How to Responsibly Collect Work by MFA Students
MFA shows have long been fertile ground for collectors looking to discover a fresh crop of artistic talent from around the globe. In addition to being great places to acquire major statement pieces at accessible prices, graduate exhibitions also give collectors an opportunity to directly connect with and support the next generation of artists.
Joan Waltemath, director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), said that during her decades-long career, graduate shows have also become a chance for collectors to have a voice in the art market. “It can be very exciting for a collector if they see that their decisions about what to buy are suddenly influencing the way the market is moving,” she said.
But with this influence comes responsibility—championing a student’s work could help to establish their career, while practices such as bargaining or flipping can hinder their progress. To help navigate the wealth of emerging talent at the MFA shows this season, we spoke to a few experts on the subject.
Make the most of online resources
Carolyn Forrester, world bank world, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art.
If you’re thinking about collecting works by MFA students, spring is the best time to look. “While you can buy at any time from September to May, the best time to collect is near MFA thesis time, as that is when artwork will be more developed as a cohesive body of work,” said Heidi Elbers, director of exhibitions at the New York Academy of Art.
Although the pandemic has stopped many collectors from being able to see MFA shows in person, the shift to digital does have its advantages—it is easy to find and view virtual MFA shows from around the world with a quick Google search, and staff are often on hand to help with logistics.
Regiane Donadio, Head Space II, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and New York Academy of Art.
Jed Smith, Shellacked Cowboys 02, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and New York Academy of Art.
“The nice thing about buying artworks online is you’re already in your house, so you’re not in a studio trying to remember if you have enough wall space,” Elbers said. “You can always contact the sales staff to get a quick photo of how the work looks on the wall, additional images, or video before making the decision to buy.”
She also recommended reaching out to a school’s exhibitions department, as staff know their artists’ rosters and are often happy to act as de facto art advisors, guiding a collector towards options that suit their taste, budget, and space.
Develop a relationship with the artist
Gabriela Cohen, Atitlan, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and New York Academy of Art.
Another benefit of the shift to digital is that it’s easier to discover and contact emerging artists online, as most art schools now have links to their students’ websites and Instagram accounts on their student work pages.
Jane South, chair of the fine arts department at Pratt Institute, suggested reaching out to students through these platforms and asking for a virtual studio visit, both to learn more about their work and to share your vision for the collection you are building.
Ian Miyamura, (fragment from) the boot, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art.
Salome Rigvava, Morning, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and New York Academy of Art.
Longer term, she suggested using social media as a springboard to build a meaningful relationship with the artist: Check in every six months to see what they are working on, share their work on social media, and go to shows they are in and encourage others to do the same.
“Build your collection with a spirit of generosity and you will discover that you have a wonderfully rich experience as an active member of the arts community—as well as having great work in your collection,” South said.
Buy what engages you, beyond an investment
Timo Kuzme, #47, 150, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art.
Tyler Yvette Wilson, Mary Mary from the series “Twisted Tongues,” 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Mount Royal School of Art MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art.
While “trusting your instincts” is familiar advice for art collectors, it is essential when collecting works by MFA students, as these purchases often require accepting more risk for your investment.
Dr. Roman Vasseur, joint course leader of MFA at Kingston School of Art in London, advised: “Buy what captivates you and don’t buy for strategic reasons or for reasons of fashion. If the work is engaging, then it will be intellectually sustaining and is more likely work that will continue to develop and contribute something valuable to contemporary art.”
Leo Kang, Book2 #98, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and New York Academy of Art.
Lehna Huie, Leatherette, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting MFA and Mount Royal School of Art MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art.
He suggested looking at what shows and projects a student has done prior to and during their MFA program and getting a sense of how the artist sees their work in relation to other contemporary art practices.
Vasseur also encouraged collectors to consider their role in helping institutions address imbalances and champion diversity. “Collectors can help this process by looking at and collecting the work of women and previously underrepresented groups,” he said.
Be mindful of the impact of bargaining
Maud Madsen, Flightless Bird, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and New York Academy of Art.
While MFA shows are one of the best ways to acquire major statement pieces such as sculptures or oversized paintings at accessible prices, bargaining can be harmful to an emerging artist’s market.
Waltemath said collectors shouldn’t take pride in negotiating lower prices on a young artist’s work, especially if they are not represented by a gallery. At this stage, it is often the case that the artist has to do their own photography and PR in addition to creating their work.
Alexandra Zarins Rolls, Coral Nude, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and New York Academy of Art.
Shahrzad Jahan, Blood, Light and Fireworks, 2020. Photo by Mark Lennon. Courtesy of the artist and Kingston School of Art.
Instead, Ian Monroe, course leader at Falmouth University in the U.K., encouraged collectors to engage in a productive conversation with the artist. “There is a steep learning curve for artists going from an often very personal studio practice to the more professional and practical requirements of selling your work,” he said.
“You may have to guide the conversation more or be willing to support them in some of the logistics,” Monroe continued. “Do they need a shipper or art handler? Do they need to hire assistants to install the work? If their price seems too high, a discussion of how they are arriving at that figure can help if they are willing to discuss.”
Be the artist’s biggest champion
One of the approaches that Monroe has found to be fairly common at MFA shows is a collector wanting to buy all the work that a student has produced, and sometimes, even their future works.
“To the collector, this makes sense because the work is inexpensive, and the artist must surely want to sell as much as possible. The artist is usually surprised by this, and sometimes scared as it feels as though the collector will then control the work or that the artist will be beholden,” he explained. “To some degree, both positions have validity. I suggest finding a balance here and making it clear that you as a collector have the long-term interests of the work in mind.”
According to Monroe, the best way a collector can help nurture an artist’s career is by not dominating their market, letting others buy their work, and, most importantly, showing it off. “The more the work is seen the better its chance of growing in value,” he explained.
Laura Romaine, Spring Break, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and New York Academy of Art.
His advice is echoed by Luca Buvoli, director of the Mount Royal School of Art Multidisciplinary MFA at MICA, who encouraged collectors to avoid reselling a student’s work at auction. Instead, collectors should hold onto works and act as liaisons, offering to introduce students and their work to curators, dealers, and museums.
“In some cases, they might not even collect the work of a student but still provide an introduction to people who they think may help them in their career,” Buvoli said. “Think of collecting MFA work as supporting an artist at the beginning of their career. Buy a work because you’re really invested in the ideas, perspective, and values that it offers—not just as an investment.”