How to Collect: An Introduction

4 April 2012
How to Collect: An Introduction

What is contemporary art?

Unlike Modern Art, there is no categorical definition of contemporary art.  The term is loosely given to the art of the present day and of the relatively recent past – some would say from 1970 onwards – that is innovative and enquiring in nature.  It is often defined in relation to the Post-Modern and the cultural conditions arising from social, economic and technological developments in the historic period following the Second World War.  Contemporary art takes a bewildering range of forms – paintings and  sculptures, drawings and photographs, films and videos, installations and site-specific works, performance and sound-based art, new media and purely conceptual propositions – arising from an exploration by artists of the idea of art.  In this formal and conceptual enquiry, artists contest the conventions and parameters of what might constitute visual art and interrogate related ideas.  Notions of originality and authenticity, of the distinction between the visual and other art forms, between high and low culture, of the systematic and institutional conditions in which art are defined and by and for whom, of art as a political agency, as a commodity and a constantly changing and fleeting notion in a globalised world driven by new technologies, are just some of the debates that have shaped contemporary art today.

Why do people collect contemporary art?

There is no more important moment than the present.  Contemporary art is a way to engage with the ideas and concerns of our own times.  Artists working today explore and open up concepts and experiences which amplify our sense of being alive in the here and now.  They make proposals and give visual form to ideas relevant to our lives now in a diverse range of formats which extend far beyond conventional historic art forms like painting and sculpture – there really is something for everyone!

The contemporary art scene offers a great lifestyle and opportunities to meet interesting, cultured and like-minded people from all walks of life at exhibition openings and dinners, art fairs and international biennales, artists’ studios and private collector events.  In particular, having the opportunity to meet the artist and engage with them personally offers a privileged insight into their work and is a major incentive for many contemporary collectors.

Thinking about collecting contemporary art?

First-rate collections are built by passionate, committed and engaged collectors.  Whilst collecting contemporary art is great fun, it does involve commitment and time and there are values and responsibilities to learn in relation to artists and the art works you might own.

It is important to develop your knowledge of art – both of artists and their work, and of the history of art – and to navigate the art world and understand the way it works.  Developing your understanding, learning to look at art and building your networks are essential, and this takes time of course.  Don’t be in a rush!  Enjoy finding out about the art world.

Some collectors begin spontaneously and develop their collections organically in an un-predetermined manner.  Others find it useful to develop a framework for their collecting – this can be media-specific, for example, painting, drawing, sculpture etc. or thematic and conceptual, for example, works by female artists, Latin American, contemporary portraits etc.

Whilst it is possible to acquire works that increase in financial value in time, buying art as an alternative asset class is almost universally frowned upon in the art world and those whose primary motivation in collecting is as a form of investment will find themselves unable to access works of quality from artists and their galleries.

Just Starting Out?

Here are some useful basic questions to consider when starting to collect contemporary art:

  • Why do you want to collect contemporary art?
  • How much time can you give to developing your collection?
  • How big would you like your collection to be?
  • Do you have any particular areas of interest or preferences?
  • How much money do you want to spend each year on art?
  • What would you be comfortable spending on a single piece of art?
  • Are you buying for specific places?  Where is the work going in your home or elsewhere?

Here are some useful tips for those starting out:

See as much art as possible, nationally and internationally – exhibitions in public institutions, commercial galleries, art fairs, biennials, open studios and auctions.

Here is a list of  international contemporary art events

Here is a list of international contemporary art fairs

Here is a list of leading contemporary art venues in the UK

Here is a list of museums with modern and contemporary art collections in the UK.

Even if your interest is contemporary art, develop your knowledge of art history – art is a continuum and contemporary art has evolved from generations of artistic exploration and frequently references art history.  Understanding contemporary art’s relationship to art history is important for collectors.

Most people take in an image or an object quite approximately.  They do not look deeply.  They gather information quickly, fleetingly, for their purposes.  Art requires a different type of looking to generate a fuller type of response.  When looking at art pay attention to your reaction – even an apparent lack of response bears scrutiny.  Try not to resort to the gallery’s reading materials when first looking at art, but look for a long time and focus on your response.  What do you like?  The colours, the shape, the size of the piece, the way it has been made, the materials?  Is there a subject?  What is it?  What is happening?  How are you feeling?  There is no right or wrong response.  Read the materials and look again.  Do they help your response – don’t worry if not – focus on your own response.  Develop your ability to articulate your response.  If you were talking to a friend about the work, what would you say?  How would you describe it?  Look at the picture and try to memorise it, close your eyes and describe it to yourself.  What have you remembered?  These are all part of heightening your response to work.

In addition to seeing as much art as possible and looking deeply, read the art press and reviews to develop criticality and knowledge.  Reading and research are useful – identify artists whose work you find interesting and read about them.  The internet is a vital tool.

Here is a list of leading contemporary art magazines.

Don’t rush – spend time looking, researching, thinking – before buying, but likewise don’t be afraid to dive in and make a purchase.  Valuable lessons are to be learnt from actually buying a piece of art.

Develop relationships with galleries whose artists you like and institutions which show contemporary art.  Artists, galleries and public institutions provide rich information on the current ideas and forms of contemporary visual culture.  Get involved if you can and access privileged information and networks.  If you can, get onto a mailing list for a gallery, and receive invitations to private views and openings.


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