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Interview with Ottawa art collector Bill Staubi

Interview with Ottawa art collector Bill Staubi

Interview with Ottawa art collector Bill Staubi

By Aileen Duncan. All photos taken by Kenneth Charlebois.

Bill Staubi is a pleasant queer man, 65 years young. He has been a fixture of Ottawa’s art community for more than 20 years, and over the past 15 years he has been supporting artists in the early stages of their career. To date, he has accumulated well over 600 pieces of art- all of which coexist with him in his two-bedroom apartment near Elgin Street. 

Photo taken by Kenneth Charlebois

I first met Bill when his name appeared after mine on a silent auction sheet at Art House Café, outbidding me for a vintage piece by Dominic Laporte. “Let him buy it!” my partner insisted, which was the first time I learned of Bill’s extensive collection. 

Earlier this year (when it was safer to do so), Bill Staubi invited me to his apartment for a tour of the collection. Despite knowing Bill was an avid collector, I wasn’t quite prepared for what awaited me. 

Photo taken by Kenneth Charlebois

Every wall space was filled, floor to ceiling. Sculptures sat proudly atop bookshelves, cabinets, and coffee tables. A large metal beaver lodge was occupying the balcony. The spare bedroom held paintings stored 15 or 20 deep, and the guest bathroom entirely filled with religious artefacts aka “The Grotto” (https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1774258243703 ). The art wasn’t just there to complement his space – but rather, they were the purpose of the space. His home seemed to exist in order to hold the artworks. In fact, Bill has been known to get rid of furniture and build new walls in order to make space for the artworks! The passion evident in the collection was awe-inspiring. 

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What is the focus of the art collection? 

Nearly all of Bill Staubi’s collection was either acquired in Ottawa, or has been created by artists with a connection to Ottawa. There are a few main themes within the collection: 

  • Work by queer artists or that has a queer aesthetic to it 
  • Work by Indigenous artists
  • Things that Staubi is generally interested in 

Of that third category, it is difficult to nail down a theme. Christian iconography does form a significant chunk, though Staubi is not religious himself. “It's just beautiful stuff. When I look at the piece I can see the passion that the person put into making it. I look for the symbolic layers – sometimes intentional, and others because of my own life experience.” 

Staubi gravitates towards artists in the early stages of their career. “A lot of my collection is emerging artists; buying their work at the very beginning in order to support them to keep making art,” said Bill. “Plus, a lot of that work is more affordable. It's within the budget range that I have to operate within, so it's possible for me to do it. I don't travel a lot, I don't drink a lot, I don't buy fancy cars or fancy clothes. Art is my drug of choice.”

Photo taken by Kenneth Charlebois

What inspires you to buy art? 

Bill reflected about his drive to form collections, sharing that he has gathered books, crystals, even Santa Clause Christmas ornaments. “There's an element in my psyche that accumulates. I like patterns in things and I like multiples of things,” said Staubi. It is a familiar drive for many of us – to find something that inspires curiosity and brings joy, and to surround yourself with it. 

In many ways, Staubi came to realize that he was an art collector by noticing the reactions of other people when they saw his collection. People began to see him as an authority on the subject, and asked him questions about art. As his knowledge grew, he began to notice a changing relationship to the art. More than just supporting the artist by purchasing their work, he was able to engage on a personal level. Bill Staubi began using social media to share about his collection, and became part of groups which offer feedback on works in progress. He has been (among other things) a jury member, a mentor, an arts writer, a board member and studio member at Enriched Bread Artists, and is an artist in his own right. 

“It's these kinds of things that make this more than just a transactional activity,” said Staubi. “It's a constant source of showing up at events, going to fundraisers. The reason I keep doing it, is to be a part of getting those voices out there, of validating the effort that those artists are making. Helping them to explore their world, their work, by putting a few dollars in their pocket and by getting their work out for people to see.”

Photo taken by Kenneth Charlebois

 

Supporting the arts directly creates a creative city 

Bill Staubi’s approach shows how purchasing decisions can do much more than just bring joy to the consumer. By spending our money locally, we can demonstrate support for the things we care about – such as creativity, inclusion, and sustainable livelihoods. By spending our money ethically, we are sending a clear message about the type of world we want to live in.

And so, what kind of Ottawa do we want to live in? 

“I want to live in a city that is vibrant,” said Staubi. “I want to live in a city that's creative. I want to live in a city where everybody doesn't have to work as a cog in a machine, where I'm not surrounding myself with the same things that I'm going to see at my friend's house, at my relatives house, at my businesses. I thrive on that variety.” 

“In order to live in such a place, you have to contribute to it in some way,” said Staubi. “Either you make the art, and hope that other people will buy it or you buy the art so that other people can make it. Or you dabble in both!”

For Bill Staubi, his art collection represents an investment in his own community. “To the extent that I'm able to, it's my way of contributing to a place that is more like the kind of place I want to be. I don't need to go somewhere else to have that, I need to do something to help contribute to it here. It's an investment in making that community more interesting for everyone – but somewhat selfishly more interesting for me,” said Staubi. 

“[Purchasing art] is not a thoughtless activity. Like everybody else, I have a budget that I have to live within. Yet the need that it's addressing is not ever going to be satisfied. I’m never going to say: ‘Oh, now Ottawa is creative enough. Now there are enough successful artists’. The next one in the line - ‘Sorry you arrived too late.’ There’s no satisfying what I get out of it.”

In case you’re wondering, Bill’s challenge isn’t that he has enough art (he admits the thought has never crossed his mind), but it’s that he is concerned about his ability to keep all 600+ pieces in his two bedroom apartment without damaging them! 

Photo taken by Kenneth Charlebois

Art in a time of covid 

The way we appreciate and purchase art has changed dramatically over the course of the pandemic, and we are living in a time where our purchase options are nearly limitless. Yet with the growth of online retail giants, there is a threat to brick and mortal shops; and it’s more important than ever to support small businesses. 

For many, an investment in your home space is the perfect reason to spend money locally. 

For Bill Staubi, the art in his home helps him feel at ease and reminds him of his place in the community. “I can be sitting here all by myself,” said Staubi. “And I have the company of hundreds around me… some of the most amazing things to look at. I think about the satisfaction of what these purchases have helped other people to do, and it feeds me.”

Photo taken by Kenneth Charlebois

Art doesn’t have to be expensive either. If you put in a bit of effort to find local art, it’s quite easy to find even at a budget level. For example, the Art House Café offers affordable artwork, you can get good deals at fundraisers including the Ottawa Art Gallery’s upcoming virtual auction https://oaggao.ca/virtualartauction, holiday craft and artisan markets, or you can purchase art directly from artists who aren’t represented by galleries – these artists often have sales at various points in the year. If none of these options appeal to you - you can always make your own art! 

 “It's shocking how inexpensive original work can be, if you make a little bit of effort to find out how to get it,” said Staubi. “I hope to open people's eyes to the idea that the piece will continue to speak to you. If you look beyond just the surface of the piece, there will be something to enjoy for decades.” 

If you find yourself impressed by Bill Staubi’s collection and want to know where to start, a good place to begin is to think twice before you buy mass-produced art from a place such as IKEA. Layers of meaning are created when you have a personal connection with the artist, the store where you purchased the piece, and the city where it was created. Plus, you get the bonus of knowing your work helped make your city a creative place where you want to live.

You can support local, purchase from your neighbourhood artists, or even make your own art! Wallacks Art Supplies is here to help, every step of the way.

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Learn more about Bill Staubi’s collection by following his social media accounts – @bstaubi on Instagram, and Bill Staubi on Facebook. 

Personal affiliation:

Ottawa is a small place, and my own life has intersected with Staubi’s a few times, prior to the coffee and art tour in his house. Bill Staubi and I worked together at Ottawa Beat, a newsprint publication on arts and culture no longer in circulation. More recently, my partner Marc Adornato bought Bill’s Grotto to complement his upcoming show “The Saints Go Marching”, which arrived in eight or nine giant boxes that we had the delight of sorting through. Some these art pieces are now displayed in my home, and now that I have finished this profile, I look forward to appreciating this art without thinking of my to-do list 

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