What makes someone a good collector and a collection a good collection? Am I good enough as a collector, and have I gained a good reputation as a collector in the art world?

These are the questions that even the most adept and serious collectors will wonder about from time to time.

TEXT: Selina Ting [Editor-in-Chief, COBO Social]
IMAGES: Courtesy of Marta Gnyp
The Original text was published at COBO Social on 14 July 2016. Courtesy of COBO Social

Click here for Part II of this interview on the Power of Collectors

We often hear about the different “criteria” that define a good collector: a discerning eye and sophisticated taste; a niche and focused collection; the careful preservation of work; museum loans for public viewing; generous support provided for young artists; excellent reviews received in the local and international press, and of course, a good collector never resells!

If we use these criteria to assess the behaviour of collectors, how many of the so-called “tastemaker” collectors would actually qualify as a “good” collector? And how accurately and sincerely would these assessments reflect the reality of the art world, where ego, fame and money are now becoming the determinants of “success”?

The Collector, Art Historian and Art Advisor Marta Gnyp has a new book out entitled, The Shift: Art and the Rise to Power of Contemporary Collectors (Art and Theory Publishing, Paperback, October 2015), which addresses some of the core issues of the role of collecting in contemporary art. The book has become such a big hit, its first print run is already selling out. While waiting for reprints to become available, CoBo met with Marta during the Art Basel week for a long discussion on the image of the Art Collector in today’s globalised, digital world.

Maybe you would like to give us a little background on the subject of your book and how you came up with the idea for the research.

Pages from The Shift. Art and the rise to power of contemporary collectors. A book by Marta Gnyp,  Art and Theory Publishing, 2015.
The Shift. Art and the rise to power of contemporary collectors. A book by Marta Gnyp, Art and Theory Publishing, 2015.

The book was the result of my genuine curiosity about the art world. I have been an art advisor for many years now, but I used to work in a business environment as well. I first entered the art world as a collector. You think of art and the art world as something very different, something very special, but then you discover there are similarities with other parts of the economy. I was very surprised by the idea of there being a bad collector and good collector, and then become curious about how the art world functions. So I started investigating the many aspects that form the art world, first in my PhD and then afterwards, and the research finally appeared in my book.

I investigated the history of collecting and whether collecting contemporary art is something very new. In order to do this, I had to go back to the 19th century when modern collecting first started. I also investigated how global contemporary collecting really is and discovered that, although globalisation has been going on, the contemporary art world is still far from being globalised. For example, 90% of galleries in the Art Basel Fair are from the Western world. That means only 10% come from Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa. There are many other examples of this ratio in favour of the Western world.

Contemporary art is the hottest item at the moment, but 15 years ago it was a small niche. Even during the eighties, the boom was limited to a few places like New York and Germany. It was unthinkable then that contemporary art would become the biggest collectible item. So my question was, why has contemporary art become so very popular? I investigated the morality of collecting, the idea of the good and bad collector, and art as a financial asset. I also wanted to know why collectors are so interested in setting up private museums. How are they choosing the artists: why does one artist appeal to someone and another artist does not? This is a very difficult question.

There has been a phenomenal increase in the number of collectors over the last 15 years. Are we talking about a 5 or 10 fold increase? Also, do you have figures for this in your book?

We don’t have reliable figures, so we can only speculate. A gallerist who has been working for 30 years said there had been 80 collectors in the eighties and 80,000 in the nineties, and now there are about 800,000. The perception is that the number has grown gigantically, but we don’t really have figures, just indications.

Visitors queueing under the rain to enter the fair. Art Basel Basel 2016 June. Courtesy of Art Basel
Visitors queueing under the rain to enter the fair. Art Basel Basel 2016 June. Courtesy of Art Basel

Is another indication the amount of people who are now attending the openings of regular galleries? I’m assuming the openings in the eighties would not have been as crowded as today.

No, I think the openings were crowded in places like New York and Dusseldorf in the eighties, but weren’t that crowded back in the sixties or seventies. Bruce Nauman had an exhibition in the Galerie Konrad Fischer in Dusseldorf and only three people attended the opening – Bruce Nauman, Konrad Fischer and the painter, Gerhard Richter. The situation changed a bit after that, but not as much as today.

I think there are a few indications of how many collectors there are now. The Basel Fair in Basel, for example, is attended by 75,000 people, but not all of them are collectors. An indication could be the number of high-net-worth individuals that we have nowadays. There are between 12-13 million of these people and a large part of them are collectors. For example, the Economist Claire McAndrew assumed that we have 600,000 high-net-worth individuals who are collectors. Of course, there are also people who are not high-net-worth individuals that collect. I assumed in my book that there should be between 200,000 and 300,000 people who are spending more than €50,000 on contemporary art a year, as a minimum. So, yes, it is exploding, and you can see this in the volume of art markets, which have more than doubled in the last ten years.

It does not necessarily mean that collectors are starting younger and younger, does it? There are so many young collectors from Asia, but collectors in the sixties in Europe started to collect in their early thirties or late-twenties as well.

Yes, I found the majority of collectors are 40 and older. But people do become attracted to art at a younger age because of the quality of contemporary art: it is visually attractive and conceptually appealing, yet not so distant. You can also become an art collector without having a very sincere knowledge of art history. You do not need to study heavy conceptual art before you make a decision. I think for many younger collectors, art is very sexy. They like the visual appearance of art and the conceptual challenge and excitement. Today’s art is not bashing its public. It is easy to enter this art world.

Yes, one feels very upbeat in collecting contemporary art, especially when one believes in the art of his or her generation.

Yes, absolutely.

Pages from The Shift. Art and the rise to power of contemporary collectors. A book by Marta Gnyp,  Art and Theory Publishing, 2015.
Pages from The Shift. Art and the rise to power of contemporary collectors. A book by Marta Gnyp, Art and Theory Publishing, 2015.

The second issue you really investigate, and I really love the way that you use the word ‘investigate’, is to define what makes a good collector.

In the art world, you often hear “this is a good collector” or “that is a bad collector, or “these people are collecting for the wrong reasons”. I was very curious about what that means because these statements are not made in relation to the quality of the collection, but in relation to the behaviour of the collector. So I found two moral codes that define someone as a good or bad collector. The first one is: “good collectors never sell the work they once bought”. They always refuse the temptation of the market and stay with what they buy. Galleries reward collectors who behave like this and treat them very well, saying they are great collectors! They will also give them better access to other works and better prices. This moral code rules the market, and through this the gallery can control the prices.

If the artwork does not re-enter the market, the gallery is in a very good position because it can control the prices. The collector who resells the work is threatening the system because if you sell the work, it suddenly appears somewhere else. The worst thing is the auction because if the price is too high, more collectors will try to sell the work, and if the price is too low, it causes a problem for the gallery prices. So this is an extremely important code of good behaviour, but having said that, the majority of collectors do resell their works.

They are saying they’re just going more in-depth with a smaller number of artists

You are right; it is extremely interesting to see how they justify their selling behaviour because it’s a problematic question. If you buy an artwork and then the gallery asks you, “Where is the work?” and you say, “Well, I sold it,” then you have to justify it. So, the easiest and most acceptable reason is to say that you need to upgrade your collection, your tastes have developed and you want to buy better works. By doing this, the money stays in the art world, so you are not using it for your own profit, but for art. Another often mentioned reason is social importance, such as education or arranging something for the artist or creating a foundation. So you are using the money from the sale for very good moral reasons, which are often related to art.

Then there are practical reasons for selling, like a lack of space at home, or you’re getting older and your children are not interested in art. Interestingly, some collectors are saying, “I’m not selling, I just don’t want to have works in my collection that could lose value,” which means they are selling, of course. There is only a small group of people who talk openly about selling. I found out that the majority of collectors are selling, and this idea that only the bad ones are doing it is an absolute myth.

The second code of good behaviour is, that “a good collector buys with his eyes and not with his ears”. This means that you are using your own vision and individual judgement to select artworks. The biggest compliment you can give a collector is “you have a good eye”, which means that you can really judge and make decisions for yourself. Bad collectors buy with their ears, which means they only follow trends and listen to rumours. This is also a myth because the pure eye doesn’t really exist. The eye is also the result of education, experience, listening to other people and gathering information, especially with contemporary art. You need to hear what the work is about and relying on your eye is impossible, but there is some truth in it because not every Warhol is a good Warhol, not every Calder is a good Calder. So it’s wrong to only listen to names and rumours. If you only follow this path, you’ll have a very bad collection.

Marta Gnyp - exhibition space
Marta Gnyp – exhibition space

There is a saying that “buying art is an emotional thing” and you should “buy with your heart”, so even if the price goes down, you will still love your collection. I don’t know how true this is, but the ups and downs of prices certainly affect your confidence about making choices.

Absolutely, and this points to the way that collecting has changed. If you are collecting only for subjective reasons, you don’t care. You only buy what you like and what appeals to you. Collectors who spend at least €50,000 a year are already spending substantial amounts of money on art, and so this is not only a case of them buying because they ‘like’ it. It is a decision that also has financial consequences, even for the millionaires and the billionaires. I discovered that collectors today are extremely aware of the financial value of art. Thanks to new media you can check the prices and be very quickly informed about what is going on.

What has also changed the perception is the increased importance of the art fair, which is principally a marketplace. For many collectors, art fairs are essential places to buy art and see art, and automatically to speak about prices and values. This makes today’s collectors very aware of the financial value of the artwork, which was not the case 20 years ago.

The other thing is that all the collections today look the same because the collectors are all after the same 10-15 artists, or being advised to buy from the same blue-chip artists. The advisers have to justify their choices in financial terms, like in the banking system, so collecting has become a very conscious investment.

Absolutely. The number of artists auctioned during the last 10 years in New York and London is very limited. If people want to be safe, they tend to buy a Warhol or a Josef Albers, rather than an emerging artist. On the other hand, galleries are doing a great job promoting new artists. Collectors who are used to working with a certain gallery and trust it are inclined to believe in other artists that the gallery brings in. So I am positive that we won’t be fixed on this very limited number of artists in future.

About Marta Gnyp
Marta Gnyp is a Dutch art historian based in Berlin active as international art advisor, art journalist and art collector specialized in contemporary art. She recently published the book The Shift. Art and the Rise to Power of Contemporary Collectors based on her PHD research in the field of art history/art sociology and also started her own gallery GNYP in Berlin.

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