With over 15 years’ experience selling at galleries in New York, I’ve learned that there are two types of collectors. The first type of collector is one who reads about a $110M Jean-Michel Basquiat selling at auction the morning after an evening sale, and then goes on to email every gallery asking if they have any Basquiats currently available. The dealer will remind their client they probably can’t afford to spend $110 million on a single work of art, and even if the gallery did have one available, the selling price would now be $130M because of what happened last night.
The other type of collector doesn't care what the art market is doing, or who is being touted as the next hot young artist of the month. These individuals instead spend all their vacations travelling the world to where the next art fair or event is taking place to find what they love. You will likely find them visiting artist studios in Bushwick, going to the Venice Biennale every other year, and spending their time at art fairs getting to know the dealers who have themselves traveled to the ends of the earth to find what they love as well.
It is this collector who actually looks at art, and falls in love with every single piece they add to their collection. Living and breathing art, and being determined to help their latest discovery become the next Kehinde Wiley, Sarah Sze, or Eddie Martinez is what encompasses all of their free time.
Collectors find pleasure in finding new artists before anyone else does. They know that they are buying art from a living person who is working every day to create the best painting they have ever made. When purchasing artwork by a lesser-known artist, you are directly supporting them so that they can continue to create art. Young artists who just finished their BA or MFA are just one paycheck away from having to take a day job, so that one sale just might make it able for them to pay their studio rent for the next month, in addition to enough supplies to make a few more works.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of collecting emerging artists is that you get to know them, and have insightful conversations about their work directly with them. If you follow and collect an up-and-coming painter over the course of several years, you will get to be friendly with them, and get to see their burgeoning career flourish. Milestones like their first solo show, their first museum show, and in later times, when their work makes the first sizeable result at a major auction house. Finally, it comes full circle when the collectors who buy with their ears are finally starting to pay attention to the artist you told them about 10 years ago.
Being an art collector should be fun for every collector, and when you’re just starting out on your journey, the best way to begin is visit the galleries once a month. Find out when the opening night is in your city, and go mingle. You’ll meet gallerists, art advisors, curators, artists, and other art lovers. Talk to them, and ask why they collect art and if they have any tips for someone starting out. You’ll get to understand very quickly what you like, and most importantly, what you don’t like. Equally important is that you’ll begin to build a circle of people who have access to new artists that you may fall in love with and want to collect.
The rule is still to buy what you want hanging on your walls, and what you’ll be happy living with. Art collecting is personal and becomes a reflection of you. Having an incredible art collection — beautiful art that you love, that you can pass down to your kids – should make you happy. Art can also provide a great experience for all those you share it with. When collecting emerging art, you’re a patron to help flourish the arts and art world.
My colleague and art historian Peter Falk and I have an anecdote, “to sell a work of art, you need a great work and an even better story.” It’s the story every collector relates to, and the experience of meeting the gallerists and artists. What makes a better story to tell your friends? I bought that print and it showed up in two days, or the story of the time you went to Los Angeles for the first time, and got personally invited to an artist’s VIP opening and got their personal favorite painting in the show, or the time you were visiting open studios in Wynwood and met the most intelligent and gifted young photorealist painter and talked to for hours?
Most people love the beauty great art brings to their homes, offices and lives. But they also love the art world’s interesting people and personalities, becoming the talk of their social circle when they discovered the next sought-after young artist, and building a legacy.
Herbert and Dorothy Vogel built what has been called one of the most important post-1960s art collections in the United States in Conceptual, Minimalism, and Pop. They bought what they could carry home with them on the subway, and became tastemakers that every young collector dreamed of becoming. The newness and the freshness of contemporary art is what drove them to find new artists all over New York like all emerging art collectors, they focuses on what was happening right now in their own backyard, not what a Damien Hirst print will be worth in 10 or 20 years. Live in the moment, and acquire works that inspire and move you.
Another beautiful part about collecting contemporary artists is that it’s accessible. You can get this artwork right now, and it’s not going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. When you see a work you like at the fair, ask the dealer to share some information on the piece, and to tell you the story about the artist. Chances are that the dealer has been friends with the artist for a long time, can explain where the current body of work has come from, and why they are so impressed with it themselves. Sharing stories is the best part of their job, and they will love to speak to someone who is actually interested in the work their artist created.
I just hung a work by a now mid-career artist on my wall that just entered the Museum of Modern Art, and when my clients come to my house, they will wonder how I have such a valuable painting on my wall. Little do they know that I only paid a couple thousand for it when the artist was in dire need of money to pay their rent, and I helped them save the day 10 years ago. This is a rare case, but chances are that if you buy what you love, others will see what you do in an artist. The artist you took a chance on at that new online gallery or place in the village could become a major work of art hanging in the Museum of Modern art during your grandkids’ generation.
Enjoy art in the moment. Look at and experience as much art as you can, from online galleries, physical gallery spaces and wherever you are in the world. It is from this wealth of knowledge and experience that passion arises. When you find something you love, buy it.
Written by Robert Berry, Founder of Robert Berry Gallery.
Featured image: Robert Berry, photo by Blanka Amezkua.