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The Ten List: Do’s and Don’ts for Collecting Contemporary Art

The contemporary art market is hot right now and filled with speculation. Trends come and go and values rise and fall, but ultimately, you have to live with – and like – the art you buy. Private art advisor Eleanor Williams offers up her tips for putting together a successful and satisfying collection.

1. DON’T buy art just because it fits over the couch.
It may be a cliché but people still do it. Spare the artist, the dealer and yourself; if your interest in a particular work doesn’t extend beyond its ability to fill an empty space, there are tons of other things to collect.

2. DO some reading.
Two books out in the last couple of years I recommend are: 

The Art of Buying Art by Paige West
(New York: HarperCollins 2007) A beautiful coffee table book but even better "how to" guide to navigating and collecting in the contemporary art market. (I am also proud to say I was working for her at mixedgreens.com when the book was conceived!)

Collecting Contemporary Art by Adam Linderman
(Cologne: Taschen, 2006) An incredible collection of tell-all interviews with some of the heaviest hitters in the global contemporary art market. Critics, dealers, consultants, curators and auction house experts share tips, stories, pitfalls and triumphs in their fields of expertise.

Pick a reasonable number of magazines and subscribe. Buy others at the newsstands periodically. I recommend Artforum, Art in America, Artlies, ARTnews, Art Papers, Art Review, Beautiful Decay, Cabinet, Frieze, Modern Painters and Zing Magazine. Look them up online first if you want to preview!

Use the web! If you are on Glasstire you are on the right path. Also be sure to visit artnet.com, theartnewspaper.com and check out auction house websites –- catalogues are often available online.

3. DO create a budget.
This may seem abstract when you are starting out, but with time it becomes easy. Look back at what you have collected so far or at other collections and consider time and money. Time goes by and the excitement continues but not every purchase can be an impulse.

Set an annual amount to spend and break it into quarters. Look at your professional and personal calendar and allot more money around times of travel –- such as an art fair. Budget less when you are busy at work and have less time. Go with a wish list and numbers when you are out looking.

Remember, when you are starting out, it’s okay to sit back, learn and wait when necessary. As you become more confident and savvy you will learn to make snap decisions before shows open or on the first day of an art fair.

4. DO shop around.
Like anything else you might buy or collect, you want to understand the market. Look around in your local art community but also be sure to explore other cities when you travel. Get in the habit of going to museums, university art museums, alternative nonprofit spaces and galleries. Collecting anything can become an addiction (hello Ebay) but with contemporary art you will find a natural compulsion developing over time. It will not only enrich your home but also your life.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. . .

5. DO support your local art community.
Get out there and see what’s going on! Go find out what you like by looking. Pay your way and attend art-related benefit events. You will get a better inside track and have the opportunity to meet artists, curators, dealers and other collectors by lending financial support or just buying event tickets. If you cannot give money and your collecting budget is tight, volunteer your time.

6. DO develop relationships.
As you start buying, get to know the people you are buying from. As you become a better and more frequent client, dealers will let you know when the work for an exhibition arrives and give you a preview. You will also get invited into the back room which is always fun. It lets you see more than just what is on the gallery walls.

If you buy work at silent auction fundraisers held by non-profits, become involved in the organizations that benefit from the sales. Beyond getting a good deal you may even get to meet the artist. Artists often donate and support places that exhibited their work early on.

7. DO follow your instincts and DO ask for advice.
Feel free to go with your gut. As long as you are comfortable with the price you cannot make a mistake in the moment. You may eventually look back at your collection and find works you feel less passionate about but, more often than not, you will be gratified by having made bold choices.

Once you have been collecting for a while it is helpful to see an advisor. Do not be shy, your questions are good and should be answered. This can be a professional or a mentor collector who will lend their time. If you have gotten to know your community as advised above you will also have curators and other professionals to question from time to time.

8. DO spend time learning about each work you acquire.
Formal questions are a good place to start; ask how the work was made. Beyond technical information, explore why it was made. This question can be directed to a dealer, but if appropriate and possible ask the dealer to introduce you to the artist. It is often interesting to collect an artist’s work over time, buying as it evolves and changes.

9. DO keep records about your collection.
* Hang onto all correspondence.
* Save web pages as PDFs (they may change later).
* Scan all paper documentation if you want to go paperless.
* Make sure the dealer provides you with high resolution images and anything else you request – typical things to keep on file are bios, cv’s, statements and press clippings.
* For fun you can add in things like images from the overall exhibition and use your own digital camera to further document the work in your home.

10. DO be an archival collector.
Five works become ten and so forth. When collecting, it is easy to leave a work on paper purchased at a local benefit auction in the packing it came in (for years). Don’t do it. Often you are not given things wrapped in archival materials. Better yet, get it framed from the start. Work with a reputable framer who understands museum standards. Watch out for direct sunlight – most works of art do not survive it well. Additionally, most art may not fare well in your steamy bathroom or above your cooking range…

Keep your home under climate control at ALL times. If you want to care for your collection, do not save $100 on your electric bill in August while on vacation at the price of destroying work(s) of art. If your pet isn’t panting, your art should be ok. Seriously, there are plenty of resources on this subject – use Google if you want to obsess (which I encourage). FYI, works using digital or non-traditional materials (hair, Styrofoam, rubber…) have their own, highly individual set of issues. If you have questions, ask the dealer or the artist the best way to handle and exhibit the work.

If you want to rotate your collection, be sure the works are stored safely when not on view. Educate yourself on off-gassing from materials that could harm your collection during storage. A flat file is a great storage investment for works on paper, but a dusty rusty one from an office supply place or your uncle’s antique wood lawyer’s cabinet may not be your answer.

11. DO have fun!


Eleanor Williams is an art advisor and independent curator living in Houston, TX.

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4 Responses

  1. cole quitmandell

    Pat advice for aspiring yuppie collectors looking to appear cultured outside of the energy trading floor. Is this really practical for the readers of Glasstire? Is this article worthy of a headlining banner?

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