07 Oct 2019
The changing art of collecting
In art circles, there is a legendary story from the 1990s, which is not necessarily confirmed as true. An American in jeans is said to have walked into a Mayfair art gallery asking if there was any more work available by a particular artist, only to be ignored by the posh girl at the desk.
Somewhat irritated, the American left, which was when a man in the gallery remarked to the receptionist: “That was Bill Gates, you know”, to which she responded: “Who’s Bill Gates?”.
If the atmosphere has changed in high end galleries nowadays, there is one man who definitely had something to do with it. Founder Will Ramsay opened the doors to the first Affordable Art Fair in Battersea with a mission to make art accessible. The Affordable Art Fairs, where art on sale currently has a price ceiling of £6000, have over the course of 20 years sold over £330 million of art, welcomed over 2.5 million visitors and arguably in the case of Hong Kong, spawned a burgeoning art market where one hardly existed. “Hong Kong had 30 galleries when we started there in 2007, now it has over 100,” says Ramsay, whose fairs are known for being dog-friendly, hosting DJs and offering up street food. “I’ve seen people visibly shaking with elation because they’ve just bought their first piece of art at one of our fairs,” says Ramsay.
Gone are the days when London’s art galleries were concentrated almost exclusively in Mayfair and had no prices on the walls. “On Saturday, galleries were only open from 10 to 2 – that was, if they even opened the door to you once you rang the bell. Gallerists would then often pose visitors the highly patronising question ‘Do we know you?’” remembers Johnny Gorman, who left a career in the City in the late 90s to start Quantum Contemporary in Battersea, a gallery selling art priced up to £20,000 and whose clients include Her Majesty the Queen and Moonpig.com founder Nick Jenkins.
Today, against a retail backdrop of store closures and bankruptcies, art galleries are increasingly seeing the value of exhibiting at a diverse array of art fairs, from The Other Art Fair to Frieze and Masterpiece, which attract exponentially more visitors in a few days, than they’re likely to welcome into their gallery in the span of a year.
“An art fair is an educational experience, where visitors can sample so much in a short space of time and develop relationships with experts, gallery owners and fellow collectors from across the world,” says Professor Andrew Renton, an art advisor who teaches curating at Goldsmiths College London and is a former Turner Prize judge.
Ultimately, sharing time and space with fellow collectors can go both ways. “There is nothing quite like the joy of a friendship based on a shared passion, although the collector to collector interaction is sometimes semi-anxious,” says Renton.
See more on the 2019 Affordable Art Fair:
In the intense environment of an art fair, a (mostly friendly) one-upmanship and competition can be rife. “We’ve almost had punch-ups over some of our art works at art fairs,” says gallerist Johnny Gorman of Quantum Contemporary. “Recently at a fair in Seattle, four pieces by one artist were snapped up in 20 minutes. They were by Marie Ange Daude, who fashions striking portraits by suspending feathers on nylon threads. At one point, two people were shouting at me, with one wildly gesticulating with his black Amex card.”
So do art fairs paint the full picture?
One of the advantages of viewing art in a gallery over the fleeting nature of an art fair, is the context a gallery can offer, which includes seeing a full body of work by an artist, rather than individual pieces, and having the chance to speak to the people who know the most about a particular artist, and in many cases the artist themself.
Artist Andrew Salgado who is represented by Beers London likes setting up his vibrant, challenging portrait paintings with a touch of theatricality. At a solo show opening in 2016, Beers London hosted an intimate dinner for 50 of Salgado’s top buyers. With the gallery walls painted green and the floors covered with AstroTurf for the occasion, guests witnessed the release of 500 specially bred butterflies as a tribute to 49 people who had lost their lives in the homophobic attack at the gay Orlando nightclub Pulse earlier that year.
A collection needs to be a reflection of the collector’s decision-making.
When it comes to the hottest, most sought-after artists whose work is in short supply and whose prices are rising, savvy collectors will typically try to buy direct from a gallery to avoid paying premiums at auction. However, to access these works andsecure a position high up in the queue, an ongoing relationship with an art advisor who commands respect, will help open doors to gallery owners.
Perhaps this helps explain why auctions are a preferable bet for established, rather than, emerging talent. “Auction sale rooms are the ultimate democracy,” says Renton. “You don’t have to work your way past any snooty gallery receptionists. If you keep your hand up long enough, you can buy anything you want. Still, you need to know exactly what you’re buying. It’s a case of caveat emptor – buyer beware.”
Renton observes many serious collectors share certain personal qualities. “I class a collector as someone who has one more painting than they have wall-space for,” he quips. “Most art collectors become addicted and love the chase. The big spenders are often inherently dealmakers and that shines through in their purchasing, but also, I’ve noticed more recently, in their selling. More often than not though, my clients regret not buying a piece of art they love and I’ve even had people ask me decades after, ‘Why didn’t you just make me buy that?’ But a collection needs to be a reflection of the collector’s decision-making. That freedom allows a mix of trophy pieces along with experimental works and that tells a much more interesting story.”
Claire Adler is founder of Claire Adler | The Luxury Public Relations and Writing Consultancy. Articles she has written have appeared in the Financial Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Spectator and more.