Teka Selman was raised in art. She remembers being a kid attending the Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, just outside Detroit. The campus, which also boasts an art museum and academy of fine art, was started by Detroit philanthropists George and Ellen Booth in 1904, and designed in part by Eliel Saarinen. Charles Eames studied there.
“We sat in beautiful chairs, with beautiful art on the walls all around us,” Selman said. “It was an amazing place to go to school. You had things like weaving and jewelry making that you could take in middle school and elementary school. You took music as an integral part of the curriculum and you were doing plays every year. The arts were really central to my experience growing up.”
From there it was on to the University of Michigan, graduate school in London, and work in galleries on both sides of the Atlantic. She moved to Durham in 2006 when her husband took a job as curator at the Nasher Museum of Art.
“What struck me about Durham when we got here was the sense of possibility,” Selman said. “It felt like there was all of this energy swirling around waiting to be directed. It felt like there was a part to play here in building upon things already happening. You felt like you were going to a place where there was still room to contribute something.”
Her contributions include the cutting edge Branch Gallery, a partnership between Selman and Chloe Seymore, which was an early adopter in downtown's revitalization and has since closed. Selman credits the gallery with expanding her curatorial experience. She helped Duke University start its first Masters of Fine Arts Program – a concentration in experimental and documentary arts – and now runs Selman Contemporary, an art advisory focused on collecting, private curation, and arts philanthropy, as well as a roaming pop up film and video event, The Citizen.
Selman will be the featured guest at the Vert and Vogue Happy Hour event on May 18, but first, we caught up to chat about her curatorial philosophy, how she helps clients hone their taste, and her upcoming collaboration with V&V.
How would you describe what you do at Selman Contemporary?
Most of what I do is advising individuals on building art collections. Some are already collecting. Some are starting from scratch. When I start working with people, they’ll often just say, ‘I want you to tell me what’s good.’ That’s impossible. Collecting is so subjective. What I think is good might not be your cup of tea. I want to help people hone their eye to understand what is good to them. If you’re going to spend your money, you have to love it and not regret having bought it years down the line. I have clients that I work with for years. It’s a very collaborative relationship.
Venice, 2018 | image credit: T. Schoonmaker
How do you help people find work that is going to still resonate for them in the future? It seems like it would be easy to get caught up in the zeitgeist of certain trends which may not last?
There are trends in the art world just like there are trends in the fashion world. And there will be times where everyone says ‘Oh my God, I’m in love with this artist’ and the value of that artist’s work will shoot way up. There are definitely collectors who buy an artist’s work because other people have bought it. In my mind, that’s a horrible way to collect. I want to help people realize that there is no guarantee that these things will go up in value. So collecting to flip something, or collecting to invest in something, I’m not interested in that. Hopefully you’re buying the art to live with it. I want people to look at collecting as a reflection of their values and ideals.
So would you say it's a way to generate conversation both with guests who interact with the art and with yourself?
I think people miss how much of an activist practice collecting can be. What you collect can reflect your values and your ideals. If you are interested in supporting women or people of color, or work that is making challenging political statements, you can make all those choices in what you collect. It allows you to support not only what you’re interested in but also support the artists and allow them to continue making that work. With an emerging artist in particular you can really help them do what they do. It’s a partnership.
image credit: J. Caldwell
How would you advise someone just getting started in art collecting who may be feeling intimidated or assume that they can’t afford it?
Budget is not as important to me as a willingness to challenge yourself. The art world has the advantage of a robust spectrum, between young, emerging artists who are going to be more affordable, and artists who are well established with works costing more than a million dollars.
I want people to know their taste is valid and not to be intimidated by this process of collecting art. Opportunities will pass you by. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll buy something and end up hating it. You just have to trust yourself and take the risk. At the end of the day you learn from that.
Every collection is unique and that’s what makes it cool. You can go into someone’s home and get a sense for what they are interested in – maybe it’s portraiture or brightly colored abstract work or, again, art that is making a political statement. I have my own taste that’s different from my clients. One thing I tell people is ‘I’m not a decorator.’
The truth is, right now, there is an embarrassment of riches. So many artists making high quality work. Really, why would you want to have the same thing as someone else?
You are working now to curate some art for Vert and Vogue. Could you discuss the goals of that project?
I want to look at artists with a connection to this place who are invested in saying something meaningful with their work. One of the things that I love about the store is that you know when you go in that Nadira – who I just think is so brilliant – knows every single piece that’s in there and the story of the people who made it. As a business, they are interested in clothes made sustainably, with meaning, and intention. I think the same can be said about the work that we will show there. What’s exciting about this project is that it gives people the opportunity to engage with art in a form that is more open ended, perhaps less intimidating than other environments, and hopefully at a price point that feels possible for a new or seasoned collector.
Can you tell us about Stacy Lynn Waddell, the first artist whose work will be presented at Vert & Vogue as part of your collaboration together?
Stacy is a native North Carolinian whose practice operates at the intersection of familiarity and fantasy. I’ve always been fascinated with how her work explores and complicates well worn historical and cultural tropes by distilling them down to their essential elements to question the origin of things: how power is ascribed and notions built, what is true and what is imagined. Stacy's aesthetic is particularly captivating - she creates depth and texture through a range of cumulative processes, including painting, gilding, branding, heating, and embossing. The result is work that is not only smart, but also remarkably beautiful. Though she is based in Durham most of the time, Stacy is fully engaged with the larger art world outside of North Carolina, which speaks to the continual decentralization of the art world in recent years, as well as the powerful pull of Durham as a creative space.
WE HOPE YOU'LL JOIN US ON THE 18TH TO VISIT WITH OUR SPECIAL GUEST, TEKA, AND ENJOY A DRINK ON THE HOUSE!