor of a specific viewpoint, and it seemed like it would pay well. I am glad that I came to my senses and entered the family trade.”

“Trade” is the operative word here. Wirsum not only followed in his parents’ footsteps and became a visual artist (he shows at the Jean Albano Gallery in River North), but he’s built an impressive career outside the studio. After a three-year stint at the Chicago Conservation Center, he joined Hindman Auctions, where he’s risen from fine art registrar to Director, Senior Specialist, Post War & Contemporary Art.

Wirsum’s more notable successes include the October 2018 sale of a pastel by Chicago-raised Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), a key figure of the New York School in the 1950s who later lived and worked in France. Expected to go for between $400,000 and $600,000, it eventually sold for $1,212,500, a record for a work on paper by the artist. In February, he arranged Somewhere Out There, where many of the lots were weird and wonderful, marked by a Surrealist or Visionary sensibility. Among these was Gertrude Abercrombie’s The Dinosaur, a small oil painting from 1964 depicting a barren landscape with an egg in the foreground and an Apatosaurus in the distance. The piece fetched $387,500 (an auction record for the Chicago artist, who died in 1977) and the auction as a whole realized $970,656, almost triple the pre-sale estimate.

“Knowing what is good is one thing, but knowing what is one of the best is another,” suggests Wirsum. “I identified both to be among the best out there, and was certain that the market would be equally excited. I have been looking at artwork, and discussing why what I am looking at matters for as long as I can remember. In doing so, I have developed a natural instinct for what is a strong work of art.”

Wirsum’s not resting on his laurels. His Dec. 14 sale features sculpture by Henry Moore, Fernando Botero, Richard Hunt and Ursula von Rydingsvard. February’s Figuratively Speaking centers on Midwestern surrealism and March showcases the collection of the late Susann Craig, a founder of Intuit, Chicago’s museum of outsider and self-taught art.

How Artist Alexa Meade Brought “Wonderland” to NYC’s Fifth Avenue
A former Best Buy is transformed into a magical exhibition where guests are meant to interact with the art

Snagging key works and significant collections is key to the prestige (and bottom line) of any auction house, and as Wirsum notes, success comes down to relationships. “When I seek consignments, I am never trying to sell anyone on anything,” he says. “I am more focused on presenting opportunities. It helps that I have been adept throughout my career at identifying discrepancies between specific artists, both in terms of art history and market value, and bridging that gap to the advantage of everyone involved. I always want to do right by the customer, and share my honest feedback and guidance. One of my favorite lines is ‘I am giving you the same advice I would give my mother.’”

Not surprisingly, Wirsum’s personal holdings include pieces by his parents, plus work they have gifted him by their friends, fellow Chicago Imagists Jim Nutt and Ray Yoshida. On his own, Wirsum has acquired work by local artists Rebecca Shore and Brian Kapernekas, as well as pieces by Los Angeles-based David Leggett and New Yorker Eddie Martinez. “There’s more to my collection, but that is what is currently hanging on my walls,” he says. “Color, tight lines, humor and imaginative approaches to the figure are the common threads and conversations between the works.”

Always on the lookout for the underrated and undervalued, Wirsum has been heartened by an increasing willingness to extend critical boundaries and demonstrate a new appreciation of all kinds of work. “The biggest and most welcome general market shift I have witnessed over the past decade is the correction of the value of once-overlooked artists,” he notes. “Whether they did not receive recognition initially due to race, gender, sexual orientation or regional location, so many are deservedly becoming mainstream hits, resulting in a meteoric rise in the demand and the price points for these artists. This curatorial and collecting push to be more inclusive is beyond refreshing.”

Of course, as many outsiders assert — and some inside the tent, too — art can problematic, desired as an asset more than as a manifestation of beauty (or if not beauty, creativity). While he operates on the business side of the art world, Wirsum maintains that the appeal to eye, heart and head should always inform any acquisition.

“I firmly believe you should acquire something because it speaks to you,” he says. “You can’t imagine living without it. You aren’t just purchasing it because it is a good investment. That’s not to say I am opposed to making money from what you collect — art is a commodity and a most wonderful commodity at that. If you follow your heart and mind instead of your pocketbook, more often than not you will see a healthy return if you ever decide to sell. And if you decide not to sell, you will always have the priceless joy of having that work in your life. This is why, at the end of the day, connoisseurship always wins out.”

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.