How to Buy Contemporary Art

Course Teaches Serious Collectors to Buy What They Love and to Put Financial Return Aside

by Andrew McKie
The Wall Street Journal
October 8-12, 2010

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Few human impulses are as personal and as mysterious as the urge to collect, but the advice given by the financier and collector John Pierpont Morgan on the subject remains the most straightforward. Whatever you choose to collect, he suggested, simply buy the hundred best examples, and then stop.

This is sage counsel since, as any collector will tell you, stopping is the tricky bit of the process. But what of the rest of us, who have more limited resources than Morgan and want to know not how to stop, but where to start?

Next week, the doors will open on the Frieze Art Fair, which brings together more than 170 galleries in Regent's Park in London and pulls in hundreds of aspirant collectors. In preparation for this annual event, the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the city's East End runs a course advising those who are keen to get what the brochure calls "the inside track on how to collect contemporary art."

The course fee of £595 is enough to suggest that the participants (around 20 of them) are fairly serious in their ambitions, but they are a varied bunch. The current financial climate has winnowed out the ranks of bankers hoping that their bonuses might kick-start a collection to rival that of Charles Saatchi.

This is just as well, for if there is one consistent piece of advice that almost everyone addressing the course offers the students, it is to buy what you fall in love with, and not to concentrate too much on the potential for financial return. But the contraction of the global art market during the past two years doesn't erase the memory of the spectacular rise in prices (by more than 80% between 1995 and 2006), and of the public appetite for contemporary art, over the previous two decades.

In her lecture on the first night of the course, Iwona Blazwick, the gallery's director, points out that the boom in British contemporary art can be dated precisely. It began in 1988 with the Freeze exhibition in an empty warehouse in Docklands that was organized by Damien Hirst while he was still a student at Goldsmith's College, and ended with the massive sale of his work at Sotheby's two years ago, on the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed.

"So the Young British Artists began in a recession," she points out. "In fact, if it hadn't been for that, which meant that spaces lying empty, the 'do-it-yourself' attitude of the Frieze artists might not have happened."

Afterward, looking round the Whitechapel's current show, drawn from the collection of the Greek dairy magnate Dimitris Daskalopoulos, there is a sharp reminder of those days, in the form of an early (and uncharacteristic) collage by Hirst, featuring books, shells and a wooden door stop.

Today, the East End has some 10,000 artists and many galleries operating from formerly industrial spaces. Last Saturday, I joined the course members on a minibus visiting studios and galleries such as MOT International, housed in a half-empty tower block, and the Bow Arts Trust, a self-sustaining charity that provides some 200 studios, some in short-life former council housing, and others next to a gallery in a converted nunnery.

It's a tight squeeze to get everyone into some of the studios. "This is a terrible space," says Patrick Brill, who works under the name Bob and Roberta Smith and is our first stop. "It's called Cell Studios and you can see why: there are bars on the windows. But it's a fantastic location, and I have an enormous space in Ramsgate where I can make large sculptural pieces."

Here, Mr. Brill produces smaller, text-based work. He says that a relationship with those who collect his work isn't particularly important—"What matters is the money, which sounds glib, but it makes a difference and keeps my family going." This honest message is backed up by a painting on board behind him that reads "I like buying art from artists that are still alive."

But the connection between artists, galleries and buyers matters more to others, and becomes rather a theme through the day. "It's not just a transaction," says the sculptor Owen Bullett, while Doug White, with whom he shares a studio, claims that it varies with the work. "For practical reasons, with large-scale work you often have to install it yourself," Mr. White says. "And of course you're often willing to offer more to someone who really engages with your practice."

The artist David Batchelor has found a similarly productive relationship with the corporate world, and the floor of his bright, orderly studio is covered with huge, color-coded piles of electrical cable, which was acquired from the waste material at Bloomberg. "They get turned into large spheres like the rubber band balls," he says. He gets asked if he'd like to make a really big version. "I'd love to, but they're really difficult to make, and even small increases in size create huge differences in weight."

Paul Hedges, director of the Hales Gallery, which is showing a vast installation of hanging beads by the artist Hew Locke, admits such physical considerations matter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he says that the first question he would ask a potential client is "How much space have you got?"

But he assures one of the participants that he enjoys building relationships not only with his artists, but his customers. "I'm very happy to let someone pay £100 a month if necessary," he says, "if I can see that they love the work and it gets it out there."

Jenny Tomlinson, an operations manager at an oil company, already collects, and has come on the course to learn more. "You may start with prints or limited editions," she says. "But I'd really like to see a scheme of borrowing and lending similar to the way children lease musical instruments."

Mr. Hedges offers another suggestion of where to start: "Film has no storage issues and is interesting and often cheap." Mr. Locke's work, which will be sold as an edition of three, with the materials and instructions for their assembly, is certainly unlikely to find a home in a domestic setting. This is even more true of the work on show at White Cube, one of the leading commercial galleries, which represents many of the biggest names in conceptual art. The students traipse through 350 kilograms of confetti made of bronze, which has been sprinkled across the gallery floor by the Belgian artist Kris Martin.

Simon Lee, who has turned to collecting (particularly the work of the cult artist Billy Childish) after a successful 30-year career as a salesman and entrepreneur—"I invented opt-out email marketing," he jokes—and who asks more questions than any of the other students, thinks that it's impressive. But he remains resolutely practical. "It's great," he says, "but I don't see how this could be bought by a private collector. How would you show it?"

Some of these questions come to the fore at a round table discussion at the home of the collector Dominic Palfreyman in Little Venice. Mr. Palfreyman, a former investment banker, is the founder of the Felix Trust for Art, which initiates and supports, among other projects, social sculpture, installation and performance art.

His house, however, is dominated by an extensive and stunning collection, mostly comprising prints, photographs, drawings and paintings. "I think living with works of art is very different from seeing them in exhibitions or museums," he says. "You need things that you're happy to look at all day, each day, every day. And so the art that I collect is a very small slice of the art that I like."

Stuart Evans, a lawyer who has built up major collections of contemporary art both personally and for public spaces, says that he hasn't made that distinction. He and his son John, with whom he now collects, have already acquired work by Doug White, melted recycling bins, which they installed at Evans senior's law firm, Simmons & Simmons. "And you bought another piece from him while I was away," Mr. Evans reminds his son. "Yes, well the difference is that you have a committee that you have to run things past, while I don't," he replies.

That, at least, is a freedom that those on the course enjoy as well. Tomorrow they will visit Christie's, to learn how work is sold at auction, and next week they will have a tour of Frieze. If there were an end of term test, I suppose it should be this: Will they get their wallets out?


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