A Guide to Collecting Art

Buying and collecting art is exciting and richly rewarding, and can be surprisingly inexpensive. If you’re like most people, you know how to buy art on a piece-by-piece basis, but would like to be more accomplished at formulating a plan for making multiple acquisitions over time, or in other words, building a collection. You can find art you like just about anywhere you look, and in a seemingly endless array of subject matters, mediums and price ranges, but sifting through it all in a systematic manner can be over whelming and even intimidating.
So how do you decide where to focus and what direction to go in? How do you relate one purchase to the next? How do you organise or group your art together in ways that make sense? How do you present it? And most importantly, how do you do all these things well? This is what collecting is all about, it’s the ultimate case of controlled purposeful buying.

Experienced collectors demonstrate just as much talent in selecting and grouping their art as the artists show in creating it. Likewise, each work of art in a great collection commands premium attention, not only because it’s good, but also because of the company it keeps.
Regardless of how you view your collecting, whether serious or recreational, there are techniques you can use to maximise not only the quality and value of your art, but also your own personal enjoyment, appreciation and understanding of that art. Step One is being true to your tastes. This means acknowledging that you like certain types of art regardless of what you think you’re supposed to like or what seems to be the current rage. All great collectors share this trait: that’s one thing that makes their collections stand out. When personal tastes and preferences are ignored in favour of the status quo, one collection begins to look just like the next. Connections between works can be varied and interesting. Types of work within a collection could include the obvious: paintings from just one artist, but could also be works with a common theme, animals, heads, bush scenes etc, works on paper, the same colour (eg black and white) or all works of the same size.
Explore the less conventional if that’s what you’re curious about. Look at art you think might attract you, but that you’ve always steered clear of. Don’t be afraid to experiment. You may end up right back where you started, reinforcing your chosen path, but then again, something new and truly unique may thrill you at some point along the way. Periodic reassessments of your tastes are always a good idea. What excites you today could easily bore you tomorrow (and vice versa). A quality collection is always evolving and never static.

Regardless of how much you know about what you collect already, always remember that the educational process is an ongoing one. Be an informed buyer. Learn from the pros. Take every opportunity to discuss the fine points of what you’re looking at with as many different experts, curators, artists, collectors, gallery personnel and other informed art people as possible.
Regarding the art that does make it into your collection, most novice collectors will tell you they buy what they like. That’s definitely the best way to buy, but as you gain experience, the reasons why you buy what you like should become increasingly more conscious, detailed, sophisticated and purposeful. For example, you might hear an advanced collector say something like “Not only do I love this sculpture, but it’s also a prime example of the artist’s best subject matter from his most productive time period and it fills a major gap in my collection”.

Ask questions like:
– Why do I like the kinds of art I’m buying?
– What about it satisfies me?
– Do I like it for the subject matter, what it represents, what it communicates, its originality, the techniques, the colours, the historical aspects, the regions where it’s made, the lives of the artists?
– Does it make me think about things I’ve never thought about before?
– Does it make me feel a certain way or see things in a different way?
– Do I admire its technical qualities the most?
– Do I like it for the concepts, ideas, themes or philosophies it embodies, communicates or stands for?
– Does it alter or inform my perspective on some aspect of life?

Once you begin to identify the common threads, you can refine your buying to zero in on additional pieces that share those characteristics. It’s almost like putting together a mission statement or clearly and specifically defining your goals…and a collector with a specific mission or goals is always more effective at acquiring art.

The best collectors show this sense of sureness and direction in their overall plans. And here’s where we get to the essence of collecting, of what distinguishes a superior collection from an inferior one. In a superior collection, every piece belongs; nothing is random or arbitrary or out of place. A less experienced collector, on the other hand, may know plenty about each individual piece of art they own, but lack an overall understanding of how they relate to one another or even whether they relate to one another at all.

Most of all, enjoy your artwork and how it enhances the spaces around you.

This article has been prepared by Montville Art Gallery and is an edited and revised version of a lecture given by Artbusiness.com.