Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"Painting a Collection" (or Collecting as Dialog) Open Thread

Quick administrative note: The next two weeks are shaping up to be such that bloggin will most likely be light. Because of how much work there is before we open the new space, the one feature here that requires the most research (the Artist of the Week) will resume after the PULSE fair.

Warhol is credited with saying (and I paraphrase): The most sincere form of art appreciation is writing a check. Of course Andy would think that---being an artist---but I'm not so sure that's as true today as it was when Andy offered it. The "art" of collecting has evolved since then, and writing a check doesn't seem as sincere in some ways as it had been. When I start to think about how it's changed, the parallel that keeps coming to mind is the practice of fishing. Collectors used to spend the time getting to know the work, the artist, the movement, etc., much as a person with his/her fishing pole had to learn what weight of the line is needed, what bait is best, and what conditions are most ideal to land that big one. Collecting for some folks today is more akin to trawling. Sure you have to toss out all that seaweed and release the occassional dolphin, but the sheer volume of your haul guarantees something in your net will be worth the effort.

I know that's not how dealers are supposed to talk, but if my reason for opening up shop was merely to move merchandise, I'd be selling digital cameras or iPods or whatever. What I love most about running a gallery is the dialog. That's why I was delighted to read the profile in the
NYTimes today of the Herberts:

When Anton and Annick Herbert began collecting art in this medieval Flemish city [Ghent, Belgium] more than 30 years ago, he was a textile machinery salesman and she worked in the fashion business. Now, as the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art devotes two-thirds of its space to showing what they have acquired, the Herberts still hardly fit the conventional profile of collectors.

Reflecting the collection's standing in the contemporary art world, the show's opening this month in Barcelona, Spain, attracted leading European museum directors and gallery owners, as well as many artists whose works the Herberts have bought. Yet they have never sought public attention and have exhibited part of their collection only twice before, in 1984 and 2000.

Further, they are not rich. True, they are also not poor, but they neither inherited nor earned a fortune. Rather, they worked to buy art. And since they acquired works by experimental artists they befriended who had not yet gained fame, they were able to build up a collection tightly focused on artists of their own generation.

"I've always said it's very bad for a collector to be rich, because he can buy anything; he can buy badly," Mr. Herbert, 67, said in an interview in the loft of the converted factory here where he and his wife are usually surrounded by their collection. "I don't think you need to spend huge amounts of money. The challenge is to achieve high results with little spending."
Of course I'm not meaning to suggest that, in comparison, all of today's younger collectors are less sincere; the Herberts were able to amass a good portion of their collection when collecting was easier. Today those collectors who wait until they have befriened an artist who has not yet gained fame won't be able to afford the work if it's as good as most works in the Herberts' collection. But there's something that rings so true in the Herberts' approach that I can't help but wish there was a way to inject more of the dialog into the overall process. And yes, that does seem to mean slowing it down:

"It's a slow process," Mr. Herbert said. "Every year, two or three times, we discuss what the collection should be and what it should not be. Finally, we decided that if we have Mike Kelley, we absolutely need Baldessari. We also make an imaginary collection, 10 or 15 artists who are not in our collection but in our head. Then you see Sigmar Polke in it."

Unsurprisingly, then, they also see collecting as an art. "That's what Duchamp said," Mr. Herbert said later over lunch, "You can 'paint a collection' together by choosing your works and bringing them into a context. We try to do that, and I think that in Barcelona you see a kind of vision of a whole."

In the current art market, though, they feel like loners. "We think that today the art world is too art-fair-minded, too money-minded, too market-minded," Mr. Herbert said.
Indeed that's a increasingly common complaint these days. Still, with the market as hot as it is, how can the budding collector with a modest budget and not too much free time slow down the process and increase the opportunities to engage in a dialog? If slowing everything down doesn't seem realistic, perhaps a more direct route is the ticket. Here are three quick ideas:

Open Studio tours: Whether at a local art school or some artist studio district, such tours are generally organized to offer quick surveys of lots of studios (and possibly tip you off to emerging trends), as well as an opportunity to engage the artists you find intriguing in a quick and painless conversation and see where that leads. Depending on where you live, you can probably learn where and when such tours are available through a local arts council or school. UPDATE: As Mr. Gursky rightly notes, open studios of undergraduate artists should be understood in the context that what you're seeing is often very different work from what this artist will be doing by the time they tuck that MFA under their belt. I think you can still enjoy undergraduate open studio tours (and possibly find work you love), but keep this in mind.

Private Studio tours: Many younger collectors don't know that your friendly neighborhood art dealer is often very happy to take you to the studios of his/her artists. It can take a while to organize, so ask well in advance, but if the open studio tour seems too unstructured, a guided tour might be for you. There generally will be an assumption that you're looking to buy if you request studio visits, but that's easy enough to clarify if you're just starting to look (just mention that you like to take your time).

Blogs: OK, so you've already figured out that you can read about the art world and see images on blogs and add to the conversation, but why not start your own (Blogger.com is free!!)? I'm not sure you won't attract a good deal of artists who are very sure their work is perfect for your collection despite all evidence to the contrary, but if you post images of your recent acquisitions and write about what interests you, eventually (through the magic of google and links) you might start up conversations with artists whose work you love but wouldn't have found otherwise.

Feel free to offer other ideas for how collectors without tons of free time or cash can engage in a deeper dialog with artists they like...but note: suggesting they just call you and come to your studio isn't exactly what I'm looking for here ;-)

UPDATE: Very happy to see that a collector in Indiana has run with the idea of bringing the dialog about his collection to a wider audience. Show him some love.


Blogger Bill Gusky said...

I've also been thinking that collectors need a better way to connect. And the Internet isn't it, although blogs probably help.

I like the way you're thinking about it.

The thing about art school tours is that I think - except possibly for some MFA students - it's maybe too early. The work you'd see would be highly transitional in 98% of the cases with BFA students. It could also screw up a 19-year-old kid to have someone get excited about something he did that he's not strong on, could warp his career early on??? just a thought -

But this is where I think a gallerist could really do some good for a lot of people, while enhancing the business. What if you had a secondary level of representation available, characterized by this:

1. Secondary-level artists aren't seen in your gallery, they're only seen on studio tours.

2. These artists receive a very small stipend for being part of the tour. You know, a few days' grocery money.

3. Gallerist gets a piece of any sales from the tour.

4. To your collectors, you present this tour as "Developing talent." Keep it on the level you presented it above, love for the work and interest in the artist, and if someone insists on discussing investment, be frank about the ups and downs of playing longshots, buying "early positions." Either way you win.

Artists from the secondary level could graduate to the first level with sales. Those who didn't prove out after a season or two or three could be dropped. They at least had a good shot, got a few more bucks for supplies, got some valuable exposure that might pay off in the long run, and can always apply again.

What do you think, Mr. W?

2/21/2006 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Overall, Bill, I think there's potential there, but I have a few concerns/comments.

1. Joe at Pierogi has already done very well with this model, doing studio visits with artists in the flat files who've never had work on the main gallery walls.

2. Not sure I like how that makes me feel. When a gallery offers a stipend to an artist who's represented, it's because they're committing to the relationship, so it's different for me. Let me think about that one. (Something about it rings alarm bells in my head...not sure why yet.)

3. uh, you bet your *ss the gallerist does ;-)

4. This is a very intriguing approach. I can see problems with the perception that "inclusion = endorsement," but if the gallerist frames it carefully enough, this could, as you note, provide an interesting possible path to representation.

Let me mull this over. And thanks!

2/21/2006 09:42:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Gusky said...

Hey - it'd be like Olympic sponsorship. It shifts; one year you sponsor this skier, and if he's great, you sponsor him on the next Olympics, and if he tanks, you let your contract expire. Your "label" is visible either way.

Charge $250+ to collectors for this special, bi-monthly tour. Fill a van, hit 8 studios, stop at Junior's for cheesecake, coffee and discussion.

Being blissfully ignorant of the practical aspects of running a gallery business, I find the idea very exciting.

2/21/2006 10:47:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

I have to agree w/ Warhol on that one. It's great to hear people say how much they sincerely love your work, but it doesn't pay the studio rent.

2/21/2006 11:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our gracious host, the gallerist here, probably won't appreciate me saying this, but I'll do it anyway. If you're willing to make a time investment in the process, a great way to build a collection is to purchase outside the gallery system.

It's not the way for everyone to build a collection (there's plenty of value in the editorial function that gallerists serve) but if you're willing to do your own research (and a LOT of looking at art) and you trust your eye, dealing directly with unrepresented artists can be a good way of building a collection.

I spend a lot of time looking at small shows in alternative, nonprofit spaces. Artists showing here typically have not yet been picked up by a gallery. When I see something I like, I track down the artist to see if I can do a studio visit. Most artists at this stage in their careers are eager for the opportunity. If I like what I see there, I'll talk with the artist about taking on a commission.

A commissioned project gives the artist a real morale boost--and an infusion of funds. It also allows me to have some input (I make sure to be really sensitive about how I involve myself in the process) into the creation of the piece that I'll eventually own--giving me as collector a much more intimate relationship with what's in my collection.

A collector working in this way with an artist also provides longer term benefit for the artist. Commissioned projects show market interest in an artist's work and may help influence a reluctant dealer to take on an unrepresented artist. It also provides the artist with time to work with new ideas and the opportunity to add another finished piece to the portfolio.

Just yesterday I got a call from someone who is doing a project for me. I commissioned the work some time ago, and it's just about done. Since then, the artist has started working with a gallery. He wondered if his gallery could show my piece at an upcoming fair--not to sell but to round out a body of work that he'll be showing there. While I'll get no consideration from the gallery for loaning the piece, I'm happy to do it for the sake of the artist's career.

2/21/2006 12:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fellow anon-

You may not get "consideration" from the gallery, but it's good for everyone, including you. You become known as a collector who will loan work generously and your piece will be labeled (unless you request anonymity) "collection of..." so you get some public recognition as a collector. I mean, you know all this, but it just sounded as you though you m ight be feeling a teensy bit taken advantage of by the gallery.

2/21/2006 01:01:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

a great way to build a collection is to purchase outside the gallery system.

Nothing wrong with that at all. A good number of the pieces in my collection were purchased outside the gallery system.

It's also good to support galleries, too, though!

Commissioned projects show market interest in an artist's work and may help influence a reluctant dealer to take on an unrepresented artist.

That last part might be overstating it slightly...perhaps it may influence an ambivalent dealer, but a "reluctant" dealer is most likely not concerned about the sales as much as the context (i.e., deciding whether the work is right for the gallery). Galleries that take on someone just because they think they'll sell are not good for that artist in the long run.

Also, I agree with Anon 2...even if that gallery doesn't do something extra special for you for your generosity, they will most definitely appreciate it and the karma gods will notice too! Thanks for lending back the piece!!!

2/21/2006 01:13:00 PM  
Blogger Heart As Arena said...

Collecting must be in the air, E_W. I quote myself quoting Bill Hunt on my blog on Sunday (This deals with the process of collecting just before writing the check, but nevertheless . . .

In the January/February issue of Art On Paper there's a beautifully succinct quote from photography collector Bill Hunt about his avocation: "The rules for collecting are not that complicated: to look, to be present to the work, to be smart, and to talk about it."

2/21/2006 03:57:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for that quote HaA.

I agree with your comment on your blog that the first two are most important, but the last one is my personal passion (and the third my personal phobia).

2/21/2006 07:17:00 PM  
Blogger Heart As Arena said...

Yeah, E_W. 3 is a tricky one for me too. We should get over it.

2/21/2006 10:03:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

A commissioned project gives the artist a real morale boost--and an infusion of funds.

Pleeese, a morale boost? The cash will do that. A commission can be a morale killer. Buy an exhisting piece.

2/22/2006 07:49:00 AM  

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