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Art Market

What Collectors Can Do If an Artist Has a Waiting List

Jillian Billard
May 11, 2021 3:44PM

Gallery waiting lists can be one of the more elusive areas of the art market, and for newer collectors, they can often appear impenetrable. The instance in which the demand for an artist’s work surpasses supply is straightforward enough—we regularly hear of emerging and established artists alike selling out shows before they even open to the public. However, the prospects and procedures for collectors seeking to acquire future works by a coveted artist can be a bit more difficult to parse.

Fundamentally, a waiting list is formed when there are more collectors interested in an artist’s work than there are works available. Names of prospective collectors are compiled by the gallery with the ostensible purpose of being informed when new pieces by the artist become available. The timeline of a waiting list varies from artist to artist, as New York–based advisor Candace Worth pointed out: “Every artist has their own market,” she explained. “You can have a waiting list for an artist who produces quite a bit of work, and you can have a waiting list for an artist who releases 10 paintings a year. Supply will affect how fast that waiting list moves.”

In addition to being dependent on an artist’s workflow, waiting lists are typically not chronological, where the earliest interest is the first to be satisfied. Instead, lists are sorted by priority, with institutions and respected collectors such as museum trustees or acquisition committee members getting the first pick.

On the surface, the model may appear exclusive and hierarchical. However, from a dealer’s perspective, building and protecting the trajectory of an artist’s career takes precedence over appeasing collectors, and being selective about who they sell works to is the primary method of maintaining stability in a potentially volatile market. Placing an artwork with the right collector can make or break an artist’s career, and gallerists have to be strategic in facilitating relationships that will be lucrative for both parties.

So what are gallerists looking for in a collector? And how should collectors approach conversations with a gallery if they are interested in an artist who has a waiting list?


Consider your intentions

As a collector, it’s important to consider your reasoning for collecting an artist’s work. Are you interested in an artist because you are enamored by their work and have been following their career for some time, or are you interested because of the buzz surrounding their name?

Often, when there is considerable hype around an artist, some collectors may jump on the bandwagon solely based on speculation that an artist’s work will be worth more on the secondary market than the primary market. Gallerists are justifiably wary of such collectors. Kathy Grayson, owner of the contemporary New York gallery The Hole, calls these patrons “late adopters.” She cautions against this form of collecting, as once an emerging artist’s work goes to auction and starts to get traded around, its market value is susceptible to spiking and then plummeting. Sometimes, Grayson explained, galleries will even have to buy back works that have already entered the auction circuit in order to regulate an artist’s overall market value.

Because of these potential pitfalls, dealers aim to sell to stable collectors who will keep an artist’s work for their collection or donate it to a museum or institution rather than quickly bringing it to auction and flipping it to cash in. Joe Kennedy, co-founder of Unit London, said “galleries that represent artists have a responsibility to look after the artist’s long-term interest,” and explained that selling work is not about making money quickly on one sale, it’s about sustaining an artist’s career over decades.

Museums or collectors with museum affiliations are always a safe bet for dealers, as they offer the dual benefit of validation and stability. However, that isn’t to say that gallerists won’t consider newer collectors who demonstrate that they are genuinely interested in an artist’s work for the right reasons. “We do make a conscious effort to consider new collectors and bring collectors into our program…that’s really important for us,” said Kennedy. “We just try and judge people’s intentions and character.”


Build a relationship with a gallery

Acquiring an artwork on the primary market, especially by an emerging artist, isn’t simply a transactional exchange. Rather, it is a sort of matchmaking between an artist and a collector, facilitated by a gallery.

“The best thing you can do, especially if you’re a new collector and you’re trying to get into an in-demand program, is to put in the time and build a relationship with a gallery,” said Kennedy. There is a certain level of trust involved in selling work to a newer collector, and those who frequent shows, spark conversations with gallerists, and show interest in a gallery’s program are more likely to be considered on a waiting list for a hot-ticket artist.

Grayson succinctly explained that “if you are stuck on a waiting list forever, it means that the gallery doesn’t know you well enough to be sure that you are a good fit for the work.” Collectors should not be discouraged by this; they may just have to do a bit more legwork to gain a gallery’s trust. Grayson pointed out that when The Hole opened 10 years ago, the majority of collectors she dealt with were just starting to collect work, and have since become some of the top collectors of the decade. Every collector has to start somewhere.

According to Grayson, one of the easiest ways to build a relationship with a gallery is to familiarize yourself with and support other artists in a gallery’s program, as this shows that your interests align with a gallery’s overall vision and builds a foundation of trust. She also suggested gaining credibility as a private collector by developing a relationship with local museums through donating a work or joining a collector’s council.


Demonstrate your passion

When an artist has a long line of interested collectors, gallerists are tasked with sorting through the prospective buyers and essentially discerning the best home for the work. Among private collectors, those who have been following an artist’s career for some time and have extensive knowledge of an artist’s work are given priority, as this indicates that they are collecting for the right reasons.

“We are so much more likely to place a work with someone who can demonstrate that they are passionate about the artist and can speak about and understand the work,” said Kennedy, explaining that these collectors are essentially “impossible to ignore.”

When a collector expresses interest in an artist that has sold out, gallerists will initiate a conversation—either in person or remotely—to get a better sense of what the collector is looking for. Showing that you have done your research and are passionate about an artist’s work rather than their speculative value will go a long way.

It is important to note that there is a right and wrong way to demonstrate your interest in an artist. Contacting an artist directly on social media, for instance, is not likely to get you anywhere, and will hurt your chances of acquiring a work. Be respectful of an artist’s process, and resist the urge to attempt to forgo the line.


Consult a professional

Collectors can certainly do their research and build relationships with a gallery organically. However, working with an art advisor who has a long-standing relationship with a gallery can give you an added boost of credibility.

“The market is just way too big and there are just way too many people that want to buy art today,” said art advisor Candance Worth. This, of course, is not a bad thing. However, it does mean that there is more competition for private collectors, and gallerists have to be all the more selective about who they sell to in order to create a long-term market for the artists they represent.

Ultimately, gallerists have less work to do if they know that a collector is working with a trusted advisor, as they can rest assured that the advisor has done the due diligence of determining a collector’s intentions and interests, and are working with them to develop a collection.


Be patient and maintain a flexible outlook

Waiting lists are, as the name implies, a waiting game. Artists do not produce works based on the whims of collectors, so there are a lot of unknown variables involved in terms of when, what, and if you’re going to get the opportunity to purchase a work.

Worth advised that collectors resist becoming too fixated, and to be patient. “Sometimes,” she said, “you just have to know that you’re not going to get exactly what you want.” She explained that, in her experience, she has seen it go both ways—sometimes collectors get lucky, and sometimes the boat has already set sail and it’s time to move on.

Fortunately, the primary market is more expansive than it ever has been. As a collector, keeping an open mind will always be to your benefit. Chances are, if you are invested in acquiring an artist’s work, but there simply isn’t enough to go around, you might discover another artist in a gallery’s program who excites you just as much.

Jillian Billard