Friday, July 26, 2013

A Conversation with Joel and Zöe Dictrow on the Contemporary Art Collector's "Narrative"

Note: This is the latest in a series of conversations on the shifting narratives of roles within the art industry. Previous posts in the series include:

Fabulous gallerist and super Twitter user (and a friend of ours) Magda Sawon dubbed this series (t)ED TALKS the other day. Needless to say, I love it. I'll consider that branding (after perhaps a quick chat with my lawyer on whether it's asking for trouble).

Before I opened a gallery, like a number of dealers, I had dabbled in collecting. I can't think of any activity I have ever found as addictive. There was a point at which, if I didn't bring home a new work of art at least once a month, I began to go into withdrawal. Eventually, given my very limited wealth, it made more sense to feed my art addiction by presenting art, rather than only acquiring it (although we continue to do that as best we can as well).

My small experience in collecting is virtually non-existent in comparison with New York collectors Joel and Zöe Dictrow, though. Their love affair with contemporary art began over 30 years ago and among all the collectors we know, they stand out among the most tireless investigators of what's new and what's good. They travel the world exploring new galleries, artists' studios, museums, and art fairs. Moreover, they live with their collection in such an elegantly seamless way. Their apartment is positively full of art, and yet you never feel anything but enchanted or exhilarated by the latest, always thoughtful hanging when you visit their home. They kindly invite the art world in each March as part of The Armory Show VIP program (and so rehang annually), and there's not a dealer I know who doesn't adore them. They're charming, smart, very generous, and it's no small compliment from me to say, collecting for all the right reasons. (Here's a photo of Joel [second from left] and Zöe [third from left] participating in a panel discussion last year hosted by APAA and NADA on collecting work by emerging artists.)

Joel and Zöe agreed to talk with me about shifts in the narrative of contemporary art collectors. Full disclosure: Yes, they have purchased work by artists from our gallery, and Murat and I consider them friends as well as clients.

The traditional narrative for most long-term contemporary art collectors often begins when they become intrigued or sometimes "fall in love" with a work they find somewhat accidentally (while on vacation or visiting galleries with friends). Their first purchase is usually modest in price. They buy it and take it home, not quite sure how it will feel to live with it. Because they like living with it, they venture back out and invest in learning about contemporary art perhaps with an adviser (either a professional consultant or a friend who knows the art scene) or through talking with gallerists. Slowly they begin to gravitate toward a position on collecting (focusing on a medium perhaps, or a geographical area, or a political position, or a group of artists who speak to them), with an eventual decision to collect either broad or deep, and their confidence in making more expensive purchases grows as well. If they fill their home with art but still want to keep collecting, they either invest in storage or begin to sell work from their collection as part of their approach to continue buying. As they become well known as collectors they gain access not only to VIP programs at art fairs or museum boards and events, but also to the best new work of the artists they support. As they spend more time collecting, they become experts on the artists they collect and the general market they're focused on, as well as the inner workings of the art market, developing a keen sense for its rhythms and quirks, often knowing much more than many emerging gallerists do about how things really work. As their collection grows in importance and takes on a life of its own, they begin to consider the options for how to deal with it after they pass away. Options such as whether to donate it to a museum, liquidate it at auction, or even establish their own institution open to the public often involve museum curators, auction houses, galleries and of course their heirs.

Winkleman: To get started, please first outline for our readers a bit about your collection. Roughly how many artworks are in it and who are a few of the well-known artists you collect?

Dictrows: We started buying art together as a married couple in the late 1970’s. Before we married, each of us had prints by famous artists like Calder and Miro on our walls at home. When we started going to galleries, we knew almost nothing of contemporary art. But we enjoyed going to exhibitions and trying to understand what we were seeing. Now we have many hundreds of artworks by contemporary artists –- way more than we can show in our apartment at one time. Generally speaking, we look at artists for a while before we make a purchase. We tend not to make spontaneous decisions about buying art. We look and discuss and consider. Some well known artists in our collection include Gerhard Richter, Cindy Sherman, Sol Lewitt and Bill Viola.

Winkleman: Do you feel that narrative above still applies to collectors of contemporary art? What parts of it are less likely or less realistic today? What changes have you felt in the way people collect now compared with when you began?

Dictrows: The narrative still applies except that everything has sped up. The internet and social media make the difference. The biggest change we’ve seen is that more and more people are buying art for investment than in the past. And collectors come from all over the world as never before. So the number of collectors has increased dramatically since we started collecting. The price of contemporary art has increased dramatically too over the past few years.

Collectors may buy art they love but they rationalize their purchases by saying that it’s a good investment. Still, art is a risky, illiquid investment subject to fashion. Art by a particular artist is variable. Art is not created equal.  That said, it’s exciting to collect contemporary art. It makes us feel like we are part of history to buy the art of our time, to watch young careers develop into mature careers. That’s what happens when artists are well-represented by good galleries.

Winkleman: I've had several conversations with long-time collectors who feel the influx of new collectors and the way that's sped up the decision-making process (as well as the way they've changed the tone of collecting art) has made collecting less enjoyable for them. Charles Saatchi, for example, went so far as to write an op-ed for The Guardian in which he called some of the new collectors "vulgar and depressingly shallow," adding:

Artistic credentials are au courant in the important business of being seen as cultured, elegant and, of course, stupendously rich.
Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth. Their pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles, and being awestruck.

Do you sense a similar sense of loss of a perhaps "gentler" time of art collecting, or is your interpretation of how things have evolved different?

Dictrows: Lots of people have a sense of nostalgia for the past. It isn’t surprising to hear people say the art world has changed for the worse. We find contemporary art interesting because it evolves and only looks back for inspiration. The process of collecting contemporary art involves connecting with the world in new ways. There are collectors that limit their buying to a certain few galleries or artists or periods and have difficulty departing with old ways of seeing and doing things.

It seems to us about 50% of the galleries in NYC we now visit didn't exist 10 years ago. The number of galleries we visit has stayed the same but the mix has changed and will continue to change. Collecting is not just about acquiring. It is also about education and understanding. This hasn't changed. What has changed is that the art world has expanded so much that it appears to have become more impersonal.

There's a lot of chatter lately about how the ever-expanding art fair schedule is impacting how much time collectors can devote to visiting galleries. You both still make a huge effort to visit galleries, I know, but I'm wondering how you balance your time these days. Compared with 10 years ago, for example, can you say what percentage of your art viewing time is now spent at fairs rather than in galleries?

Dictrows: When we started collecting art, we spent every Saturday on our day off from work looking at art. Now that we are retired, we spend more time looking at art. There are more galleries and more neighborhoods in New York we have to visit in order to cover what we want to see. So our time is divided differently. We select which fairs to attend using several factors, though reasons vary: We like going to fairs that are situated in appealing locations. Often the fair makes it particularly appealing for us to attend because of their special attention to VIP programs and other benefits. Sometimes we decide to go because our friends are going. We go to more fairs than we used to. But that is partially because with the addition of Frieze NY there are two fairs to attend locally. We go to Basel, though not every year. We went in 2013 because we tied it into going to the Venice Biennale. We went to SP Arte in Brazil during April and tied it in to a visit to Inhotim. We will go to Miami/Basel in December. For the first time we will go to FIAC this year. These are more fairs than we attended last year. I can’t give you a percentage answer about how we split our time between galleries and art fairs. We value both, but we enjoy looking at art in galleries more. Gallery shows are important to us because they give us an opportunity to focus on a whole body of work by an artist in a context that feels less about investing in art and more about art appreciation.

Winkleman: I also know you travel to fairs around the world. What impact, if any, has the globalization of the art market had on how you approach collecting?

Dictrows:We meet more people than ever before. We know about more artists. We are offered more art to buy. It’s overwhelming at times.

Winkleman: You were both kind enough to attend the panel discussion in Basel where Elizabeth Dee, Josh Baer and I discussed "the role of the mid level gallery in the age of the mega-gallery." Afterward, Zöe, you shared with Elizabeth what I consider a much more useful hierarchical structure for truly understanding the gallery system today. Rather than simply emerging, mid level, top tier, and mega, your system has seven levels. Can you summarize those for us?

Dictrows: In New York first level galleries are happy just to get their foot in the door. They are recently established, certainly under 5 years in business, one employee or if partnership, no employees. First level gallery owners have energy to burn and they are excited about travel. Their artists’ prices are less than $15,000…often far less. What they lack in money they make up for in enthusiasm. Back in the 1980’s Gene Schwartz (a well-known collector now deceased) used to describe these young enterprises as “bud” galleries. Gene and Barbara Schwartz taught us a lot about collecting back then. Lots of collectors, including some that can afford to buy artwork for a million dollars enjoy buying and socializing with young galleries and their artists.

Second level galleries have met with some modest success. Volume of sales has increased, not necessarily prices. The need to expand to a larger gallery or ground floor space, exhibit at art fair(s) and employ an assistant is apparent. When their artists are selling and/or getting attention from museum curators, it’s time to grow the gallery. This is when problems erupt left, right and center. Not enough money to cover gallery and art fair expenses, pay artists their share and do anything other than business related activities. Not enough time to appropriately cultivate all constituencies – artists, collectors, curators. The gallery owner needs to have a burning desire to succeed, fantastic energy/work ethic, loyal artists, luck, imagination and vision to make it to the next level.

Third level galleries scrape by better than second level galleries, but not by a wide margin. The gallery has been in business more than 5 years. But it is often undercapitalized. Typically, 3rd level galleries have to worry about losing their top artists to bigger galleries, some of whom are starting to make “real” money for the gallery perhaps commanding $20,000 - $30,000 for an artwork. Without those artists, the gallery wouldn’t be able to cover their expenses. Some galleries can exist at the third level for years because they have established a good reputation with curators and collectors and their artists stay with them.

Some third level galleries are new to the New York market and have owners who established themselves as art professionals at a high level – either as an employee at a large gallery or museum or as a collector or private dealer or had a gallery in a different city before coming to New York. The gallery opened with some serious money and/or mid-career artists or estates of deceased artists on the roster. If the gallery finds a way to sell steadily and cover expenses whether they exhibit at art fairs or not, they may well find their way to the next level.

Fourth level galleries represent a few artists with recognized careers who generally command prices above $30,000. A registrar, an art handler, a gallery director may be needed even if the gallery stays in the same space as when they grew to be a third level gallery. The owner(s) should be able to accumulate some capital now and have a life outside of the gallery. Business expenses are still tight, but the gallery is on fairly solid ground if the owner(s) keeps a tight rein on expenses.

Fifth level galleries represent more than a few artists that sell for over $50,000. They may have a few that sell for over $100,000.

Sixth level galleries are situated in prime locations. Most of the artists have work that sells for more than $100,000 routinely. They still worry about losing their artists to 7th level galleries.

Seventh level galleries are recognized worldwide as top galleries. They may have multiple-city and country locations.  Everyone knows who they are. They have an elite client list and they make lots more money than 6th level galleries, yet not all elite artists are represented by them. Artists with dynamic careers want galleries with a roster of artists they relate to and still make substantial incomes. Sometimes artists go to a 7th level gallery and their careers languish. The artist is given one show and never has another yet they stay on the roster and the artists feel that it wouldn’t look good for them to jump to a “lesser” gallery.

Winkleman: There were no such things as email, jpegs, or online art fairs when you first began collecting. What changes have digital technology and online channels for viewing and/or buying art brought to collecting in your opinion?

Dictrows: These innovations have made it easier to see what artists are up to. Just being able to see an exhibition of a new body of work being exhibited in London, let’s say, makes you less dependent on a single gallery. So now it is easier to buy art from galleries located in different cities and countries with jpeg images. Often we will reserve an artwork based on a jpeg and will make a decision after we have seen it in person at the gallery or at an art fair.  

It’s exciting and sometimes overwhelming to be able to choose from so many galleries and keep track of many more artists than before these technologies were available.


Anonymous Gam said...

I was wondering if collectors felt the pull of the trend seen elsewhere towards crowdsourcing?

I'm thinking of how a lot of design studios see some of their normal clientale move to selecting services from the likes of shutterstock, scoopshot, crowdspring , crowdengineer? Not so much like Saatchi & saatchi, but where the collector/client says I want something to respond to this, what is on offer?

The reason I ask is, I am curious if collectors are moving to collections of style versus collections of artists works? (crowd sourcing seems to concatate collections of answers to the same want) & if they are, then what would be the implications for galleries in that shift? (from artists to styles)

maybe museums will feel this influence first - seems to be a digital norm, datamining of similarities , design service over designers, photos over photographers ... styles over artists?

7/29/2013 01:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

" ... keep track of many more artists than before these technologies were available. "

An extrapolation of digital technologies possible danger to art collecting:

Somewhere McLuhan indicated how when the newspaper was morphed into a national or regional paper from its previous incarnation of a city paper, that the writers lost their personla voices, that the advent of stories incoming form the newswires via the telegraph and telephone, meant that teh newspaper couldn't juxtapose them all in the same paper without losing coherencey. This resulted in objective journalism, where in the third person one was able to then mash all the stories from everywhere together, and the meshed. One similar voice from all over.
Looking at Flikrs and other image sharing sites, the phtoographers too seem to have lost their personality, and images are now mashed together. Even on the phtotographers own pages, the default is for mashing together images regardless of subject.
The world feeds, seem to really force a new voice on those speaking, they need to speak in unision in order to be on the same page. Yes there custom searches, but the default search appears to be similar to the telegraphs forcing one tone on the journalists - objective and impersonal.
If collectors depend more and more on the internet to collect, then they too may find artists voices becoming more and more impersonal , bowing under the same structural pressure to conform to be coherent when being displayed together. Galleries have always had a stable of artists who fit the galleries view of significance. But there were gallerists who held that personal view. With the internet, it isn't a personal view (artists) that determines that voice. I'd concur with McLuhan that it would the structural nature of the world wide web, as in the continental nature of the telegraph and its impact on journalism.
I'd hate to have art's voice become objective so that it can be accessable on the net.
(long live the personal gallery!)

lots to ponder.

7/31/2013 12:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lets turn on the time machine.

The first works of art I remember were folk art/Cowboy and Indian reliefs on my Grandmothers wall she also had a China closet full of route 66 Americana kitsch and more small folk art sculptures. Jeff Koons would drool over what was in that cabinet.

The first work of art I ever bought was a giant hollowed out easter egg with jesus and baby rabbits inside it was made out of sugar and frosting . I could never eat it. the thing lasted for years before it disintegrated.

Remember when you had special toys that were for looking at and not for playing with as a child . why is that???? you feelings for them or they made you feel something.

Remember your first trip into your parents place of worship? well mine was full of sculptures and reliefs and architecture.

My Mom had a small cork sculpture of a some famous Roman Architecture and I broke it being a little hellion . I was realy upset , My mom Glued it back together good as new . I still have it and look at it everyday.

8/01/2013 11:23:00 AM  
Anonymous zipthwung said...

I like that these folks overcame some of the snobbery of the art world - or was it just the times that changed? I like Gam's take - regionalism, I believe, vs the one world government 0 there are advantages to an international style- but it does seem to be a bit totalitarian. I have to champion the antifacist, individual and idiosyncratic - which is the crux of the matter. And artists are not really encouraged to be individuals, despite the lip service society gives art.

8/08/2013 06:55:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

It's reassuring to hear there are still collectors like this out there.

Their seven tiered model seemed maybe a bit over-elaborate - although obviously poaching or upscaling for artists does happen by increments as well. Actually putting some numbers of prices here was helpful as well.

8/10/2013 09:59:00 PM  

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