What follows below my introduction here is a brief except from a longer piece posted to ArtBusiness.com which, in turn, is taken from a talk by Alan Bamberger given to the Friends of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. Honestly, I don't intend to collect art like a "pro" and I'm not sure I want to build a collection in quite the same sense as Mr. Bamberger describes but the art nerd in me found the information very interesting. The principles described apply as much to buying work by local artists as they do to buying internationally renowned artists. Link to Alan Bamberger on facebook.
Click here to see the full posting on ArtBusiness.com
There's a big difference between buying art and collecting art. Buying art is more of a random activity based on likes, preferences or attractions at any given moment, while collecting art is more of a purposeful directed longterm commitment. In both cases, you buy what you like, but if your goal is to collect art and do it right, you have to master two additional skills. The first is being able to effectively research, evaluate and decide whether or not to buy whatever works of art attract you. The second is being able to choose each individual work in such a way as to form a meaningful grouping aka a collection.
If you're like most people, you know how to buy art on a piece-by-piece basis, but may not be all that accomplished at formulating a plan for making multiple acquisitions over time, or in other words, building a collection. You can find art you like just about anywhere you look and in a seemingly endless array of subject matters, mediums and price ranges, but sifting through it all in a systematic manner can be overwhelming and even intimidating. So how do decide where to focus and what direction to go in? How do you relate one purchase to the next? How do you organize or group your art together in ways that make sense? How do you present it? And most importantly, how do you do all these things well? This is what collecting is all about; it's the ultimate case of controlled purposeful buying.
What makes a great collector great is his or her ability to separate out specific works of art from the scrillions of pieces already in existence and assemble them in such a way as to increase or advance our understanding of that art in particular or of the history and evolution of art in general. In any mature collection, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, the collector comes to be accepted as a respected authority and in exceptional cases, goes on to set the standards, determine tastes, trends and influence the future of collecting for all.
Regarding the art that does make it into your collection, most novice collectors will tell you they buy what they like. That's definitely the best way to buy, but as you gain experience, the reasons why you buy what you like should become increasingly more conscious, detailed, sophisticated and purposeful. For example, you might hear an advanced collector say something like, "Not only do I love this sculpture, but it's also a prime example of the artist's best subject matter from his most productive time period and it fills a major gap in my collection."
What an experienced collector essentially does is pose a problem and then illustrate the solution to that problem by piecing together a collection. That way, everything fits and it all makes sense according to the master plan. Take this problem for instance:
What is the history of abstract painting in Southern California? The solution is an art collection consisting of abstract paintings by Southern California artists that date from the early days right on up to the present (or from whatever time period the collector is focusing on).
Ask questions like:
* Why do I like the kinds of art I'm buying?
* What about it satisfies me?
* Do I like it for the subject matters, what it represents, what it communicates, its originality, the techniques, the colors, the historical aspects, the regions where it's made, the lives of the artists?
* Does it make me think about things I've never thought about before?
* Does it make me feel a certain way or see things in a different way?
* Do I admire its technical qualities the most?
* Do I like it for the concepts, ideas, themes or philosophies it embodies, communicates or stands for?
* Does it alter or inform my perspective on some aspect of life?
* Does it portray or present things in ways they've never been presented before?
* Is it that it's old, new, local, foreign, big, small, round, square, whatever?
Once you begin to identify the common threads, you can refine your buying to zero in on additional pieces that share those characteristics. It's almost like putting together a mission statement or clearly and specifically defining your goals...
The good news is you can begin documenting at any time and even from a standing stop. Write down everything you can about the art you own, either from memory or by contacting the original sellers. Include information like the following:
* Any stories the sellers tell you specifically relating to the art.
* Details about the purchases including any memorable moments about making them.
* What the art means or what its significance is, either according to the artist or to whomever sold it to you.
* Biographical and career information about the artists.
* How or why or any other information about how the art was made.
* When the art dates from.
* Whether any pieces have ever been exhibited in public, at galleries, written about or featured or discussed in any other way.
Another distinguishing feature of a superior collection is that it's organized. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end-- just like any good museum exhibition. This goes back to posing the problem and then using the collection to map out the solution. Take the previous example of the "history of abstract painting in Southern California." This collection can be organized in many ways including by date, by artist, by style, or by location. Or you can get even more specific. Within a topic as narrow as this, there are all kinds of subtopics:
* Abstract painting in Los Angeles organized by date.
* Abstract painting in Southern California between 1950 and 1970.
* Geometric abstract painting in Southern California.
* Abstract painting in Southern California by immigrant artists.
* Abstract paintings in Southern California that are no larger than 12 by 16 inches.
This increases not only their enjoyment, but it also reinforces your chosen direction and your future buying. Additional benefits to organizing your collection are that you can see where you've been, where you're going, where you have duplication, where you're weak, what you're missing, what no longer makes the grade, and what you have to do to resolve any problems. It's not much different from your kids putting together all the baseball cards of their favorite teams to complete their collections.
The worst possible outcome for a collection occurs when the owner passes away leaving no information about the art, how much it's worth, how to care for it, or how to sell or donate it. Countless works of art have been resold for pennies on the dollar, given away, or even thrown in the trash because the owners kept little or no records and left no instructions on what to do with it.
Header image © Roy Sowers 1999
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