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How to grow as a collector

If you followed my last few articles, you would have been introduced to the world of art collecting, and hopefully, you now feel more comfortable and confident to build a collection of your own. Even after you understand these basics, it is good to keep an open mind and keep pushing yourself to grow as a collector.

To continue on this journey of collecting, you will need to develop your taste and gain familiarity with how the art ecosystem of today works. In this final article of my Art Collecting Series,I will share tips on how to do this, and to take your collecting to the next level. In particular, I focus on the sometimes intimidating, mostly misunderstood but ultimately exciting area of Contemporary Art, and how you should consider adding a piece (or more) to your collection.

Traditionally, the art market valued the past

To understand Contemporary Art, we first have to look to our history and general habits in art collecting. Certain periods of art history are very popular in the art market – for instance, 19th century Impressionist paintings or 1950s American and British Pop Art. Many collectors are attracted to the beautiful colours and technical mastery of Impressionist works, while others are drawn to the popular appeal and cultural relevance of Pop Art paintings or prints. Artists from these movements are now famous and it is thus natural that many collectors desire such work – which is valued, significant, and established in the history books. Yet, we must remember that many of these artists were barely known whilst they were alive. Van Gogh is probably the most classic example of an artist whose work received little to no recognition during his lifetime.

Similarly, the contemporary artists practicing today will one day be remembered for their innovations. In fact, many living contemporary artists are already being and continuously celebrated for their ideas and creativity. Chinese artist, Ai Wei Wei, for example, is probably one of the world’s most famous living artists, known for his activism that calls attention to the human rights violations worldwide, and his art that keeps on challenging the definition of art to include new forms of social engagement, the use of social media and so on.

One of Ai Weiwei's "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" triptych, 2016, LEGO bricks, 240 x 200 x 3 cm (each)

Unlike artworks from previous centuries, which already have their place in history books, contemporary artworks have the ability to break new ground and challenge ideas in our era. For example, Conceptualism, one of the more recognised movements in contemporary art, although first emerged in the 1960s, arguably is still challenging artistic conventions of today. Conceptual artworks typically consider that the idea conveyed through the work as more important than aesthetic and technical virtuosity. By their nature, conceptual artworks can require more from the viewer, to be understood and deeply appreciated. For a long time, the art market shied away from such artworks, which were at times deceptively simple in their technicality and materials. Although this tendency has changed, but many are often intimidated by art that cannot be understood at first blush, and thus avoid purchasing works that are not considered beautiful in a traditional sense.

The art market is focusing on the present

The art market is now shifting, and contemporary conceptual artworks are being increasingly valued. Today, more collectors are motivated to support ideas and innovation in the arts. The large auction houses and industry bodies have equally responded to this increasing demand for Conceptual Art. In September 2018, Sotheby’s Hong Kong daringly put a conceptual artwork to auction, a piece by Chinese contemporary artist Xu Zhen. The artwork, titled Xuzhen Supermarket, replicates a true-to-scale Chinese convenience store with items on the shelves for sale. People could buy goods from milk to toothpaste, however, each of the grocery items were empty and consisted only of their packaging. The artwork was a cheeky critique on Chinese consumerism and global capitalism – and certainly a style of art different from the usual Impressionist paintings that can be hung neatly on your wall! In this respect, Yuki Terase, Sotheby’s Head of Contemporary Art, Asia, explained, “this [contemporary] category is still new to auction — even on a global scale — and [the auction of Xuzhen Supermarket is], therefore, a testament to Sotheby’s creative spirit and our capacity to push new frontiers to expand the variety of art in the region.”[1]

XUZHEN SUPERMARKET by Chinese artist Xu Zhen (b.1977) at Sotheby's preview Hong Kong 2018

The very idea of collecting art is evidently changing with the times. Collecting has traditionally been viewed as an activity of either decorating homes or preservation; collectors purchased artwork with a view to pass it on to the next generation. Now, some collectors are comfortable with purchasing artwork that will decay (read more in my article on Why Collect Art?). Artists are also challenging the idea of conservation and ownership. In October last year, a painting by renowned street artist Banksy self-destructed upon being auctioned at Sotheby’s. It was partially shredded immediately after its auction due to the device secretly built into the work. The new shredded work is certified and given a new title Love is in the Bin. Its subsequent $1.4 million sale can be said to challenge the art market itself – as Banksy attempts to wrestle control from the auctioneers, who otherwise determine how his artwork should be sold.

Embracing the contemporary

While there are artworks from nearly every period available in the global art market, it is not uncommon for collectors to focus or develop a preference for a certain period or genre. However, our preferences should be informed by of our growing knowledge and experiences. If one’s taste never changes, one might be limiting oneself from exploring new opportunities in the art world.

Art collecting can be so much more than just the purchase of decorative items; be open to the idea that you can transform your own ideas and life experiences through art. Seek out the contemporary and see how it interacts with and challenges your existing knowledge base. Almost every seasoned collector has mentioned to me, at some point, that their tastes have changed and become more elevated as they venture into contemporary art collecting. This is unsurprising. Our taste is informed by our knowledge and experiences, so it is natural that such taste gets refined over the years – as we learn more about both from the past, and from a contemporary era.

As an aside, I have previously shared how important it is for collectors to have a collection focus; however, this doesn’t mean you should start and end your collection with art from the exact same periods. You can go deeper with your collection focus or you may expand it to include new artists whose works you’ve found interesting. Dialogue between contemporary and historical works can sometimes yield unexpected but deeply meaningful results. Some collectors may even add a second collection focus.

I ultimately challenge you to find beauty in Contemporary Art you wouldn’t normally appreciate straight away. Now this doesn’t have to be Conceptual Art; I am focusing on contemporary artworks in this article because it is my area of speciality. No matter what art you are looking at, take the effort to learn about its socio-political context and the relevant art theories to understand its significance. You may also consider the following:

a. Attend an exhibition that shows art outside your usual scope – write down what you do and don’t like and then have a discussion with someone else to compare notes. Research more about this artist through conversations and by reading online or print publications.

b. Open your mind to new art scenes and histories - learn about artists from other regions through research and travel. As the world becomes increasingly globalised, it is easier to connect with artists from all over the world.

c. Connect with industry experts to increase your knowledge, particularly if you prefer to learn through conversation and experience. You will grow as a collector if you gain knowledge and networks in an art community. Knowledge will elevate your artistic taste, and connections will enhance your collecting journey and future possibilities.

Thank you for taking the first step to developing your art collecting journey. If you have enjoyed this art series and you’re looking for opportunities to be involved in collecting more seriously, you can reach me here. I will be organising some talks in the near future, please stay tuned for updates!

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