Today we are fortunate to benefit from the experience of Lisa Hunter, the author of "The Intrepid Art Collector", a new publication that has just hit the bookstores.
She also maintains a blog of the same name, one that I read religiously. She normally shares her wisdom with collectors, but today she applies some of her experience to help artists understand how the collector game works.
K: When you advise collectors about investing in the work of a certain artist, what criteria makes for a sound investment? How much is based on the empirical quality of work itself, how much on how the work fits current trends, and how much on the CV or track record of the artist?
L: This may sound old-fashioned, but I think the most important thing is that a collector love the work. I don't understand buying something you aren't passionate about just for the sake of a "name."
That said, when collectors are spending a month's salary (or more) for a painting, they're entitled to know what it might be worth if they ever need to resell. That's where the non-art issues of CV, gallery representation and buzz come into play. My own price ceiling is lower when I'm buying art only for my own pleasure; if the art already has an established market (for example, vintage photography), I'm comfortable spending more because I know that if I need to, I can re-sell it.
Artists are often offended when collectors ask questions about monetary value, but you have to understand that art prices are confusing to novices. With other things they buy -- like a car, for example -- they understand why one thing is more expensive than another. The understand that the more expensive item has better materials, or was more labor-intensive to make, or has an expensive advertising campaign to support. With art, new collectors are utterly baffled. An expensive artwork may contain only $15 worth of materials. An intricate, time consuming painting may cost less that something that was dashed off by an artist's assistant. Art by someone with MFA training may cost less than art by an untrained Outsider. You see the problem. The monetary value of the piece -- for better or worse -- is determined by non-aesthetic issues like popularity and buzz.
For most buyers, it's much easier to discuss pricing with a dealer. Otherwise, the artist gets offended that the collector thinks of art as a commodity; meanwhile, the collector -- who's being asked to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars -- feels put down when the artist insinuates that the collector is a bourgeois rube for thinking about money instead of aesthetics. There are a lot of hurt feelings in both directions.
K: In order to make their art more desirable to collectors, should working artists prioritize getting their work into museum collections, even if they must donate the work?
L: Should an artist give away a painting just to have the museum on the CV? Yeah. It will probably sway a lot of buyers, though I'd hate to see artists feel compelled to give away their work.
On the other hand, if an artist is successful, and a museum had a role in that success (i.e. if you got your break at the Whitney Biennial or PS1), it's entirely appropriate that he or she give something back to the institution.
K: How important is having a gallery in New York?
L: The New York Lottery has a slogan: "You have to be in it to win it." The top New York dealers, curators, and collectors have a lot of influence, so if one of them champions your work, you have better career opportunities. And it's easier for them to see your work if you're bumping into them in Chelsea every Friday night and showing your work someplace where they can see it.
On the other hand, New York isn't a requirement for success if you can find an advocate elsewhere. L.A. artists have done a fabulous job cultivating influential collectors in their own city, and they're getting international reputations without kowtowing to the east coast. Also I think the proliferation of art fairs will help artists outside of NY get access to the top collectors.
K: Would you consider artists who have no representation a risky investment, even if they are being shown and reviewed?
L: It depends on what you mean by "investment." Would I invest my life savings on art by an unrepresented artist? No. Would I spend $1,000 on a painting or drawing just because I loved it? Sure.
It's funny -- visual arts are the only art form we expect to get our money back on. If a couple goes to the movies once a week, they're spending over $1,000 a year just for pleasure. But ask them to spend $1,000 on a painting for pleasure, and they balk. This concern about resale often leads people to buy art they don't really love because they think it will be an investment. Imagine someone at a record store saying, "Gee, I really like this world music CD, but that jazz CD will be worth more if I ever want to resell it on eBay..." You see the absurdity.
K: What might be a red flag to you when considering the work of a particular artist?
L: Conservation problems are a big red flag. I saw great-looking work recently where the artist had painted with latex house paint over glossy movie posters. No matter how great they looked, I knew they wouldn't last five years, so I passed.
Also, when a work can be endlessly reproduced -- like a video or giclee -- I want to know I can trust the artist to limit the number of copies made. I loathe the practice of making a "limited edition," then turning around and making a "second edition." That's intentionally misleading to buyers.
K: Any advice for mid-career artists who are feeling left behind in the current youth-obsessed art market?
L: Hang in there. I see so much good work by mid-career artists, and I'm constantly encouraging people to buy it. Let's hope collectors come to their senses.
Thanks, Lisa, and good luck with your book tour!