When art and commerce mix, a certain level of mania is inevitable: it’s what you get when passion and pragmatism collide. In some ways, the situation hasn’t really changed since shady Medieval relic sellers hawked icons of saints to sharp-eyed bishops on the pilgrimage roads of Europe a thousand years ago: the making and marketing of art necessarily bring together people with disparate personalities and intentions.
The current market for contemporary art has its own distinctive insanity. The rise of social media has multiplied and supercharged the pressures and possibilities for everyone involved, and there is so much art and there are so many “somebodies” out there in the mix. Self-promotion by artists is rife, but also expected. Museums of contemporary art show the same works as leading galleries, galleries are giving way to art fairs, critics are increasingly irrelevant, everybody is a curator, and more and more “collectors” are actually dealers in sheep’s clothing. Everyone is on the make or on the take and most listen to the market when they should be looking. Short-term strategies abound and reputations come and go seemingly overnight.
Of course, that is only one side of the story. There have always been — and will always be — artists who remain hard at work in their studios, un-swayed by the vagaries of the market, and patient collectors who are motivated by passion more than profit.
The following tips are meant to lay out a comparatively sane and sober approach to collecting contemporary art. These ideas and principles come from my own background — I have worked for collectors and dealers over the years — and also from my artist friends. Taking some of these to heart may help guide your choices as you collect art and build a collection that reflects your personal vision and gives you lasting satisfaction. If that doesn’t sound exciting, keep this in mind: when the next kind of crazy takes the art market by storm, you may still love your collection.
Take a Year Off
Are you already a collector? Are you thinking of becoming one? Whatever your situation, step back from the market and take a year off. Don’t buy anything: there will still be plenty to look at next year. Use the time to socialize, study, and strategize.
Think 10 Years Ahead
When you are considering buying a work of art, ask yourself a theoretical question: “How will it look in ten years?” You will be amazed how powerful this question can be.
Pay Full Price
It is well known that many galleries will offer collectors a discount when asked. Don’t ask: pay full price and in short order you will be offered the best works first.
Make the Market, Don’t Follow It
The market is full of sheep. Rather than paying attention to what others are buying, follow your instincts and be ready for others to start talking about what you are buying. Take the money you are considering spending on the minor work of a well-known artist and buy five great works by others who are less well known. Artists will love you for this.
Work with Ethical, Experienced Dealers
Ask around, talk to dealers, and vet them carefully. Look for seasoned, reputable dealers who can draw on deep connections and substantial experience. Favor dealers who are connected with state, local, and/or national Art Dealer’s organizations. Find a dealer or dealer who shows work that lines up with your personal vision and passions, and be ready to work with them over time.
Cross dealers off your list if they suggest ways you can avoid state sales tax on your art purchases or offer to have an artist change the colors of a painting to match your drapes.
Refine Your Vision Over Time
A few years into collecting you will likely look back at a few early purchases and shake your head. Be ready to re-sell a few things, and, as you do so, the character of your collection will take shape. Collecting is a lifetime obsession.
Support Mid-Career Artists
Emerging artists come and go. Seek out mid-career artists and ask them, “What do you have in storage?” You will be amazed how much they may have and how glad they will be to show it to you.
Enjoy the Social Benefits of Collecting
Join collector’s circles at local art institutions, go to every possible opening, and invite artists, collectors, and dealers to your home. You’ll make some false friends — especially if you have some money — but you’ll make some real ones too and the conversations will teach you more than you can imagine.
Artists are the Best Advisors
Who can teach you the most about contemporary art? I say “artists.” As you add art to your collection make the artists you are patronizing your advisors. Whether on the phone, on Facebook, or at your soirees, listen to what artists say about other artists.
Consider commissioning works of art. It can be risky, but the results can be thrilling.
Don’t Buy It If You Can’t Hang Onto It
You are overbuying if you put money into works of art but know that you might honestly need the money back within the next few years. If you do this, you are thinking like a speculator or a dealer, not like a collector.
Go off the rails every now and then, discard all wisdom, and buy something on a sudden urge. It may turn out to be your best purchase ever.
Collect for Passion not for Profit
If you need to invest your money, try Vanguard’s no-load mutual funds. They are excellent.