How to build a collection of emerging artists. by Dorothy Spears
The myth of discovering young artists is hardly new, and the adage of fabled art dealer Leo Castelli still holds: Love what you buy. Trust your instincts. Still, the days of collecting through a single dealer or private consultant have morphed into a more hands-on process, with emerging-art collectors turning up in increasing numbers at artists’ studios, clutching VIP preview passes at art fairs, sniffing around the back rooms of young galleries and even venturing into MFA student shows, all in the name of buying up edgy works.
At the outset, such activities may appear daunting—after all, how does anyone know which art fairs to attend, dealers to court, or more importantly, what to buy? Art exists in a context, and emerging art is no exception. The more collectors know about art history the better, and the more art—contemporary and otherwise—they go to see, the better. Following are some avenues that will help you educate your eye and decide what types of work by emerging talents is right for you:
Museum collector groups
A certain intellectual curiosity is assumed when it comes to serious collecting of any kind. That said, getting involved with a museum rather than hiring a private consultant allows collectors greater autonomy and control when it comes to building a collection that inevitably, expresses their own personal tastes and opinions.
While cultivating the eyes and minds of emerging collectors, institutional affiliation also provides essential access to emerging artists and the dealers who represent them, encouraging collectors to forge their own relationships with artists and dealers whose works they admire and support. Luckily, the anxiety and risk associated with building a collection of new art has eased considerably in the past couple of years with the recent proliferation of museum collector groups focused specifically on contemporary and emerging art. In return for annual dues, "it’s a mutual support system, where you learn," says James Elaine, a curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, which hosts a program called the Hammer Fellows. "You look at a broad spectrum of work, not just one person’s vision."
Contemporary collector groups
Groups of note include the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, led by curator Janet Bishop; the Friends of Modern Art, at the Baltimore Musuem, which is overseen by Chris Gilbert, curator of contemporary art; and Director’s Level Members, which features trips with director Linda Shearer at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem all have active contemporary support groups. Often these groups offer curator-led tours of art fairs and biennials for an extra fee, with packages that include airfare, accommodations and invitations to openings and parties.
In exchange for $400, collectors under 40 can join the New Group at the New Museum in New York. "People come to us because they want to get involved with contemporary art," says director Lisa Phillips. "Studio visits with curators serve as an introduction. Collectors often buy right out of the artists’ studios. We get there very early in a person’s career and foster a familiarity with works, so that then they see the works popping up in other exhibitions." New Group members also are invited to cocktail parties in the homes of important emerging-art collectors.
Higher-level memberships at the New Museum offer art study tours that have included, in recent years, a trip to South Africa, where members visited William Kentridge’s studio, and a trip to Cuba to explore the emerging Cuban art scene. "We also take collectors to art fairs as an educational function," Phillips says.
Whether you go with a group or strike out on your own, mark your calendar for the most influential art fairs. Art Basel takes place annually in June in conjunction with the Liste Art Fair, which features young dealers and emerging artists. Coinciding with Art Basel Miami Beach each December, the New Art Dealers’ Alliance fair also emphasizes recent art. The sudden popularity of the Frieze Art Fair has added annual October trips to London to the list. In addition to the array of emerging art and dealers, the most recent Frieze fair featured a panel of internationally renowned critics and curators discussing the collecting of new art. And in March, Art & Antiques is directing Emerging Artist ’05, a vetted event that builds upon the magazine’s Emerging Artist department. (For more on how to shop a fair, see "A&A Insider," Art & Antiques, January 2005.)
Biennials and large-scale contemporary survey shows
These offer round-ups that help place emerging artists in a more art-historical context. Of these, the most influential are the Whitney Biennial in New York, the Venice Biennale and the Florence Biennial of Contemporary Art, which take place in alternate years, and the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh.
MFA thesis exhibitions
Jon Kessler, chair of the Division of Visual Arts, School of the Arts at Columbia University, touts these as excellent ways to acquaint yourself with artists on the rise. Columbia hosts one each spring in addition to annual December open studios; other schools with closely watched MFA programs are Yale, California Institute of the Arts and UCLA.
"Open studios can be very disorienting," notes Sheri Pasquarella, director of Manhattan’s Gorney Bravin + Lee Gallery, president of the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) and curator of the Stanley and Nancy Singer collection, which features many emerging artists. "It’s a little more-do-it-yourself than going to younger galleries where someone else had already sorted through the work." Chris D’Amelio, co-owner of the D’Amelio Terras Gallery in New York, recommends checking out John Connelly Presents, LFL, Daniel Reich, Bellwether Gallery, and Cohan and Leslie.
Look at the big picture
"You have to learn how to appreciate things you’ve never seen before," D’Amelio says. "Instead of going out to look for work you know you like, it’s helpful to ask, ‘What is this new generation of artists making? What is making the critic write about it and the dealer show it?’"
"One has to be slightly obsessional," muses collector Raymond Learsy, who with his wife, Melva Bucksbaum, sits on the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. "But part of the fun of collecting," he adds, "is trying to get there first."