Cathy Breslaw's Installation

Cathy Breslaw's Installation
Cathy Breslaw's Installation:Dreamscape

Monday, March 3, 2014

Ellen Phelan: Art Activist, Educator and Art Collector Talks about Her Life

Interview: Ellen Phelan, Art Collector
Ellen Phelan (photo credit to Becky Cohen)

with Cathy Breslaw

Ellen Phelan believes in the development of a ‘cultural community’ and that part of the way to achieve this goal is for each of us to set aside 1% of our income toward buying and collecting fine art.  Phelan has been collecting art since the 1960’s and has dedicated her life to educating herself, her children and the broader community on the performing and visual arts. 

Born in Napa, California and raised in southern California, Phelan was one of seven children, and grew up in a home that fostered exposure to the arts.  Her father was an abstract oil painter and teacher and her mother worked as an educator. Phelan commented that their home was filled with books and music so that when it came time for formal education, she not only studied business education but also later received a BA degree in Art History and Philosophy from the University of California San Diego. She also studied International Relations at the University of Oslo, Norway and was able to travel through Europe and spent time in New York city visiting galleries where she met the famous art dealer Leo Castelli.

Phelan has held many jobs in the visual arts and one of the first was a gallery she opened in Pasadena called Conde Gallery which she says she did to honor her father’s painting, to get to know artists and help promote their work. She moved to La Jolla in 1964, which proved to be a place where many artists were drawn, and there, she established friendships with various artists and was in close proximity to many artist studios.  Phelan worked for Cassat Gallery in La Jolla where her art collecting began by buying a formalist abstract painting by Andy Spence from Philadelphia and a metal collage work by artist Tom Holland. During a ten year span, Phelan created the Contemporary Art to School Program, docent and docent chairperson at the Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla which led to friendships with well known artists Manny Farber, Italo Scanga and others, and critic/writers Christopher Knight, Richard Armstrong and Bob Pincus as well as the several changing directors and curators of the museum. In addition she held other educational positions. She was a Contemporary Art Instructor for UCSD Extension, Instructional Expert in Art History for the San Diego Schools Gifted Program, President of the Art Council Board of the San Diego State University’s School of Art, Design and Art History, and Chair of the Contemporary Arts Committee for the San Diego Museum of Fine Art.  She was also Curator of the ‘More is More’ exhibition at the Athenaeum in La Jolla and has been a juror, speaker and advisory board member for various art programs in the San Diego area.

During the 1980’s, in line with her mission to develop a ‘cultural community’, Phelan started a series
of ‘Banquet Seminars’ she held in her La Jolla home.  She would invite one featured artist to each seminar, a group of collectors and art enthusiasts and brought in a catered meal that in some way reflected the work of the artist.  Phelan commented that these gatherings were successful in educating people about particular artists, encouraged meaningful dialogue about art, and sometimes resulted in sales of the art.

Phelan explained that she expresses her own creativity by becoming a curator of her own collection in the various spaces of her home.  Her art collection has been carefully and deliberately arranged in ‘groupings’ of works that Phelan has placed in close proximity to one another.  They appear as small art installations and a thought provoking display in the context of her cottage-like home. 

Ellen Phelan emphasizes that she buys art supporting artists and institutions for the ideas they present, and does not buy for investment.  She believes in supporting the auction, galleries, museums and dealers. Phelan’s contribution to the arts and art education in San Diego has been broad and extensive and she has set the bar high for the rest of us who are interested in building a vibrant arts culture in the area.

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