The Changing Economy for Art Collectors
Written by Frank Shifreen
There is a secret I want to share with you about buying art and I will get it out of the way right now. The secret to buying art is, when possible, go directly to the artist and get to know them. Buy art directly. Timothy McKenna writes in his article (“The Art of Investing in Art” available at cultureinside.com) about how an individual collector should proceed in the “superheated” art and collectibles market. He says that there is big money to be made in it. It seems to me to be an insiders market where most of us feel like outsiders. It would feel risky to me.
The starting-out collector seems like a mouse in a house with a lot of big cats roaming about. In the traditional art economy, Mr. McKenna’s advice has probity and seems sensible, but it is not. I have a different opinion. But first we first have to separate two categories that do not belong together. Most experts conjoin the art collectibles market and the purchase of work by practicing artists. I have no argument with their take on collectibles, the collectibles market and how to start buying that kind of art. My interest and expertise is advising on the purchase of artwork currently being produced, what I call living art. Buy the work of artists who are making art now directly from them. I believe that buying art should be a personal transaction
I encourage you to start relationships. Discover and learn about art by conversing with artists and art communities. Your interest in their work is a perfect introduction. Participating in such a dialog does not objectify art or artists. Make an acquaintance , friend, join a community. Most artists work as members of a group, and by asking we can learn what group that is. The most interesting collectors that I met were people who took an interest in art and artists. They joined a group of artists as friends that bought art. New York collectors Herbert and Dorothy Vogel are an example . He was a postal clerk and she was a librarian. They became friends with artist Sol LeWitt and bought their first artwork from him. Most of their purchases were not made through galleries but bought directly from artists. They made friends with many artists who later became famous. They were able to buy art because of the relationships they had with artists. Artists were so pleased by the Vogel’s interest that they lionized them. McKenna makes broad statements. “Know what you buy and buy what you know” is one of his first categories. How can one find the information out? It is very difficult to ferret out information even for a seasoned observer. That is where the dichotomy between collectibles and living art occurs. In my view, buying a work from an artist participates in their art. Katherine Markel Fine Arts of New York , has a section on buying works of fine arts. Her website, gives a good overview, which I recommend. The first point is to find out what you like. The web offers unparalleled resources for discovering art and artists. Explore via the web. Search out what you are interested.Google the artists. With the web you can narrow your search to what really interests you.
When you find someone or gallery that interests you, then make contact. I disagree with Markel, McKenna, and others on the necessity of galleries. They cite trust, safety, taste, ability to return, and other issues. Why is a gallery more trustworthy than an artist? If there is an artist who has a contract with a gallery, then you must buy from that gallery . Galleries are an important segment of the art world, but they are still the middleman in this business. Commercial galleries often take a big cut, 50% to 70%, just for showing the artist’s work.. Non-profit spaces, co-ops, and other non commercial galleries charge less. You will probably pay a significantly lower price by going directly to the artist. By communicating with the artist you will get to know their passion, motivation and purpose. Even if an artist you are interested in is with a gallery I would recommend engaging them personally. Group exhibitions are often a way to see an artists work in contrast to others, based around a theme, both in galleries or on the web. I also emphasize the word, interest. Your contacting an artist does not have to be on the promise to purchase. If the artist feels otherwise, then find another artist
Mr McKenna brings up the work of Franco Mondini-Ruiz as example of an affordable price in the commercial art market. Mondini-Ruiz is a unique exception. His work is an example that belies McKenna’s generalizing it. Mondini-Ruiz when offered a place in the Whitney Bienniel, one of the most important shows in American Art, chose to stand outside making art for sale ,10 cents to 100 dollars. He believes in making art affordable. Each one of the 400 small paintings in his current show is a gem. His practice is so rare in the commercial art market that it makes McKenna;s statement all the more striking. Many artists believe, myself included, that it is important to make some art that can be bought by anybody. Mondini-Ruiz is one of the few commercially and critically successful artists that is doing that. I am sure there are others, and I hope it is a growing trend, but I will not hold my breath. Money, exclusivity and fashion drive the commercial market. It is all about the buzz. I do not listen,and I recommend that you do not either. Trust your instinct for beauty and meaning, but also trust your right to a good deal.
You must be careful as McKenna and Markel warn, particularly in prints by famous artists. There are paintings that are made by computer that look original, paintings made wholesale by factories in China, copycats, forgeries, and a host of other scams. That is another reason to buy from the artist and to get to know them in time before you buy. Unless there is a big payday, scammers do not have the time for chit-chat. Take your time, chat it up and be alert.
There are many wonderful unaffiliated artists. Galleries and sales are not indicators of talent. The old cliche, which I repeat, Van Gogh never sold a painting. Many artists on this site, Saatchi, and other portals charge reasonable fees. My colleague from Columbia Teachers College, Dr. Christine Staikidis, worked with a group of Mayan artists whose art supports several villages in Guatemala. I include a link to the website which is run on their behalf. The paintings are in the range of 100$ to 5000$. There are many very interesting paintings in the 100-400$ range. Indigenous peoples are now able to compete on the world stage, as equals, and it is a welcome development . It could be considered “outsider” or folk art by some, but in my view, these artists are painting their culture. They are not outside of anything.
In contrast to Mckenna and his example of Ruiz-Mondini, I would bring up Dr. Barnaby Ruhe. Dr Ruhe is a professor at New York University and paints portraits and abstractions in a unique dynamic, modern style. His prices are reasonable. A portrait is way to see how the artist sees you.
If you are wondering what are all these doctors doing as artists I will explain, because it has been an important development in the study of the arts. In recent years, artists became interested in studying the practice of art, using modern tools of research, developed in the academic fields of art and art education to identify and study, not through art history or aesthetics, but as active practitioners, to learn about art from the “inside”. I personally felt an estrangement from the world of art that Markel and McKenna write about. I sought to understand the creation, exhibition and business of art and am pursuing my degree and research in those areas. I think we are making progress
In summation, Buy art directly from artists, you will probably pay less and participate in a community that is much more rewarding than a traditional commercial transaction
Mckenna, T. The Art of Investing in Art , 2007 at Cultureinside.com