It’s a beautiful day in D.C. The sun is shining through the tall windows of Halcyon House, filing its many rooms with bright, invigorating light. It’s the sort of day that looks warmer than it actually is, which is why we’re inside, chatting about art and dresses with chickens on them and Star Trek, instead of lounging on the old mansion’s large lawn. We’re here to spend the afternoon with Nina O’Neil, founder of the art consulting and collecting company Monochrome Collective. After complimenting her slick dress (which does, indeed have a chicken on the arm), we settle in to chat about O’Neil’s favorite thing in the world.
“Anything that is colorful and nerdy, we love,” she explains as she shows me photos of a piece that hangs in her home, a schematic of the Enterprise ship that’s been covered by blocks of bright paint by Andrew Wodzianski. It’s a culmination of her and her husband’s favorite things, Star Trek and the color wheel. Another cherished piece is a photo by Adam Davies that is placed above their couch, while her daughter’s favorite artwork, an illustration of an orangutang by D.C.’s very own Martin Swift, hangs in her bedroom. O’Neil has filled her walls, her space, her house with art her family loves. And she wants to do the same for other people.
“My clients want to feel just as excited about the things in their home,” she says, “Not just filler to go above furniture.” To do that, she spends her days searching high and low for some of the best art in (and outside of) the city and throws events where she can get artists and collectors all in the same room. She’s teaming up with Halcyon to host one such event (an exhibition featuring only artists from the DMV) at By The People, an international arts festival that includes large scale installations, pop-up performances and more . As we cover By The People, her start at the Museum of the Great Plains and her score on the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Test, O’Neil’s passion for art and color and helping people see the joy in both shines through.
What was your first job?
My first job was working in the gift shop, on the weekends, at the Museum of the Great Plains. I have literally through and through always been a museum person, an art person. It’s a history museum with a primarily Comanche based collection in Lawton, Oklahoma, where I grew up.
Did you like it?
It is a severely under-visited place that I love very much. I, like a lot of arts professionals of my generation, really love dioramas and antiquated display techniques. There’s a level of nostalgia that still feels special.
What was the piece of art that made you want to do this for a living?
I don’t know that there was a piece of art. Doing what I do for a living really stemmed from my extreme emotional attachment to all of the art objects in my home, and an interest in sharing that with others. I love them. I can’t wait to tell people stories about them. You realize that excitement is really infectious and people want that. My clients want to feel just as excited about the things in their home, not just filler to go above furniture. It is really gratifying to be able to help people create that excitement with things that they want to look at every day.
When it comes to your client work, is it harder to get someone on board at the beginning, or is it more challenging to actually find the pieces?
The most challenging aspect is when collectors come to me with a vision based upon a tangible object they’ve seen before. People will come to me and say, “I love this, can you find someone who can do something like this?” To which I respond, “You already did.” Go ask them and buy their art. Somebody already made this.
How do you figure out what’s going to work for a client? What’s your process?
Trial and error and open communication. I have “non-art people” describe what they want using non-art words and then I translate those words into visuals.
Do you prefer clients who are hands on or hands off?
Either way, I don’t care if they’re excited and email me every day or they’re excited twice a year and swoop back in to say, “I saw this and it made me want to buy more art.” The goal is to help people acquire objects that they will enjoy every day, the kinds of things you make plans to pass down so the enjoyment will continue.
Do you ever repurpose things that people already own?
Often it’s just re-presenting things people already have. You find things with an emotional attachment for the client already, and then find a way to present them as art objects. Sometimes it’s just tchotchkes. When you go to a museum or an art gallery, look around. Sometimes it just feels like stuff, but it’s presented like art objects. Presentation is everything.
What surprises clients most when you work with them?
How many people have really tight color palettes that they live within. With some people, everything is red. Or there’s always a thread of electric blue and they don’t realize that they’re drawn towards things that have it. You look around and see that there’s a lot of consistency in someones space, but they don’t realize because they live in it.
Who is your dream client?
No one person, but somebody who has been grumbly about the unnecessary nature of collecting art. I want to flip someone’s opinion.
How do you flip them?
By finding the thing about artwork that makes them excited. That’s important to me.
My husband is an elementary school teacher, he’s always been around art, but until we collected together, I don’t think he was excited. Now, hearing him talk excitedly about our artwork is an extreme level of pride.
When did you start collecting for your self?
Actually, there are a few pieces in our collection that were my grandmother’s, things she collected. When she passed away… This is the whole idea for me. I know that she loved them and they made their way to us. That has real meaning for me.
Do you think you’ll ever be done with your collection?
No. Never done. I see pieces and think, “I will make space in my home.” We have a really great sculpture by a wonderful artist named Monroe Isenberg, he teaches at the University of Maryland, and he creates these wooden shapes that fill spaces that feel worthless otherwise. Corners, weird spaces in houses that would never be filled with furniture. They’re voids and now there’s a sculpture and beauty in it. It feels like you brought life to an area that wasn’t alive before.
Does art come first in a room? Or furniture first?
We’ve lived in our house for a while. We change the art around a lot. That’s the other complicated thing. People often feel like, “I have a big square wall so I need a big square piece of art and it will live there forever.” Move stuff around.
What is your pet peeve when you go in someones home and see their art collection? Is it no art? Is it terrible lighting?
Everybody’s stuff is crooked. How does nobody see that their art is crooked? [Laughing] I absolutely level paintings when I go to people’s homes. I don’t ask at all. For that reason, I exclusively hang with D-rings so there are two hooks. You level it once and it can’t be jostled.
Do you have a white whale piece?
I love Anne Truitt. I would want a big singular colored column in a super empty room, which unfortunately isn’t an option in most D.C. homes. I was really inspired by the display of her work at NGA. It was a very calm space that was full of color. It just felt like the artist herself had made those display decisions. Just an empty room with towers of color everywhere.
Who do you think is undervalued in the D.C. art scene? Someone who would be talked about more or bought more?
So many artists wonderful artists are undervalued, and I’m proud to be doing something about it. This summer, I’m working with Halcyon during their By the People arts festival, curating an art fair of exclusively DMV artists. It’s going to be a unique opportunity to, in one space, see beautiful, high-level, well-presented artwork by artists that are creating in exclusively in the area.
Do you like working on a theme?
Yeah. I like a theme party, I like themes in general. I think it’s a fun way to create a very accessible narrative. I feel as if often the novice art collector is intimidated at collecting because maybe they spend a lot of time in museums and the academic narrative can feel overwhelming. That’s not necessary for a person’s collection.
Besides the fact that all of the artists are living in the District, do you think there will be any other threads connecting the art?
The submissions are still coming in and it closes on April 14, so we’ve got time, but I’m optimistic that we’re going to find local threads we don’t realize. Like the idea of the D.C. daily life, maybe there’s going to be a nostalgic level of photography we don’t expect to see… I don’t know what the unifying threads will be, but there’s going to be something we don’t realize. It’s going to be fun to see.
And you do these sort of exhibitions, not to this scale, but these kind of events all the time.
I present the artwork in many different environments to reach out to the broadest audience of art lovers. I’ve done gallery style displays, for example I did a show during photo week at the A creative DC space in Brookland, and also in retail environments, a collection of work is up at Holley Simmons’ flower shop, She Loves Me on Upshur street. I try to show the work of artists with, in my opinion, a certain level of talent without a great deal of exposure. The really wonderful thing about the art fair I’m curating, BTP x Monochrome, is the unifying thread isn’t a visual one. I have no idea what the mood of the space will be, bright, subdued, filled with color and texture, minimal. There’s more than that and I’m excited to see it all together.
How do you find the artists that have a high level of talent and less name recognition?
I go on a lot of studio visits. I meet a lot of people. I think I’m pretty approachable. It’s a combination of how I talk about art and my level of knowledge of the fabrication of the objects that I think artist find familiar and comforting. They’re willing to open up and show what they have made. Often I meet artists who are working on a new body of work now that is good, but they have previously created a body of work that is exceptional. Criticism is always a positive thing, right? It’s nice to be able to say, this is good, that was great. Maybe revisit that when you’re finished with this new series. A fresh set of eyes on an artist’s work can usually be a positive reset, there isn’t as much easily available criticism out there after art school.
How much of your job is doing that? Steering artists?
I don’t know if I can break it down into percentages because it ebbs and flows so much. Sometimes it feels like that’s all I’m doing and other times it’s not on the radar… There are some artists that are not being sufficient advocates for their work. I have a voice and the ability to find patrons for them. I try to be the glue in the middle. I tell people, making connections and building collections, that’s what I’m doing.
What is the best gallery in D.C. right now?
I recently saw CONNERSMITH.‘s new space and I’m really impressed by it and what they are doing. Leigh and Jamie are very talented curators with very keen eyes. They also have some exceptional examples of the Washington Color School, artists who built world renowned careers out of our backyard. That ties into what I’m excited to create [with Halcyon]. The parallel display of artists from around the corner along side internationally known artists, By the People is doing both this year and it feels great. You never know when these connections are going to be made.
What are some popular trends in curation?
I’ve noticed collectors getting more excited about sculpture. It doesn’t feel like a precious thing on a pedestal anymore. The collectors that have space are excited to have an object on the floor where you might have put a chair. I feel like that is becoming much more comfortable, art objects filling a space versus being on a wall.
Do you think people care more about interior design and art within their homes than they used to?
I think that all of the design TV shows have done a lot, in a very positive way, to make people want to create spaces they’re more excited to come home to. It’s not like we’re all rewiring our houses and refinishing our floors, but the idea that your space is personal and it matters and it’s a reflection of you… People are taking more pride in their spaces.
What’s your favorite HGTV show?
I don’t watch a lot of them anymore!
What was your favorite?
A while back there was a short lived TV show, on STYLE, called Craft Corner Deathmatch. They would put contestants on a 10 minute timer, in an octagon and they would open up a box and it would be like a glue gun, some astroturf and a whole bunch of random junk. All of a sudden the challenge was announced… “Evening bag!” and you’d have to make a thing out of other things. This has always been my wheelhouse. I should have been on that show.
I use this skill daily in my job it’s all about presentation, right? I’m going to take things you love, that you think are tchotchkes and make you realize that they’re artwork.
Sometimes people fall out of love with their art because it’s framed poorly, or looks dated. Then you re-frame it and they’re like,”Oh, that’s great.” It’s all about presentation.
What’s the best frame shop? Who’s killing it?
I am really excited about the folks at the H Street framing location of the 18th Street Framers. It’s on H Street, I live on H Street. I’m going this afternoon to pick something up. They’re wonderful. Great to work with, affordable, quick. I love them. I love having a framer in the neighborhood. You can just go and look and feel and make your own decisions. They make the process very comfortable.
I saw this on your website and I was incredibly curious, you have your score of the Farnsworth-Munsell 100 Hue Test. Can you tell me about that?
It is a way to test the number of unique hues of color that a person can view. It’s often used to see tell if a person is colorblind. I just happen to score very high on it.
When did you take it?
A long time ago.
Is it a part of curation school?
Not necessarily, but it was one of those things floating around like, “Everyone should try this!” It’s a paint swatch strip and they give you a color and say, “Where does this fit in the spectrum?” And so you say, “That color goes here.” It was just so obvious and I was like… Oh that’s a really high score. I didn’t realize it wasn’t so obvious.
Do you think that level of color acuity matters in your job?
For me, yes. Beyond being acutely aware of the balance of colors, I’m so familiar with the color wheel that I know when things are going to harmoniously vibrate. I know I’m making decisions for clients that are looking great in their house, whether or not they realize why.
Have you ever worked with a client and realized they’re colorblind?
No, but it can be frustrating when someone verbally describes the color they are looking for, and assume that I know what exact shade of blue they are imagining. There are a lot of colors out there and you have to break down whether they’re talking about robin’s egg or cerulean, these details are important.
So I always start with visuals. You have to give examples. Similar to how you do an eye test, I show them two things I think they will really like and one thing they won’t. That helps me to narrow down their taste without them knowing heavy-handedly that I’m testing them.
How do you know when you’re done with a project?
Do you wish you could go back and keep adding? Keep changing?
Yes. For sure. I feel like it’s never done. This idea of making adjustments to objects that you already have, reframing certain things, the presentation makes such a big difference… But I don’t think it’s a positive to have everything match so perfectly. Of course, I could always make changes that could make it look more balanced, but that’s not always a good thing. I don’t think it’s good thing to go into a store and say, “That mannequin looks great, I’m going to wear everything from head to toe.” That’s not the way I approach spaces and art purchases and clients.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Physically, the hardest part of my job is that I’m 5’1″ and I spend a lot of my time on ladders. I’ve recently purchased Carhartt overalls with a hammer loop, that has been transformative. Art is always hung at a level that I could never reach standing. There’s a lot of climbing up on things.
What’s the best part of your job?
Getting people excited about art that human beings created with love and attention and ability. When the mental shift happens and a collector realizes that there is content and substance and real value to what they’re buying… Monetary value aside, there’s real actual value to these tangible handmade objects. Getting excited about that is everything.
What advice would you give to a first time collector?
Don’t be scared, get started. I spend a lot of time doing what I lovingly call, couples art therapy. Often one partner does not feel represented on the walls or in the space. Finding “we” art is very satisfying. That might actually be the best part of my job.