Insider information on the contemporary art world:
Tips to become a smart collector

By Steven Thomson
05.25.10 | 09:17 am

On a recent weekday evening, the local art intelligentsia held court at Barbara Davis Gallery to swap secrets on the current state of affairs in the contemporary art world. Benefiting Annunciation Orthodox School, the exclusive event brought together a smart set of art literatti.

The lineup spanned the collections: Jonathon Glus, CEO of Houston Arts Alliance; Michelle White, associate curator at The Menil Collection; Diane Barber, co-director and visual arts curator of DiverseWorks ArtSpace; Lauren Rottet, award-winning interior architect; collector and arts matron Judy Nyquist; collector Paul Getty; gallery owner Barbara Davis and artist James Surls. It was a small audience of the conspicuously clued-in.

CultureMap was there, and is here now to present the top five tips for collectors today:

1. Acquaint yourself with the artist.

"Getting the opportunity to visit the artist is half of it," Getty explains. "The experience of meeting an artist is most important," Nyquist agrees. "When I travel, people tell me which boutiques to hit, where to catch a great performance, and sure I get to all that — but the first thing I want to know is what exhibitions are going on, and can I visit an artist in his studio." Nyquist emphasizes that face time with an artist is not the time to be shy: "Ask them everything. What are you thinking about at this moment? What makes a good day to create? What music are you playing?"

Davis adds, "Interacting with an artist who can show you how to see something in a different way — that's the reason to start collecting and getting active in museums."

2. Frequent the fairs, but ax the auctions.

Davis' gallery has participated in that most epic of expositions, Art Basel Miami Beach, "the powerhouse of the art world." "As a collector, it's great to see an overview of what's happening," she says. But there's life beyond the Miami madness. Davis recommends Berlin and London as well, and New York's Armory Show and accompanying Volta fair. At the most recent Volta NY, Davis noticed, "Money was not talked about; it was all about what the artists are about. They're pushing ideas and making sense of the world — it's invigorating."

What's less invigorating is the lackluster art auction market. Davis says, "You have to understand the auction is big business. Many years ago, the auction was the driving force on prices of historically famous artists. But today, a price that goes extremely high is because of a fluke — it doesn't mean that the next work by that artist will be the same price. So when you're reading about artists, you have to really go further and check the gallery that's showing this artist consistently. There's a lot of media on price, price, price instead of content, content, content."

3. Request a résumé.

Before blindly snagging a canvas from the wall, ask the gallery director what the price is predicated on — and if that answer has nothing to do with the history and résumé of the artist, then move on. "I've shown young artists that are as good as anyone working today, but they don't have the credentials, résumé or career," Davis says, "so their work is $10,000, not $100,000."

She adds, "I think it's really important for when you fall in love with an artist, to really look at the history of that artist at that point. Is he serious? Is he constantly pushing the void? Because you don't want to fall in love with something at the beginning, and when your eye grows, want to give it away."

Of course, your foyer is different from a progressive art venue. For instance, DiverseWorks' Diane Barber seeks artists with very short résumés for the sake of exposure to curators and emerging collectors.

4. Get drunk.

Menil curator Michelle White cited how Dominique de Menil equates the "feeling of collecting art to getting drunk — a sort of intoxicating, enrapturing activity — that moment when you buy something at auction."

Judy Nyquist elaborates on her intoxicating love affair with art. "Everything that I do is informed by art. I'm not that attuned to what the value will be eventually. I'm attuned to things that make you think.

"My real feeling is that we are stewards of what art we have. These are possessions only in the respect that we have them and, someday, they're going to outlive us. It's a privilege to live with them."

5. Invest with informed intuition.

Buy what you like, but buy smart. "I'm self-studied in art," Getty says, "but every month, I read Art Forum, Art in America, Art Auction — I have 10 magazines I read every single month so that when I go into a museum or gallery, I am familiar with 99 percent of the work."

Getty touts how much he loves the work on his walls, but he admits, "90 percent of it I would sell for the right price. I don't buy anything that I feel isn't going to be a good investment for me over time." He recounted a story of a work he bought for $35,000 and sold within six months for $200,000. "If I'd kept it another six months, I could have sold it for $500,000," he lamented.

Also, be leery of signature signatures — obscure works by renown artists shouldn't fetch as much, so young collectors need a trusty adviser to be sure that the work is very typical of what that artist does.

Indeed, treating art exclusively as investments can be risky, as there's never a guarantee on return. Warned Davis, "I think when a gallery starts talking about 'the investment, the investment, the investment' — that's not the gallery you want to be purchasing from. A lot of hedge fund people were sold on that in the last couple of years, and obviously, many of those works didn't go up in price."

Considering the global recesion, this is an auspicious moment in the art trade. "I think the best thing about this economic demise is that it is making people reel back and determine what's important to us as people," Surls says, adding with a chuckle, "And I hope that means that people will buy my art."

Although the evening circled around the contemporary art scene, White proffered the historic wisdom of Dominique de Menil on the notion of balancing art consumption with creating a smart, curatorial eye:

In the 1940s, John de Menil brought back a Cézanne watercolor from a New York auction for $2,000. Dominique said that when she saw it, she didn't like it; she didn't understand it, there was too little paint. But she didn't know how to see it. She had to learn how to see it. And from there she went on to appreciate the masterpieces of spiritual abstraction. What they were always aware of in their discussion is that it's a process of learning. The de Menils would surround themselves with curators, visionaries, artists. They set forth a really inspiring model for collectors today.