Frieze New York, 2016. Photo by Adam Reich for Artsy.
Tens of thousands of galleries across the globe, representing hundreds of thousands of artists, deal art everywhere from Düsseldorf to Dallas. You can bid on a painting at auction from your iPad in your PJs. To say there is a lot of art at your fingertips is an understatement.
So while it is perhaps easier than ever to buy a work, navigating the commercial art world is understandably daunting for the inexperienced collector. How does one go about finding their taste? What separates true quality from the hype? What potential pitfalls should one watch for when stepping out into the vast world of collecting? The answer will be different for everyone, but here are a few key points to remember.
Rule number one is take a deep breath and be patient. “The point of departure has to be knowing yourself,” said Michael Phillips Moskowitz, 37, who only began amassing his collection in earnest roughly three years ago. Scott Nussbaum, head of 20th-century and contemporary art in New York for Phillips, recommends asking yourself why you’re going to collect, and what you look for in an artwork. “Do you want to live with objects that challenge you intellectually? Do you want to live with objects that inspire you? That are decorative? Once you get a good understanding, it helps you focus,” he said.
Moskowitz said that if he could go back in time and tell himself anything, it would be to preach patience. “I hit the art market at its high water mark,” he said. “There was just irrational exuberance. People were spending indiscriminately, they were spending foolishly, and they were spending in haste. And that combination is never good.” If you want to buy an artist, maybe wait a season and see how they hold up in a year—not just financially, but also if they “hold up” emotionally as you become more experienced and discerning. Waiting will help you learn if your gut instincts—or the advice of an advisor—are right and worth following.
If you don’t yet know which works speak to you, well, go out and see some art. Moskowitz describes throwing himself into the arts, reading voraciously and traveling frequently, seeing art across the globe. “My taste as a result matured dramatically over the first year,” he said. Part of this was for work—at the time, Moskowitz was the former global chief curator at eBay, working on a partnership with Sotheby’s. But it was also a personal passion. “I was probably traveling more routinely than anyone in the art world other than Hans Ulrich Obrist.”
But if you can’t jet set, you can mine online resources and start at home with the cultural institutions and galleries in your community. “The most important thing is to spend time in museums,” said Abigail Asher, a longtime art advisor at Guggenheim, Asher Associates. Museums provide an art historical grounding, which will help you understand both Old Masters and the history behind contemporary art. Combine that with attending galleries and art fairs, which bring normally disparate galleries to a single place, and you’ll develop a sense of both the historical and present art landscape. Think about what subjects are important to you and who is addressing them in a meaningful way through their work.
This is broad advice and you can bend it—Moskowitz doesn’t like buying at art fairs, for example, finding it too rushed. But to learn that about yourself as a collector you probably need to attend some fairs to begin with. In general, though, “the more time you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it,” Nussbaum said. Subscribe to periodicals, read artists’ catalogues, and make a point of going to a few galleries each week. Pick out particular artists and galleries you like and follow them. Asher said a talented, trusted advisor can potentially help speed up the learning curve by helping you strategize your purchases. “A good advisor won’t let you go through the years of collecting things that might not be the best quality,” she said. But a collector should know their own taste since, Asher adds, working with an advisor “should be a back-and-forth dialogue.”
Use Your Eyes, Not Your Ears
Having a plan is helpful in a market where everyone is urging you to buy. “It’s very hard as a new collector—and even for a savvy, experienced collector—to stave off the temptation to shop with your ears, especially when you enter this market knowing nothing,” said Moskowitz. At an art fair, every gallery is going to have a pitch. Every dealer will claim to be selling you “The Next Big Thing.” Don’t be bewitched by the words if you’re not in love with the work itself. “You have to shut out the noise and focus on what you’re looking at,” said Nussbaum.
This is partly why patience and learning about what you like is so crucial. Some of the sweet nothings being whispered in your ear might have to do with buying a particular work right now. Dealers might play on your emotions, on your pride about not wanting to get left behind on the emerging artist who is about to leave the station, on your sense of market savvy. “A lot of the art world relies on this sense of urgency: buy now or regret it forever. And I would caution against that,” said Nussbaum. “The most important thing is to educate yourself first.”
Part of this is feeling okay asking so-called stupid questions, he said. Walking into a gallery or an auction house like Phillips, for example, may be intimidating even for those with an art history degree. What is hanging on the walls, and why it’s earning praise, may be unfamiliar. It may also be difficult for new collectors—often those who are very successful in their own professions—to step out of their comfort zones. “There is a certain amount of intimidation,” said Nussbaum. “You assume we don’t have time for you, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Find People You Can Trust
When you do ask questions, make sure you’re getting an honest answer. Some advisors will have conflicts of interest, getting a fee from both the buyer and from a gallery for selling a work. But collecting isn’t something you can do alone, so it’s crucial those helping you have your interests at heart. “Have a small circle of people that you trust—and that could be people at auction houses, that could be curators, other collectors, advisors,” said Nussbaum. Don’t let it get too big otherwise you’ll be getting dozens of different—and probably opposite—opinions.
If you decide you want a professional art advisor, and can afford it, pay attention to your instincts. “You have to be able to feel that you want to go on this journey with this person that is your advisor,” said Asher. She recommends looking at how long an advisor has been in business, their company’s reputation, other collectors with whom they work, and, if possible, references (either official or unofficial.) “The art market is big but it is also very small,” Nussbaum said. “Reputation matters. Ask around.”
There will always be people you can’t trust. Moskowitz describes learning a lot of these lessons the hard way, through frustrating experiences with some advisors. There are always “people whose instincts are like that of a windsock—they just indicate whatever direction the market is blowing,” he said.
Collectors and advisors often use words like “journey” and “evolution” to describe amassing a collection, illustrating its nonlinear and ongoing nature. “A collection should never be a static thing,” said Nussbaum. “The best collections that I’ve ever seen, appraised, been invited into, are collections that have constantly evolved and been constantly upgraded over time.”
As you learn more about the arts, your tastes are going to change. That’s good. You may find yourself able to discern the top quality works from the lesser output within an artist’s oeuvre, or open to a new, perhaps more challenging artist as your understanding deepens. Moskowitz describes how early in his collecting travels he didn’t understand the hype around Wolfgang Tillmans. Today he is part of Tillmans’ loyal collecting base. These kinds of changes come about from “constant exposure, deeper consideration, and patient contemplation,” Moskowitz said.
Of course, there is more to collecting than buying art. Equally important is committing to the arts as a proposition, and encouraging their broader accessibility to those in your community. Seek out your local museum and get involved; sit on the board if you can. If you come to love a gallery’s program, stick with it. And remember that once you find an artist you like, “be the one pushing, providing introductions, making those connections, singing their praises to the media,” Moskowitz said. Being a collector can mean bolstering a career, a viewpoint, and a meaningful message.