Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Rosalux director Terrence Payne visited with Kristoffer Knutson recently to talk about his experiences with collecting art and the art of collectables. Kristoffer, employed as a creative producer with the Mono agency, has long been a familiar sight in the art world of the twin cities. He was one of the founders of MPLSART and had been the purveyor of all things collectable with his shop ROBOTlove. Kristoffer shared how these experiences among others have helped to shape the way he views and collects art today.
Was art a part of your upbringing growing up or was it something you went out and discovered on your own?
Art was something that existed in my home on a typical level for the late 70s, like a Picasso Don Quixote print. My parents were into museum posters and things like that, but not artists themselves. Art was around but it wasn't the main part of our lives. I suppose it wasn’t until I began my own creative expression in high school as a little punk rocker and then ending up at MCAD after working for a jeweler. Creative arts had always been a part of my life but I wasn't necessarily raised on them so much as given the freedom to be a part of them.
Did you go to MCAD in hopes of becoming an artist?
I went in to be a painter and was a really shitty painter so I switched to design because I had an affinity to the idea of more order and structure to build work around. I then had a crit from a professor who called my work anemic, so I thought that this wasn't the path for me. So, I moved towards film and photography and realized that there are already pictures out there and I just need to put them together. I focused on film making for the last 3 years I was there. While everyone around me wanted to be directors, cinematographers, and writers, I found I was most comfortable and adept at finding people who were doing really good work and bringing them together so it naturally led to a career in production, as a producer.
At what point did you find yourself wanting to collect art? What was the first piece you ever bought for yourself?
I don't know that I can pinpoint the first piece, I think it began as a natural extension of being in art school. The people around me were making things and those things started to end up in my possession. Whether it was a photo project that someone was working on or paintings that someone was clearing out of their studio to make space. I got lucky in the sense that the collection really spawned from that time and grew into what it is now. It has always started with a personal connection that I might have had with artists.
Were you buying from your peers starting out or was it mostly trading?
Mostly trading, a lot of it was just getting lucky because people were tired of moving work around with them and would give it to me as a gift because I had expressed an interest in it earlier.
Your collection began then with the relationships you had formed in school, but as you moved on did it begin to develop a specific focus? I am really interested in finding out how your early collecting led to getting so involved with the collectables, especially in relation to your experiences with ROBOTlove…
ROBOTlove happened after I had done a stint in advertising and left the industry for a while. During that time, I started buying Takashi Murakami prints on ebay and realized that if I buy 3 of prints I could sell 2 of them and keep one for my collection - and what a deal! I then saw that he (Murakami) was doing a line of figurines sets for convenience stores in Japan so that turned me on to the idea that this could be a really affordable way to collect a bigger artist's work. Kidrobot, which was the godfather of all collectible blind box series’, was just opening up shops in San Francisco and New York at that time so I thought because of my connection with the creative industries here in Minneapolis there might be room for an interesting sort of curio shop like that here. A museum shop without the museum. I had no real idea what any of that was until I started to dig into it in that realm. I could live in the store and be connected to the excitement of the work which was the affordable end of big artists like Yoshitomo Nara, Marukami, or even beach towels from Kehinde Wiley for $100 or $150. I could have a piece of art that even though it was a multiple, it still represented the work of that artist which would be unattainable to me otherwise. There was something accessible in a smaller piece that wouldn’t set me (or customers) back too much. The retail side of it was brand new to me, I had no idea what I was doing but found a great opportunity to support the production runs of not only large distributors like Kidrobot, but also local artists like a run of poster prints in the shop by Aesthetic Apparatus or limited run t-shirts by other artists. ROBOTlove was another way of supporting others that were making cool shit much like I started to do in college. Artists doing really curious and interesting things without being responsible for those creations myself but supporting the arts in that way.
Was there already an audience for what you were doing in the store before you opened or did you have to build a community around the collectibles yourself?
Interestingly enough the customers that did start to really to support the shop in a really beneficial way were salon owners and tattoo artists. I thought about it a lot and realized that they both deal in cash and are both way into aesthetics, so it was a new and unexpected audience for me. They really sustained the store for a long while.
As an artist accessibility is something that I think about a lot. How does an artist find a way to create something that is really cool and worth having and impactful to somebody in some way but still make it affordable? Where do you fall on giclee printmaking?
I wondered if it might be cheapening the art in some way but then there was something about making it available to people, the idea of a broader reach and allowing someone who may not have that much money the ability to start collecting while still having an appreciation for that original piece. There is still a benefit to limiting the run so that it is just not open. You have to make a distinction about something like that for yourself as an artist. For years it felt appropriate that there would be limited run editions (screen prints) because there is a craft that applies to that. The mass production of other prints may lessen the value of the original work depending on where you are in your career.
One thing I struggled with often was trying to discern between decorative arts and more artistic work. There was a lot of stuff that would come through the store that was pretty or nice but was there any substance to it? That is where the curatorial part became important for me where I had to step in and make that distinction, maybe I didn’t always do it so well, but for the most part I think it was about that.
Did working around the collectables and having to make those distinctions through the curating of the shop start to affect the way you were buying art for your own collection, or were you still going off the relationships you were finding with artists and their art?
I think it reinforced the idea of affordability for me. There was lot of stuff that I should have tightened my belt and spent more money on because it would have been worth it to have now, but I opted for the KAWS ashtray rather than the KAWS figurine, the former still being cool but it doesn’t have the same value to it that the more limited pieces would be now. Friends With You is another good example. When we installed their show at Soovac, there was work on the wall (paintings) that part of me thought I should have stepped up and bought but instead I got the full set of plushies and I bought signed works from their smaller figure releases instead. I think that for me it was about economics mostly and where I was at in my life, what my investments could be. There are definitely moments that I wished I had stepped up a little bit at the time not because of how much more things are worth now but because they are less attainable for me now.
Do you think about what the return on your investment in art might be in the future when you collect or is it something else that drives your decisions?
It is definitely a more visceral motivation, like with the Murakami pieces I had bought in the past. I did wonder where they may be in 20 years, but I there was never a filter of, “let’s buy this and then tuck it away.” There are some pieces I came upon because of my relationship with the store that I bought, like some Shepard Fairey work, that I don’t think I’ll ever display but they might be worth using towards investing in another piece down the line. For the most part it has always been about what I responded to. The fun part about having the store was having a “collection” that I could live in that was changing all the time, I didn’t have to worry about maintaining it, I could look at it for a while and then let it go…
Like a lending library full of art...
Yeah, like a little free library. Just not free.
ROBOTlove was the first institution in town that an artist could go to and see how bigger named artists were able to use mass production to reach a broader audience. I remember visiting the store to find inspiration from what those artists were doing and in a way, permission to take risks with my work I might not otherwise have considered. Did you find that there was an audience of artists coming into the store in a similar way?
Yes, even now I hear from artists about how they used to come in and it was an inspiration in that way. Which was great, people came in and they saw the line between surface design and art collectibles broken down a bit which gave them permission to do things like that whether it was skate decks, posters, or whatever. Another important factor in that equation was technology, it was starting to become affordable to do a short run of 100 items or something. It all spawned from a cheaper roto casting technology in China, you didn't have to make thousands of pieces anymore, you could just do 100 little figurines instead. One of my biggest regrets is not grabbing some of the Kehinde Wiley busts that he had made and sold for a couple of hundred dollars each. That was the kind of cool shit that you could do.
Do you think that the way you approach collecting art has been changed by your experience from ROBOTlove? Do you remain immersed in the world of collectables or has that changed now?
I think that I have stepped away from it, My tastes have changed and matured. Now I am looking for more substantial pieces to have in my life. I think the art I collect is much like the tattoos that I have - they live under my skin for a while and then they are show up when they’re ready. I spend more time exposing myself to something or an artist for a while and then deciding to make the investment and make that a part of my life. I’m a little bit more discerning now, I work towards things with less frequent purchases.
You have a fairly large collection, do you think about what your plans are long term for it? Will you gift it to your family, or donate it to a museum?
I don’t know if the work that I have is at museum level yet. It is definitely there for my daughter if she wants it. It would have to be a discussion with her, “Is this something that you want to carry on or should we sell it off and move on from it?”
I ask because I can’t help wondering at times while touring the work of collectors what the legacy may be for all of the artwork and the effort that goes into making up these collections, but I’ve never really asked before…
I live with it for the now, I don’t really think about what happens in the future. I hope the artists of the work that I have collected are successful enough one day to make my collection of interest, but mostly it is made up of people that have become close to me, from James Zucco to Drew Peterson. I hope there is an opportunity that there might be a Drew Peterson retrospective some day and they might ask for a loan for the show? But it is a different kind of vibe, most of what I have is mid-level emerging work that I don't think of buying to take a bet on, but buying because I like it.
Because of your close relationships with the artists you collect and the knowledge you have about them and their work, have you ever considered documenting the stories around your collection for when you may not be here to tell them? Maybe they won’t break through to the next level which would guarantee the documentation of their histories, but there are a lot of really good artists in your collection that could still be influential in a way in the future…
I don’t think I’ve ever really had this conversation before. I can count numerous times going to estate sales and seeing artworks stacked against a wall that the family doesn’t know what to do with, flipping through stuff and seeing some scribbled name with the date of 1971 and thinking, ”that looks cool but who the fuck is that?“. There is a story behind all those pieces, not that I would want this work pulled out and dusted off to sell for $15 just to unload it, but that is a curious thought as to how you might maintain that narrative in the collection somehow.
I have always had an interesting relationship with collecting. In college I had an affinity for collecting Zippos and masks and when I was a kid it was comic books, Star Wars cards and things like that. I was into it to a degree that most of us were at that age. I was also raised by parents that liked to travel so I was traveling a lot and collecting things. As I’ve aged I’ve tried to simplify my life so that I don't have to carry all this stuff around with me, which has changed my collecting habits as well. The shop was a turning point where I realized I could enjoy these collections but didn't have to hang on to them. I had the pleasure of seeing other people's obsessions and reveling in them but not having to carry those burdens myself. I hope my kid will appreciate that when I do go.