Enrique Serrato started collecting art at 16 years old when he bought a Doyle Lane ceramic weed pot for it’s rare red glaze. Over decades, the LA-based 74-year-old collector has amassed an influential collection of over 6,500 art objects ranging from American ceramics and Chicano and Mexican art to outsider art and pieces from Picasso, Dali, and Rivera.
The collection is considered LA's best kept secret and fits in every nook of Serrato's two-bedroom apartment: stacks of canvases, heaps of sculptures, and shelves of ceramics. Serrato can be called a fine art hoarder and even sleeps on a bed on the floor so that he can make more room for the art that he loves. His passion for art comes from the thrill of the buy and he is known to flip art to make room for more art.
The Dali he owns he bought at an estate sale 40 years ago at $150. The piece is now worth $6,000. The most he ever spent was $200 for a small work from the prominent Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros in the late 60s. Serrato tells The Creators Project that he “always asks for deals. I am one of those crazy collectors. There’s always space for one more piece.”
Serrato is an untraditional example of a serious art collector. He doesn’t come from a prestigious bloodline or a formal art education. Born to a Mexican-American working class family in El Sereno, California, he developed a fervor for art at a young age. He says he was raised with art, “My mother would take us to museums as a child, the LA County Museum of Art, Bowers Museum, Laguna Art Museum.” When Serrato failed his high school ceramics class, he’d spend his free time visiting art galleries and museums. He decided as a teenager that he wanted to collect art and later as an adult saved the money he made in the meat business for art.
Over a lifetime, Serrato has supported emerging artists by buying their early works. He's collecting practice has been compared to Herb and Dorothy Vogel. He has a keen eye and collects what he likes: Art with color and a narrative. After purchasing the weed pot as a teenager he continued to grow his collection of important Doyle Lane ceramics from the influential African-American artist through time.
Beth Gerstein, curator of The American Museum of Ceramic Art says Serrato’s strength as a collector comes from “a heavy emphasis on Southern California artists. He buys and collects at depth the artist he likes.” Serrato is working to gift more than 200 ceramic pieces to the museum.
His collections have become that of lore as Serrato is considered an art outlier and keeps his humble collection private and at home. Earlier this year, New York-based documentarian Patrick Kennedy learned of Serrato’s obsessive art collecting from his brother who happened to meet Serrato at a neighborhood bar in Whittier. Kennedy was intrigued by the fact that he had grown up a few blocks away from Serrato and never before heard of such a tremendous collection housed in someone’s apartment. He decided to make a short film and spent two intimate weeks with Serrato sorting through his collections. Kennedy says, “His obsessiveness is a brilliance. Enrique is a martyr for his art.”
Kennedy hopes that his documentary Enrique Serrato: A Life Amongst Art will establish Serrato as an important Angeleno collector and recognized by prominent museums and cultural institutions. He says, “Enrique was at the forefront. Not a lot of people were collecting Chicano art in the 60s. The art was not accepted by the powers that be. Enrique was collecting it. He was collecting when no one cared. I think the same can be said with the ceramics with the Doyle Lanes.”
From Serrato’s story, we learn the nuanced importance of collecting art; the collector captures a sense of history, the politics of an era and the many individuals who make art to contextualize their identity through art forms. Serrato’s art collecting may have been a personal happenstance but it’s implications are far reaching.
Kennedy explains how important Serrato buying art in the 60s was, “The white power base that made up the art world was not interested in collecting a black artist. Enrique started collecting [Doyle Lane] who was having a hard time selling because of his ethnicity and where he lived and the year that it was. Enrique was buying 30, 40, and 50 pieces and Doyle goes on to blow up and Enrique was just lucky enough to have so many. Now he has one of the largest collections of this master and it was only because he has a good eye.”
Because of Serrato’s collecting, new generations will have the opportunity to see African-American ceramics and more at the MOCA. And with the help of MOCA and Gerstein’s efforts, Serrato’s ceramic collections will be a part of the show LA, LA: Los Angeles, Latin America at J. Paul Getty Museum 2017.
Serrato’s collections are proving to have deep cultural significance for Los Angeles but also the world at large. As a collector, he continues to encourage young people to collect art, “If you want to be a collector go to garage sales, estate sales, and galleries.” He doesn’t believe that costs should be prohibitive or that art should be exclusionary. Gerstein says, “Serrato is an example of a collector who becomes just as venerated as the art that he collects.”
See Patrick Kennedy's Enrique Serrato: A Life Amongst Art:
Patrick Kennedy is looking for a PhD student of the arts to help Enrique Serrato catalog his collection. Send him a note by clicking here.