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Collectors Interview: Masami Kawazato and Aaron Merrill

In our latest edition of Rosalux Collects we are visiting with south Minneapolis art collectors and arts enthusiasts Masami Kawazato and Aaron Merrill. Rosalux director Terrence Payne discussed with them how they got started collecting and what keeps them going as they continue to support and advocate for our Minneapolis arts community.

left to right: vase with Japanese new year’s charms and a paper flower from the Mia rebranding celebration; mason jars filled with rocks collected from travels and local plant seeds; sculpture by Masami made at a metal pinching class in 2014; Bruce Nauman print from Tate Modern, early 2000s

TP: Thanks for sharing your home and experiences with our Rosalux audience today. Let’s get started by finding out how you all became interested in the arts and what drove you to become so involved in the community and at what point you started collecting art?

AM: I think it started when you started working at the Walker. We had moved to the Loring park area after we got married in 2001 and I was working mostly weekends in restaurants so Masami had Fridays and Saturdays on her own to go to different art events.

MK: Yes, I was working a lot. Yeah. I was going to work related art stuff. When the Walker After Hours used to be a monthly thing, it was our department that put it together so I went to every single one in addition to every single opening there for over a decade.

So after we lived in Loring Park, we moved here (south minneapolis) and my work commute was from here to the walker on the bus usually. I would pass by SOOVAC twice a day on this commute, so I became curious about it. I'd been to the website, but never went in for some reason. After some time I had become disillusioned with museums, like the high art world and the one percenters, the inaccessibility of the art primarily and the financial aspects of the art world.

So one day I just walked into SOOVAC and I was like, hi, I just wanna look. And Suzy Greenberg was there with Joe Siness. So I looked around and i asked, “What do you do here?” Susie that this is a non-profit gallery. Like what the hell? And I'm like, “Yeah, I think I wanna learn about that. Do you need a volunteer? Can we talk about that?” And she said, “Okay, yeah, sure.” Suzy had me start right away. I thought that was weird and wondered why they didn’t interview me first.

I wanted to see what kind of art was out there that I could potentially afford and the community around that, because the art community I was seeing at work was centered around 5, 6, 7 figure art. I didn’t think that you had to be super wealthy to be able to afford to collect art. I think the first piece I ever bought bought is the Andrea Carlson, from her first show at SOOVAC around 2005."

Andrea Carlson, work on paper from her 2006 exhibition at SooVAC

TP: So you've been pretty conscious of the monetary value of artwork from the beginning. Is that something that you still think about when you're buying new work?

MK: We don't think of it as an investment. The first collectors I knew from work, some of them really did think of it as an investment, which was surprising to me. It never occurred to me to use art as a commodity and investment in that way. I didn't really know prices around the fine art market until I worked at the Walker, and I was like, “How the fuck do people buy then? Does all art cost this much?”

TP: And just to clarify, you were working in development …

MK: At the Walker? Yeah, I was working in fundraising. So there was always a lot of money talk involved. I was like, I think SOOVAC does this with one person on staff that a museum takes 200 people to do, I want to know how that happens.

TP: So SOOVAC and the Andrea Carlson peice were the beginning for you, how did you begin to expand your collection from there?

AM: I don't remember us saying, “Hey, we're gonna be artsy and start collecting” and build up a nice art collection. I think things happened very slowly and gradually. Sometimes Masami would see things she liked and she'd bring 'em home and I also have a tendency towards collecting things. I like music and have a closet full of records, so when Masami was going to buy a a print or a piece of art from a local artist, I, it's not like I was going say, “No, I don't think that's a good idea.”

left image: Sean Smuda, large print, purchased 2007 from SooVAC / right image: Deuce Seven, print from SooVAC Get Lucky; music equipment covered in collected and inherited fabrics

TP: Do you talk it over before you buy artwork now, or do you buy independently of one another and make it work with you collection?

MK: I think if we're together and one of us wants something, we'll talk about it. But I probably bought most of this stuff before Aaron had seen it.

AM: I would never like execute a lot of veto power with anything, if she likes it she will probably get it. If I like it, I think something that comes to mind is this print that we got at Highpoint, the Alaskan art. We were both standing in front of it at the same time and it was a very simple, I liked it and she also liked it so we looked at it and I said, “Do you want to buy it?” We just had a a very open and honest conversation. I'd say 80, 85% of the time that conversation is like, “We'll see.” , and then sometimes it's like, “Yeah, sure, let's get the checkbook.” Some of it is price point though, there's a price where we can't buy that without having a conversation.

TP: So what is the point you need to have a serious talk?

MK: Anything four figures, but we don't really have a lot of stuff that's more than like a thousand, I think maybe one or two pieces.

AM: If we're talking about spending four figures on a piece of art, I'm probably gonna look at that and be like, “Aaron needs new needles for his turn tables.” We have to consider what else could happen with that money.

TP: Would you think it’s fair to say that your collecting is more of a social activity for you than anything else?

MK: Maybe not for fun, but, well, it is fun. It's not like we hate it. Right? But …

AM: My first priority is showing up for the galleries and showing up for the artists, one way to be supportive is to show up. I think there's an illusion that, you know, galleries may just pick somebody to have a show and they've got a ton of art sitting around that they just bring it in and put it on the walls. I like to show up and recognize the work that goes into doing it. These are people working hard on what they do.

MK: Also having worked in non-profit arts and fundraising, learning operational scales of local galleries like SOOVAC and Highpoint for example, and of course it's not $20 million but they're getting it done. We want artists to be paid for the work they put out given that we also like it and it's at a price that doesn't bankrupt us. Once you get to know the artists, how can you be an ass about not supporting their livelihood?

TP: You’ve mentioned several galleries that you go to pretty regularly, are you on the lookout for new spaces to check out as well?

MK: Lookout for new galleries? When Allison Ruby had her Red Garage Studio we went to that all the time. Certainly anything in the neighborhood is a plus, walking proximity is huge. I'm definitely really happy to have Rosalux more in this neighborhood that we can walk to as well as Highpoint and SOOVAC, it’s sort of like this groovy little arts quarter.

AM: I really liked going to TuckUnder when it was open in the neighborhood as well. It makes it easier to be involved because we've lived here for a long time. It's important for me to participate in the neighborhood art scene in South Minneapolis and specifically this uptown area.

left section, clockwise from upper left: crocheted gun by Kurtis Skaife from 2012 (partial commission); Tara Costello from a Rosalux Green Raffle; turkey painting from Midway Contemporary Art exhibition during early 2000s; Comrade Tim Taylor by Rob McBroom, embellished glicee print, 2010 / center section: various objects in a curio cabinet, including Hinamatsuri pieces made by Masami’s grandmothers Miyoko Kawazato and Masako Sugita / right section, clockwise from upper left: Hinamatsuri painting by Miyoko Kawazato on a wooden wine box lid from early 2000s; black and white paper drawing by Sophia Songmi from her 2018 It Comes in Waves residency at SooVAC in 2018; color drawing by Sophia Songmi, 2018

TP: Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you about your collection is because of the works you displayed at SOOVAC’s Collect Call exhibit a few years ago. I thought it was cool to see Masami’s grandmother’s artwork displayed alongside contemporary artists. It looked great and I thought it was interesting to have a family connection to the arts in that way because I haven’t met too many people that have that in their family background…

MK: You know, that work was from probably one of my first ever gallery shows I had gone to. My grandma would have a group show almost annually, with her cohort of porcelain painters. One year we were back in Japan for vacation and the show happened when we were there. So we went and my grandma's like, “Here's this one, meet my other friends too, these are their pieces.”

At the time I thought this is some weird old, old lady shit. And I had gotten in a fight with my cousin that day and decided to go to the gallery in Ginza Barefoot. Oh God. In the middle of summer.

TP: How old were you at the time?

MK: Fourth grade, so I walked into the gallery barefoot having been barefoot the whole time, which is like such a huge no-no in Japan. My grandma and my family were like, “where are your shoes?” And I'm like, “I didn't wear them!” They said, “Oh my God, put the shoes on. This is embarrassing!” And I was like, “Oh damn it, I came all this way and now I have to put on the shoes!” I wasn't allowed to have any of the gallery snacks until I put the shoes on . So I was like, Damnit!”, because, “Ooh food and snacks!”

TP: So you really started your involvement in the arts community by embarrassing your grandmother…

MK: I did. I was just like, this is old lady boring stuff. Everybody here is grandma's age. I can't believe you dragged us here.

TP: You must have grown to appreciate it if you're displaying it in your collection…

MK: I did, like when I was little I would watch grandma do her art and every once in a while she would let me help her. So I always liked going over there to see what she was making. She had a lot of crap in a way that my parents just didn't, like my parents don't have art on the wall. My grandparents both had a lot of arts and craft stuff. My other grandma ended up taking painting classes from that grandma later, they would do things like have come over and I would sit there and they would sketch me for their art class.

various objects collected during travels or gifted to the couple, including a kukui nut necklace from Hawaii 2019, a gifted metal ant sculpture, a Totoro catbus doll, and lidded straw jar

TP: Did either of you grow up with art in your homes?

AM: There was more than just family pictures on our walls. There were definitely prints, sometimes my dad would travel and bring something back and occasionally my mother wouldn't hate it, but most of the time he would put it up anyways. For example, we had big, huge, prints that my father had gotten from the Soviet Union and other stuff like that, that we would just have up on the wall. I remember not just going to like aquariums and stuff as a kid, we would also go up to the closest big city growing up, which was Montreal, and we would see large traveling art shows at the museums in Montreal. I remember going to to see Van Gogh and Monet shows as well as shows of traveling exhibits that been in New York, Chicago and LA which would stop off in Montreal.

I really regretted the fact that I was a terrible drawer as a child. I loved comics. I really wanted to be able to draw characters and figures and write comics and do illustrations and stuff like that. I just am lousy at it no matter how many times I've said I'm gonna start practicing and learn how to draw…

MK: Right? Aaron and I grew up training to be classical musicians, and I think we both know what it takes to be a successful professional classical musician, which is probably really similar to being an artist. I couldn't do that. Shit, I'm not talented enough and I do not have the wherewithal to get there. So I think it's really like, I don't know, ballsy that people can do that.

clockwise from Aaron’s left: Older by Terrence Payne from Umber Studios 2010; Kiki Smith, watercolor and stamp, gift from the artist, 2006; Terrence Payne print; Chateauneuf du Pape, top of hill first-edition photo by Jason Kallsen, 2018

TP: Do you see yourselves continuing to collect art into the future?

MK: Yes, I think so.

TP: Do you think you will get to a point where the work is floor to ceiling on your walls?

MK: Oh, I don’t know…

AM: I would if Masami Wouldn’t restrain me.

MK: There's something about that amount of stuff that is overwhelming to me. My grandmothers were both hoarders, which made my parents super minimalist. I also have a tendency towards hoarding stuff but I don't know if I want that much clutter. Maybe in one room or one wall, but not to the level of every wall in the house.

TP: What do you think you will do with all of your collections as you age? Not that we're all gonna die, but we're all gonna die. Do you ever think about you want to happen to it when you are gone?

AM: I actually do think about because I feel, very strongly attached to a good chunk of my vinyl collection. And I wonder where it’s going go if something happens to me? Can I give it to a library? But then like I don't want them to sell it, because you know people are gonna sell that shit. It is weird because I don’t know if it would have the same value or meaning necessarily to other people.

Bab's Hand by Joe Sinness, colored pencil on paper, 2011


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