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Being an Art Collector
at 4:10pm on 15th July 2014



1-2. Even isolated communities can see and collect art: Red Rock Art Gallery (near Colac) in the Australian countryside shows an ambitious exhibition of local and regional textile artists in a converted church.


So, you want to be an art collector? Or, maybe you already are. Do you deserve the ‘art collector’ moniker? Is it appropriate, or accurate? The art market, seen through art auction and art fair marketing departments, breezily refers to ‘art collectors’ as if they are a homogenous, like-minded lot. Galleries refer to “our collectors” and often speak on behalf of this publicly anonymous group of people. Artists may refer to “my art collectors” as if they are a supportive group of individuals with whom they have a long-standing and friendly relationship – of which many do.

Newspaper and media reports of high-priced art sales rarely name the purchaser of an art piece. Not surprisingly, buyers at the high-end of the market wish discretion. In such sales, the buyer – despite being nameless – is honoured merely by the occasion of a high-priced sale. Giving lip service to secrecy, juicy media speculation can be embellished, but still not confirmed, with the words: “it is believed that the buyer is….”

But the esteem for art buyers is through the twisted simplicity of being referred, not simply as an art buyer, but as an art collector. An art collector has social status and is seen to be contributing to the cultural health of a place.

In art’s long recent history, art and art collections were predominantly built through a patronage system of support. China’s imperial dynastic workshops produced art objects and beautiful ceramic pieces by artisans on order for the ruling Chinese court and their influential retainers and administrators. Likewise, aristocratic ruling houses and religious institutions across Europe contracted artists and patronized their work in the 15th and 16th-century. The opening of dedicated sailing trade routes around the world in the 17th-century and the rise of more sophisticated banking systems saw guilds and business leaders become the patrons of generations of artists (e.g. Rembrandt and his successors) whose work now fills museums around the world.

Under these patronage systems, an artist’s work was predominantly religious, memorials of events (e.g. military victories) and people (group, individual and ancestor portraiture). However, the Chinese literati class had a significantly longer history of pure aesthetic appreciation. A similar European appreciation for beauty and landscape (and later, art experimentation) evolved with the industrial revolution in the 19th-century and, in tandem, a diverse free market allowed a more fluid and freer relationship, rather than just tutelage, between artist and art patron.

The beginnings of an art market as we know it began around this time: through primary market art galleries and dealers exhibiting and selling the work of living artists alongside secondary market auction houses dealing in historic and secondary sales. It was around this time that collecting art became open to anyone rather than just an interest of aristocracy, royalty and religious orders. Art collecting was still a privileged activity – but capitalism allowed variety and different price points for those that loved and wished to buy art.

That is about the situation now. Anyone can be an art collector. But, not everyone is – simply; each has their own interests and priorities.

Buying art is a recreational activity, similar to attending a musical concert or walking Hollywood Road to visit antique shops. The intensity of involvement in art collecting is not determined by wealth, but by interest. It is determined by a commitment to visiting art exhibitions, reading about art, and making an individual and intellectually critical assessment of what is seen. A collection of art built over time and focused in subject, or concentrated on a period of time, an art movement or a particular artist can lead to an art collection of significance.

A factor that muddies much debate about art and art collecting is ‘investment’. Despite the persistent efforts of telephone cold-calling art investment consultants (who should be firmly told not to ring back), art is not an investment; it is a fickle, illiquid asset with no intrinsic value.

Art itself – its beauty, anger, and expression of a moment in time or of universal emotions – and of ideas that it expresses should be the motivation for collecting art. An art collector should be immune to fashion and ignore an art market’s noise about ‘hot’ or ‘name’ artists. A collection of name artists and buying only their artwork suggests a lazy approach to art collecting. It is merely trophy hunting for a trophy art collection.

Much more admirable and challenging is to build a considered art collection – and being able to spot an artist’s possible future reputation for innovation and excellence. Judging artists on their ability and sense of originality is a challenge (in an age when almost everything is derivative of an earlier art idea), but surely not so difficult when a collector has an embracive knowledge of art and its history. And, equally admirable is to give monetary and emotional support to an artist to realize a project or to assist their creativity.

This is what an art collector does! 

A version of this review was published in The Peak magazine, July 2014.

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