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Collecting Art: An Artist's Perspective

This is a big week for us. Not only is it the start of a brand new year, but it's also the week that we have a special event in our studio. Local art curator and art advisor Rosa Ana Orlando will be speaking to a group of our collectors about building art collections, and organizing them along the way. We are honored and thrilled to have Rosa Ana come to chat, but this event is a much bigger achievement for Bogdan and me. We're evolving as to how we're approaching our art careers.

We recently started working with retired PR consultant, Harold Nicholl. The retired bit is important because Harold is willing to work with us in a way that is actually affordable to working artists. We had looked at some PR firms before, and were a bit embarrassed to learn that they wouldn't even look at a project for less that $25k, and certainly wouldn't spend time coaching artists on the most basic concepts of public relations. So far, Harold is proving to be a bit of a game changer for us. One of the first observations he made after reviewing a lot of our content was that we were promoting ourselves almost exclusively to other artists. We have spent years talking about art businesses, and sharing stories and discussing the joys and horrors of working as full-time artists. Harold cut through to the marrow and asked, "Do other artists buy your art?". With a few exceptions, the answer was negative. We support other artists as much as we can, and we have had some very generous comrades buy some work from us, but the bulk of our income comes from collectors who are not themselves artists. Harold asked then, "What are non-artist collectors interested in?"

Bogdan and I turned our attention toward those collectors who support us. We decided to create an informal survey to see what our followers were collecting, why, and what their interests were in building their collections over time. What we realized quickly was that most were not able to talk much about their collections, and some didn't seem to have much of a plan at all.

That's when we called Rosa Ana and asked for help. She agreed to come and speak to a select group of our collectors about art collecting. She will dialog with them about how they might develop a goal and strategy for their collections, how to organize the collections as they grow, and how to create some sort of legacy planning. That event will happen next weekend, so I'll circle back and catch you up after the dust settles. 

It was sad for us to realize that this particular event needed to be somewhat intimate. We limited the guest list to 20 people, partly to encourage that sense of community, but also because only 20 people will fit in the studio at one time. We will be creating a video of Rosa Ana's presentation for anyone not able to attend in person. Check out my YouTube channel for that content next week. In addition to Rosa Ana's content, Bogdan and I have created a small book on collecting art from an artist's perspective. The book will be available for a free download on my website, or as a printed copy. Gotta charge for the printed book though, to cover printing costs.

The book covers what we thought were some of the more important topics that we hear our own collectors ask and comment on when visiting our studios. I think there is a vulnerability among collectors that they somehow don't measure up to the huge markets we all hear about on the news, and an uneasiness that they may be fooled or that someone dishonest may take advantage of them. 

On one level, there is the most basic of questions. What is art? The fact that this question can be so tentatively answered only makes people feel less secure. We have all seen things in museums and galleries and thought, 'You can't be serious!" Then we see elephants painting abstracts, and bowerbirds arranging beautiful objects to attract their potential mates. We see cave paintings of handprints, and the paintings and sculptures by classical masters. So if we can't really be sure we know the difference between a painting by an ape, or a nonrepresentational abstract expressionist, then of course we will be on our guard in the art world. 

But none of those fears seems to stop the collector from collecting. And it seems this has always been true. But while historically art collecting has been limited to the very rich, the practice is now accessible to almost anyone. And somehow, through common sense or a group aesthetic, we seem to be able to distinguish what is art... even if that agreement varies between communities and eras. We seem to understand that there is a difference between a room filled with sculpture, and a doll collection. We appear to make a distinction between someone who has amassed thousands of examples of beer cans, and someone who has filled a home with paintings. One set ends up in a museum, and the other becomes a roadside attraction. Surrounded by all this uncertainty, and with only our gut to guide us, how can anyone get started as an art collector.

I hate to break this to you, but if you've purchased a piece of art, you are already a collector. Sorry if you didn't notice the transition. We all know artists who paint truly ugly paintings, but they are still artists... just not very good ones. Many, if not most of us, are art collectors to one degree or another. The first step in your journey is admitting that you are a collector. What I hear most often is that someone buys a piece of art because they like it, because it matches the furniture in a room, or because it reminds them of a particularly lovely holiday abroad. The problem is that at some point, you may want to surround yourself with more art. Each piece has a story, or evokes some emotional connection or response. When you throw out the matching couch, you keep the painting all the same. Generally people will keep the art they buy for a lifetime. When you find yourself resonating with those statements, I hate to break it to you, but you're a collector. And if you're like most of us, it will only get worse.

So once you've admitted your addiction, you need to know where to score your next fix. Where does one go to find art? That will depend entirely what your plan is. Some have very narrow collection criteria. Perhaps you only want to collect Native American art, or only portraiture done in oil. You may only want to collect from artists you have met, or only buy what you think will appreciate in value as an investment. There's no wrong answer here. But you need some sort of plan. The guy who collects beer cans doesn't throw in an occasional Pepsi. I'm not suggesting that you have to be rigid, but you need to know the parameters of what you collect, even if those rules change over time.

I also hear a lot of people say that they started off only collecting mementos from their vacations, but then travelled to Mexico and have become obsessed with Latin American art, or European watercolors, or Russian cubists. Where you look for art will vary depending upon your collection goals. If you only want to collect pieces from artists you have met personally, then scouring the art fairs, exhibition openings, and artist studios makes the most sense. If you're looking for something very specific, you may need to work with galleries, or watch the auction houses. If you want to limit your collection by price, flea markets, estate sales, and tent markets may be your best bet.

Once you have amassed a collection of artwork, you'll need to take care of it, and to organize it coherently. I cannot express how many collectors say to me; "I have the story of every single piece I collect right here in my head." I hate to be a downer her, but what makes sense when you have a collection of 50 pieces, makes no sense when you have a collection of 100. You will forget. I promise, you will forget. Write all the information down: artist; title; price you paid; format of the work; story of where you got it, or of meeting with the artist; and dates of creation and purchase. Put all of that information in a file somewhere. That history is called provenance, and can become crucial to authenticating art many years from now.

The second thing I hear collectors say is; "I don't know what's going to happen after I die. My kids don't want any of it." Having lost both of my parents recently, I know that there are all sorts of things that became important to me once they passed away. You're children may fight over your art collection when you're gone. Why not, they fight about everything else. If you have all the data about your artwork stored away in your head, then all of that information dies with you. Those you leave behind will likely have no idea about the stories related with your art collection, or what it may be worth for resale, or why it is important as a collection, if you don't have everything written down.

But you're not going anywhere just yet, so let's end on a more positive note. Your art collection is an extension of you. The art you surround yourself with is a testament to your sensibilities, your passions, your intellectual pursuits, and possibly even your spiritual proclivities. Treat your collection with the seriousness that you feel about preserving it. Give yourself permission to geek out about art if that brings you joy, share those stories with anyone who'll listen, and always be on the lookout for that next acquisition. It could change your life.

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