As headlines rolled in from around the world on the virulent spread of Covid-19, my in-progress research towards an article on art collecting felt decidedly untimely. What last week felt crucially important suddenly paled in comparison to stories of insufficient medical supplies and dire warnings of a failing world economy. What is the point of writing about art collecting in a time of a viral pandemic? Though it seemed ludicrous at first, after days of rumination, I came to the conclusion that now more than ever is a time to become a patron of the arts.
Remember that art collectors don’t need to belong to the overly privileged 1%.
Remember that art collectors don’t need to belong to the overly privileged 1%. Artwork is available in the widest variety of aesthetic, size, media, and price ranges imaginable. I’m aware that art collecting and more widespread forms of cultural patronage have garnered a negative reputation over the years (centuries). We’re all familiar with the stories of arts’ role as a pawn in the religious and political maneuverings of the Renaissance Church, the use of art for displays of wealth and power a la the Medicis (and arguably the Broads, Cicneroses and Rockefellers of today), and the commissioning of large-scale artistic projects as a way of laundering dirty money gained through usury or other ethically questionable means. We derogatorily refer to art fairs as shopping malls and the artworks shown there as “art fair art” (artwork meeting criteria for a certain size, price, and aesthetic appeal). Artists making work openly for sale are too-often considered sell-outs, and the collectors who buy these works as unintellectual, materialistic, and greedy. No too many years ago, I personally sneered at a woman who was hoping to buy a work of art that would fit perfectly above the sofa in her sitting room.
Then something changed my perspective. I walked up the stairs to the first floor of a 5 story cast-iron building on the corner of Spring and Mercer streets in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, and into the living and working space of Donald Judd. The Judd House, as it’s commonly referred to, is now preserved as a museum of sorts where local artists who work for the Judd Foundation offer pre-arranged guided tours. Honestly, I’ve never been enamored of Donald Judd’s work, but I was stunned by the seamless way that he integrated his working space, his living space, and most importantly his collection of world-class art and artifacts. A massive light installation by Dan Flavin dominated the top floor bedroom, a huge asymmetrical painting by Frank Stella overlooked a lounge area, and a commissioned mural by David Novros lived seamlessly along with Judd’s own sculptures and furniture. African masks and handmade ceramics of unknown origins were placed with as much care and delicacy as a small Carl Andre sculpture. There wasn’t a single room in all five floors that didn’t prominently display art, including bathrooms, kitchens, and office spaces.
There was such a thing as symbiotic relationship – there was a way to love art and purchase it! And in fact, the purchase of one’s artwork for a home is perhaps the highest compliment that could be paid to an artist.
Here I thought, was a prime example of what art collecting could be: a heartfelt selection of work installed permanently in a carefully designed / designated location. I realized for the first time that there didn’t have to exist a contrary relationship between the artwork and the inhabitant of a living space. There was such a thing as symbiotic relationship – there was a way to love art and purchase it! And in fact, the purchase of one’s artwork for a home is perhaps the highest compliment that could be paid to an artist. Unlike a museum, gallery, or public space, the installation of an artwork in a home is intimate and personal. You eat breakfast with an artwork, read by it, look at it while you brush your teeth at night.
This might sound overly idealistic – I won’t deny being a romantic at heart. I’ve both worked and visited innumerable art fairs and commercial galleries, and without a doubt there are artists who make shoddy work to sell quickly, and collectors who seek to make a quick fortune by flipping works at auction or to solidify their social prestige by obtaining art as status objects along with cars, horses, jewelry and football teams. And yet, I’m convinced that most artists make work that they truly believe in, and that the vast majority of collectors are normal people who want to invest in works that they truly love, and plan to keep for a lifetime.
From the perspective of relationship – both with an artwork and with an artist or institution – the how of collecting can actually be quite simple. As you consider collecting artworks in these precarious times, ask yourself the following questions: What artwork(s) do I want to live with in my immediate environment? Whose personal artistic practice do I want to support? How can I creatively contribute to the economic resilience of my community? I suggest approaching reputable institutions or galleries regarding opportunities to collect work, or buy directly from the studios of artists in your region. If you’re at a loss for where to start, reach out to your local institutions, galleries, and studio collectives and ask them for suggestions. Arrange virtual studio visits with artists in your area. Ask if artists or galleries would be willing to accept payment plans. Collectively buy an artwork with family or friends. Ask for an object by a local designer as an advance birthday present. Buy tickets to a virtual performance… The ideas are endless!
So what does this sales pitch have to do with the global pandemic? As you are undoubtedly aware, many institutions and businesses across all sectors are closed as a preventative measure to help stop the rapid spread of Covid-19. Markets are plummeting while unemployment is skyrocketing around the world. Museums, galleries, and cultural institutions are naturally among those forced to close for the greater good of protecting public health, and some of the hardest hit by these closures and their economic consequences are the artists, performers, craftspeople, and small business owners that rely on gatherings of people to support their work.
It comes down to this:
Artists are people in our community.
Collectors are people in our community.
Now is the time to support your community in whatever way you can. Collecting art is not just about the artwork – on a deeper level it is about supporting a person and valuing creativity and artistic production as crucial elements to a healthy society.