Buyers in the early stages of building an art collection may find it easy to select artworks that fit a certain visual aesthetic, but as an art collection begins to take shape, you will begin to notice trends emerge. By supporting artists with a particular background, for example, art collectors can control the conversation around the artwork they amass. Collectors can make a decision to conscientiously buy art from contemporary artists whose work is created with a specific message in mind. By taking a careful look at the types of work collectors intake, and the types of artists they support, they can shape a collective vision of visual art that becomes their legacy.
We investigated the ways in which art collectors view the artists and artworks they collect, finding key insights into how collectors can mindfully craft a vision around how the art they possess articulates themes that the collector prizes.
Build an Art Collection Around Living Artists
Contemporary art is more popular now than in any other era, and while many art collectors seek out masterpiece artworks from earlier periods, there are increasing numbers of art collectors choosing to support contemporary artists instead. When seeking to collect works thoughtfully, the best starting point is to decide whether or not your focus will be on supporting living artists. Artists living and working today rely on sales of their artwork in order to continue their practice. By choosing to support artists who are struggling to make their dream a reality, you are building an art collection that serves as a record of your contemporary moment.
Another benefit of collecting artworks by contemporary artists is that you will begin to build relationships with artists as you purchase their work. Collector Anita Alvin Nilert notes that by building a rapport with the artists whose work she buys, she learns more about their process. Talking with artists, Nilert notes that she gets a fuller appreciation for the work, elaborating that she enjoys “the whole story and intention of the artist.” When artists are better able to communicate the concept and purpose driving their work through storytelling they are able to build stronger relationships with collectors who will make a point to nourish their careers over time.
Nilert reflects on purchasing contemporary art and the sense of pride she gets in feeling that she’s invested in an artist’s dreams. She notes that it is ultimately an honor for her to collect work made by these artists.“It’s important to support artists that are working today. [For me] it’s not about resale value, it’s about having a live interaction with an artist and supporting them. It’s also important for me to collect artworks that reflect our collective experience as a society at this moment [in time].”
Aesthetics and Social Change
As an art collector, the artworks you bring home will reflect your tastes: Patrons want their collection to reflect their visual aesthetic. When selecting artists to collect that will reflect you well over time, it’s important to select artists that have distinct visual styles while being engaged in social progress. Whether it’s working with artists who donate their works to benefit auctions for nonprofits or selecting artists who deal directly with social issues, artists who are engaged with contemporary issues will stand the test of time. It’s worth considering how artists positively impact the world they inhabit, such as artist Theaster Gates initiative to give back to the Chicago community with an arts center, the Stony Island Arts Bank.
Of course, some artist’s work is more directly politically or socially engaged. Artists such as Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, and Dread Scott directly address social inadequacies that plague American society from the past until today. These African-American artists deal directly with social challenges in America’s past and present, particularly inequality in African-American communities that persist to this day.
When framing an art collection with a purpose, art collectors should consider how they are empowering and supporting artists who are striving toward positive social change. Artworks from collections can also go on loan occasionally to museums, galleries or other art institutions, and collectors will be associated with the artwork they allow these institutions to borrow. Art collectors should know that as they loan works from their collection, they will begin to gain appreciation from the arts community; their name becomes associated with these works by being credited as lending these works on the exhibition’s wall label.
Gifting Artworks: Loans and Gifts
Collectors come from all walks of life and are united by their passion for supporting the arts. Several years ago, Herbert and Dorothy Vogel gained widespread acclaim as so-called “working class patrons” of modern and contemporary art. Their slow and steady decades of building an art collection of critical 20th-century artists earned them friends in the likes of Christo & Jeanne-Claude, Donald Judd, and Richard Tuttle. When the time came for their collection to emerge in the public eye, offers poured in to purchase the works in their collection. The Vogels announced that their collection was to be donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. “We liked the idea that the gallery is free, they don’t charge admission, and they don’t de-accession or sell it [the work]…it [is] really among one of the finest institutions in the world,” notes Dorothy Vogel. For the Vogels, the importance was that their collection would shape the future of art for everyday Americans: their legacy as benefactors for everyday art lovers was secure.
When shaping an art collection with an eye toward the future, it’s important to consider how artworks within will be viewed through the lens of history and be presented to the art-viewing public. As artworks go on loan and/or are gifted to museums, it’s important to understand the terms of these arrangements, so that your gift serves the greatest benefit and resonates with your personal vision. Certain institutions have policies that may not resonate with the artwork’s donor, so it’s important to clarify the position with directors at the institution and to develop a rapport with direct liaisons at the space.
When considering what works go to what institution, it’s also important to consider the focus of the institution at hand and whether they have a specialty and/or department able to adequately serve the type of art being received. For example, an art collector of Chinese or African Art would be best served in gifting their collection to an institution with a wing devoted to the subject matter being explored by these works. In this way, the works will receive the care and attention they deserve.
Art collectors have the special power to influence how art is viewed and appreciated, and along with that power, they should embrace a special responsibility. By thoughtfully collecting work that reflects a higher social agenda, an art collector is able to better communicate the artists’ vision to a wider range of individuals. Art can serve as an integral catalyst for social change while simultaneously reflecting a collector’s good taste. It’s crucial as one develops their collection to hone in on the values that matter to them, and the values they want to communicate for art lovers for generations to come.
Audra Lambert is a curator, arts marketing consultant, and editor.