House of Glass
An Interview with Art Glass Collector and CEO of BET, Debra Lee
11 May 2018
Leading our Modern Design auction on May 20, 2018 will be 47 lots consigned by President and CEO of Black Entertainment Television (BET) Debra Lee. Debra Lee has been collecting art since the 1980s, with a particular focus on blown and cast glass. The pieces on offer in “Debra Lee: The Washington DC Collection” include several exemplary works by renowned makers: Lino Tagliapietra, Dale Chihuly, Albert Paley and more.
We spoke with Ms. Lee about her journey as a collector and the touchstones that inform her decision to make a purchase. Here’s what she had to say…
Debra Lee, President and CEO of BET
At the first art shows you attended, before you teamed up with professional designer Mallory Lawson, were you at all intimidated by the art buying process? The unfamiliarity? The investment? And if so, how did you overcome this intimidation?
When I first started collecting, I was looking in a lower price range for crafts, which is what I was drawn to before I started collecting glass. When going to the craft shows, I just looked for items I liked and could afford. Over time, as I collected and learned more about crafts, I discovered I had a taste for art glass. Working with Mallory Lawson allowed me to begin to understand the process of collecting more fully.
The most uncomfortable part of the process is the price negotiation. I prefer to be told the price and that’s that, but in working with galleries, I had to learn the negotiation process.
How did working with a professional designer help guide your journey as a collector?
Mallory would visit galleries while traveling, getting to know owners and artists, and would suggest pieces to me that she thought would enhance my collection and fit into a certain place in my home. It’s much easier for me to focus on a specific piece and decide whether I actually like it, as opposed to walking into a gallery and looking at 50 pieces at one time. My decorator helped me focus my search. It was also good to bounce ideas off of someone else.
Among the many works of art glass you’ve collected, we will be selling several pieces by metal sculptor Albert Paley. What drew you to Paley’s work?
I first started collecting Paley’s smaller pieces like candlesticks and fireplace tools. I also purchased a plant stand – so the earlier pieces were all metal. I loved his design and creativity! Then along the way, I discovered he experimented with metal and glass, so I purchased a few of his mixed media pieces.
Was your interest in Therman Statom’s work driven primarily by an attraction to the pieces, an attraction to him as an African American artist in a predominantly white male dominated field, or a pairing of the two? Or something else?
I was initially attracted to Therman Statom's work because of the artistic and creative nature of the art. I just like his pieces. In fact, the first purchase I made in the realm of art glass was a piece by Statom. It was only later that I discovered he was an African America glass artist and learned how few African American artists actually work in the glass space, which made me want to support his work even more. But the initial attraction was to the quality and creativity of his work.
Do you feel any responsibility of guardianship over the property in your collection?
There are pieces that I kept for my new home which I felt very protective of, but I simply didn’t have room to keep the rest! I don't like to store art, I prefer to buy pieces I can live with. Not to mention, glass art is especially hard to store! I’ve been lucky to have several pieces selected for various properties throughout the years, but just don't have as much space.
I’m sad to be selling some of these pieces but excited for their future owners.