5 Art World Secrets Every Collector Should Know
Art galleries can be intimidating to the novice collector: sterile white walls, hidden receptionists, and prices that are nowhere to be found. Rumors abound about collectors who spent ridiculous amounts of money and threw spectacular events to gain “access” to the “right” dealers and artworks.
However, the world of galleries and collecting isn’t as opaque as it might initially seem. Gallerists, for the most part, just want to sell to collectors who take a genuine interest in art and the artists who make it (and have the money to pay for it, of course). Here, experts share five secrets that will demystify the art buying process and open new doors.
You don’t need an art history degree to be a serious collector
It can feel daunting to figure out what “good art” looks like, then decide what to buy. Yet you don’t need a formal art education to understand what’s out there—or figure out what you like. Online education courses such as Art Explora and Sotheby’s Institute of Art can teach you the basics of art history and the contemporary art industry. If you don’t have time to take an online course, you can hire professionals such as art advisors to guide you to new artists and trends.
Yet some of the best methods for learning about art are actually free. Fine art advisor Wendy Cromwell suggests getting on Instagram. “Build this endless scroll of imagery,” she said. “It’s so helpful to have this visual scroll of information.” Cromwell advises curious collectors to learn about the industry by following the accounts of major galleries, auction houses, museums, and art publications. This is a quick and easy way to discover burgeoning trends and receive notifications about upcoming shows to attend.
Gallery and auction house exhibitions, in fact, are often just as accessible as museum exhibitions—and they’re mostly free. “Go see shows,” collector Jonathan Travis said. He received his own art world education by visiting galleries and learning, visit by visit, what kind of art he liked. Travis, who’s based in New York, admitted that he’s “very lucky to be in one of the best art cities in the world.” He spends his weekends going on gallery strolls with his dog, dipping into 10 or 15 shows per day, and gradually refining his eye.
Art fairs can be fruitful, even if the work you want has been sold
Art fairs can be overwhelming. There may be dozens, if not hundreds, of booths. All the peripheral events—dinners, parties, after parties, and after after parties—can be exhausting. Often, art fair works are “pre-sold” before the doors even open, and collectors snap up choice pieces during invitation-only preview days. Galleries make these sales thanks to relationships with long-standing collectors who have proven loyal to their artists. Yet newer collectors aren’t totally boxed out.
Sometimes, galleries bring reserves to replace the works that sell early. “Go on the second day,” Cromwell suggested. “There might be changeover and there might be new things to buy.” She added that gallerists are more reachable during fairs than they are at their galleries. Larger galleries, in fact, often send large teams so that many interested collectors can make contact.
“Art fairs are great to lay groundwork and to have conversations to pave the way down the line,” Cromwell said. She noted that once, when she was interested in a piece that was pre-sold, she talked to the gallerist and was able to purchase a piece by the same artist six months later: The conversation, in which she conveyed her genuine interest, clinched the deal.
If you’ve already started an online correspondence with a gallerist, it’s still worth going to an art fair to meet in person. The relationship “becomes more personal,” Travis said. Appearing in person signals your interest in acquiring a future piece by a particular artist—and gallerists will remember you for it.
Gallery waitlists are real
An art gallery is not a standard store. The supply is more restricted, and galleries can be far more discerning about who gets to purchase an artwork. Dealers keep lists of collectors to whom new artworks may be offered when they are ready for sale. They maintain waitlists in case those with first dibs decline the offer.
These waitlists “can be a total pain in the ass,” Travis said, purely because there’s no way to know how they operate or how high up your name might be. Lists are entirely at the gallerists’ discretion.
“I try not to get frustrated,” Travis said. “I don’t make a fuss. It’s a privilege to be able to participate in this world and buy art.” He detailed how waitlists have played out for him. Once, he waited for a work for two years and kept in contact with the artist’s gallery—then a mega-gallery added the artist to their roster and massively increased the artists’ prices. Yet at other times, Travis has successfully acquired a piece after getting onto a waitlist.
Sometimes, it’s worth it to buy artworks by a different artist who also shows with the gallery—and whose works do not have a waitlist. “Loyalty to a gallery pays off,” Cromwell said. Yet she cautions that collectors should only buy works they like: “You have to start off with intentionality.”
On the other hand, “some waitlists are the impossible dream,” Cromwell said. “It’s just a polite way of saying you’re never going to get a piece by this artist.”
You can contact artists directly
Galleries and auction houses aren’t the only entry points for art buying. Plenty of artists, mostly those who work without representation, are happy to sell directly to interested collectors.
Travis’s collection focuses on emerging artists, some of whom were still in school when he first bought their work. This has helped his budget and offered him the thrill of discovery.
Living in New York, Travis is able to attend MFA shows at nearby schools such as Yale and Hunter. If he finds an artist he likes, he’ll contact them directly to start a dialogue. This can last a year or two, as he likes to learn about an artist’s practice before he buys a work.
Contacting an artist before a show or fair can also help place you in a good position to purchase their work during—or even before—the event.
Dealers aren’t just looking for big-name artists in your collection
As galleries vet collectors, they may look at your current holdings. They want to ensure that their artists’ works end up with the right collectors—those who will appreciate the pieces, and won’t just “flip” them, or resell them quickly at auction.
Galleries may also want to learn if a collector focuses on particular movements, such as Minimalism, or collects any particular artists in depth. This matters more if you are trying to collect blue-chip artists: Galleries want to sell to collectors whose collections they respect.
Cromwell herself maintains a collection that spans diverse media and styles and includes a subset of Abstract Expressionist works. Her first acquisition was a portrait she bought from Matthew Marks in the 1990s—purely because she liked it, it was affordable for her at the time, and Matthew Marks was already a reliable dealer. “I don’t think that it’s that important to be thematic,” she said about her collection, and each subsequent acquisition, “but I think it’s important to have an emotional hook.”