In a quarter century of writing about wildlife and sporting art, I’ve visited many of the greatest art galleries in the world. And I’ve written stories about hundreds of artists.
I know few gallery owners who are as hard working and devoted to serving collectors and artists as Ross Parker, founder of Call of Africa’s Native Visions Galleries in Fort Lauderdale and Naples, Florida.
In the early 1990s, I met Parker during a safari to Zimbabwe when we accompanied painter Craig Bone to the banks of the Zambezi River around Mana Pools National Park. It was a harrowing adventure during which we walked on foot among wild lions, leopards, elephants, Cape buffaloes and wildebeests.
Bone, like Parker a native of the former Rhodesia, then was on his ascendency as an artist on the verge of capturing attention in North America. Soon he would make a name for himself. Ross Parker was the gallery representative who provided a crucial introduction to the Safari Club International members.
Although I make a special effort to visit Parker’s galleries in Florida whenever possible, a real treat is stopping by his booth at SCI because each year it’s like walking through a museum show focused on the finest quality African art of the 21st Century. From elephants and Cape buffaloes to cheetahs, leopards, lions and rhinos, you see the spirit of those animals glowing in works by David Langmead, Jaco Van Schalkwyk, Kim Donaldson, John Seerey-Lester, Peter Gray, Margaret Gradwell, James Stroud, Loet Vanderveen, Mopho Gonde and James Tandi. These artists have looked into the eyes of the beast.
Parker’s keenest talent is his ability to recognize raw creative potential early in an artist’s career and then to nurture it. The advantage for the artist is that one gets a marketing tour de force working on his/her behalf, but it also plays favorably for collectors, especially those who are given a buying opportunity before fame results in rising prices.
Parker has a list of things he tells all collectors.
Rule Number One: Buy what you can afford, especially when you are a young or inexperienced collector looking to acquire your first piece. “I am constantly on a quest to find outstanding up and coming artists who are at the start of their careers and who don’t yet command larger prices warranted by established masters who produce only a few works per year,” Parker said. “We try to offer a variety of works and a price point for every kind of collector.”
Rule Number Two: Foremost, buy what you love. Buy art that you want to live with, and only break Rule Number One – buy what you can – if an opportunity to acquire a special piece presents itself and may never happen again. “Collecting art is a bit like falling in love,” Parker said. “You know it when you feel it and never know when you’re going to experience the sensation of love at first sight.”
Rule Number Three: When you can – buy an original. “Over the years we’ve offered high-quality, limited edition prints for collectors who can’t afford major works,” Parker said. But if given the choice between a print and an original work, I always recommend the latter. It’s profoundly satisfying knowing you own something that is one of a kind.”
Rule Number Four: Do research – ask questions. Find out more about the artist. “Buying a piece of art should be approached no differently than searching for a fine rifle or shotgun or finding the perfect outfitter who will deliver the hunt of a lifetime,” Parker said. “The only difference is that art has added emotional value and is often a conversation piece in your home.” He encourages collectors to delve into the backgrounds and training of artists, get auction or sales records and discover whether they have won awards and accolades from peers and art critics. “Buying art isn’t like purchasing a used car,” he said. “The more informed a collector is, the better.”
Rule Number Five: Educate yourself on the gallery. Ask how long it has been in business and get references from other collectors. “Like it or not, longevity in the art world is worth something. These are tough times for galleries. You want your relationship with the gallery to last and you want to deal with a proprietor who has a proven track record,” Parker said. “Since 1986, when I founded our galleries, we’ve served a few generations of clients, and we’re proud to say that we’ve been associated with SCI from the first day we opened.”
Rule Number Six: If you can, visit the gallery. “In this day and age, many galleries have gone virtual,” Parker said. “I’m not ashamed to say that I’m old fashioned. I believe in offering a physical space where collectors can see art with their own eyes and not only over the Internet.” Call of Africa’s Native Visions Galleries, besides the portable exhibition that it brings to SCI, has two physical spaces along the trendiest streets in Fort Lauderdale and Naples, Florida. “Whenever I can, I like to meet our customers and get to know them on a first name basis,” Parker said. “We regularly have shows in which we bring our artists over from Africa and invite collectors to hear them talk about their work.”
Rule Number Seven: Inquire about what services a gallery offers. “At Call of Africa’s Native Visions, we offer a range of options for people at all stages of collecting. We ship anywhere in the world. We can help our clients hang pieces in their homes and identify proper lighting techniques to showcase the work. We can help them get the work properly insured through Lloyds of London, and if they’re building a new home or office, we can store the work in a temperature-controlled environment until the building is completed. We also offer custom framing and, of course, if a collector becomes a devotee of a certain artist, we alert them whenever new works are available fresh out of their studio.”
Rule Number Eight: Be a patron to galleries that treat you with respect. “I don’t know how many times I’ve walked into other galleries and encountered rudeness from employees. All they wanted to do was make a sale,” Parker said. “Buying art is an important decision whether you’re doing it for the first time or adding to your collection. Clients deserve to be treated with respect and kindness, not like buffoons who feel like they’re being condescended to. No question is too stupid to ask. All questions are smart questions.”
Rule Number Nine: Buy art for the people you love in your life. “I have several clients who go on safari to Africa every year. Their wives aren’t interested in hunting nor do they want a huge animal head on the wall. But they do love art,” Parker said. “Wildlife art, for them, becomes a focal point where the husband gets a visual reminder of the animals he pursues and the wife has a piece of fine art to help decorate the home. Collecting is a passion they share. Sometimes, it’s the wife who is the hunter and the husband who wants the art!”
Rule Number Ten: Use art to pay forward your values. “It matters to me knowing that the establishments with whom I do business give back to their communities or to causes that I believe in,” Parker said. “As a lifelong hunter and fisherman, I like to support groups that conserve wildlife habitat and are committed to our Second Amendment right to bear arms. That’s why I like sharing a percentage of sales with SCI and support projects like Campfire in Zimbabwe and wildlife rehabilitation centers for animals injured in war-torn countries,” Parker said. “Being a military veteran, I also support the Wounded Warrior program that helps United States soldiers get the medical attention they need when they come home and tries to get them outdoors where they can enjoy the peace of nature after going through unspeakable trauma on the battlefield.”
Rule Number Eleven: You can’t take it with you but you can leave something meaningful and personal behind. “Art reminds us of the people who matter in our lives. You’d be surprised how attached families get to art on the walls. It evokes profound feelings of nostalgia,” Parker said. “Art becomes part of the backdrop for living. Kids and grandkids consider it an honor to inherit a painting or sculpture that gave their elders great joy. It is part of family heritage.”
Rule Number Twelve: Revisit Rules Number One and Two. Then remember that great art speaks to the heart. “I still get spellbound by art. It stops me dead in my tracks,” Parker said. “The art in my own home is there when I get up in the morning, when I come home, and I pass by it when I head to bed at night. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Rule Number Thirteen: From adversity comes opportunity: “Every successful businessperson I know recognizes that some of the most meaningful opportunities emerge from challenging times,” Parker said. “Art isn’t an extravagance. It’s an investment that feeds the soul.” Collectors today are benefitting from a buyers’ market in fine art, he said. “There are some incredible opportunities to own art that did not exist a few years ago,” he explained. “Fortunately, for the artists we represent, all of them are producing the best works of their lives.”–Todd Wilkinson