The Collectors


Great expectations


Oh what fun I had – this was one of those discussions that on the face of it seemed to be one I would listen to later, but increasingly as this Hashtag Class project has taken shape I find I really wanted to be ‘right here right now’. Still I had it recorded so I did have the dialogue and some twitter feed to follow the event.

The start of the discussion was I think lost to us eavesdroppers as the stream got a strop on and we couldn’t really hear – but 20 or so minutes in things became clearer.

I found it a riveting and at the same time frustrating discussion because it seemed everytime a point was made someone conspired to cough or mumble the all important punch line, the verbal equivalent of ‘and the meaning of the universe and everything is kjsrugkjhfdgax…sqiddlyhegfhvs’ – you get the idea. But I waded through the treacle and came across some gems of information and opinions.

Firstly the description;

Jennifer and Kevin McCoy will lead “Let’s Figure Out What They Want,” a collector focus group. They aim to ask direct questions not only about what art piques collectors’ interests, but also what their expectations are vis a vis the presence of the artist’s life behind the work.

The starting point (or mine) was a little trip into the history of collectors, how in the 50’s a dealer used to be happy to be owed money – the collectors life would be chasing or unearthing new or interesting art and there was a different mentality, a relationship, a more intimate world, whereas today it’s all about consignment.

A couple of points were made, which outlined where the talk was going;

The historical aspect about the relationship with collectors and museums was from the aristocracy of the day noting that leisure time for the proles needed to be filled and, as a way of trying to control, public museums were opened up as Jennifer put it “to teach people to respect private property”. Nobility controlling and dictating tastes, the format is still there but is now filtered through private collectors, more random.

One of the collectors whose voice added to the treacly resonance of the sound, so much so I had to listen really hard to understand – mentioned that the dichotomy of democracy and private property were difficult arguments to control, but we do democratise it and make it academic.

It was then I started to get the bigger picture of what they were saying, how the system in general has shifted from patronage to a mishmash of private and public art that mimics market forces, some wasting money;  citing museums ready to write a blank cheque for a major successful work, (I’m thinking the ICA here, but maybe if not a blank cheque, certainly stuff that’s already been there seen it and done the rounds) and collectors buying ‘great’ works for massive amounts – basically accumulating with safe bets. With some museums not having any responsibility towards history local or wider, and some being cultural backwaters.

And they all argued that as collectors that was not what they were about. Saying that’s lazy and shows no courage. I do get that it’s my bug bear at the moment how safe bets right across the board of creative arts are creating a beige and stagnant landscape.

A simplification of this was pointed out as being the conundrum of the artist going to the gallerist and striking up a dialogue and then the gallerist thinking will this work get me in at ‘X fair’ with the collectors drawn into the loop. A self fulfilling prophesy that keeps on coming and flourishing.

The word competition came up, which was readily summarised as being a good thing, one example of how the art world, collectors included, fail in that which other industries such as film or architecture don’t, by not taking the world of images more seriously. I think it was Jennifer who mentioned that so many times she sees an artist of high ideas and 20 minutes later they are all over Wall Mart.

This reminded me of an artist acquaintance from my Uni years, Duncan Higgins featured at Raw in London after studying  at Goldsmiths circa 1985 with the Frieze crowd, he never embarked on that roundabout and seemed a bit miffed at the time, shortly after exhibiting at Raw someone noticed his work in an advert for Ikea. Well I didn’t ask him but I see it as similar to writers and actors with their voice over’s – its bread and butter when the cash flow goes awol, only somehow with artists a line is crossed.


The idea that the art world is not switched onto the market was raised with the comment, how people like the makers of Avatar are not going to default on the rent next month. Projects are more focused on getting it done and in on time etc., along with the fact that competition is also an opportunity to create a window which will close at some point, so generating interest.


One trajectory of this line of thought was how Singapore, with a fragile art market, dealt with the dilemma. They decided to sink all their efforts into 3d film “because when that breaks the video is, dead, everyone will want 3d”.


Someone make the point that the sorts of film being talked about were not Avatar and that (he) did like the style but the line was drawn that this kind of 3d could be cultural art, at most it was ‘craft’. He (because of the technical issues I didn’t get his name and can only refer to him as treacle voice) referred to it on the lines of “this sort of film is a doily; macramé, and that I like macramé but it only means I am a fan of macramé”. I think I got the thread of this right because the stream link was interrupted a little.


But if that is the case, I think an important East Asian cultural aspect is missing from that argument, I say East Asian for the want of splitting hairs here because I am talking about the historical and artistic impact of manga or (manhwa in Korea) – its social and (in the nature of places like Japan) its hierarchical meaning and mass cultural influence of the follow on anime (film) culture, which has been turning to 3d. The cultural and artistic value of this style runs deep and has a habit of evolving with technology, and if the the word pop culture were to be used it would be in a totally different sense.


So, if the money is at the same time a saviour of the art market and collectors but also the cheapening of it. The next point kind of summed up the overall vibe with the defending and berating of spiritualizing ‘the collection’ – “we always talk about the spirituality never the money side”; “but I think there is a connection”. Well Pink Floyd had their moment defending their collection to be kept whole; ‘the concept’ that was Dark Side of The Moon last week, I do remember seeing singles knocking about in the seventies though – not too proud of a sound bite then.


Yes, I can see the fault lines and stresses of these arguments from all sides, no matter how you dress it up whether it’s a luvvie approach to collecting and ‘the special relationship’ followed by the marketing of that and then the transaction.


It is about art but it is also about money, very much so it seems because right at the end of the discussion after being thrown a soft ball question of “what art would you never part with?” aside from the emotional connections (I’m not disputing that) and regretting things that were passed over (in buying) don’t we all have those moments? mine’s usually with shoes, but hey! that’s personal and not for the public good or service.


So, right at the end this seemingly sore point was raised; “we sell a lot to pay taxes which is incredibly painful, but that’s life”. Yes taxes are painful but they go towards the common good?. Ok …continuing….”It is an incredibly unfair system the IRS has got us by the balls they go against the law; the issue is basically whatever you really sell, you’re buying what you keep”.

Ok so essentially collectors are doing a service but they are not doing it for free and the taxman also takes (never fair to everyone – but that’s the political system) since the enlightenment anyway, that’s been the deal, at least until the free market loosening tweaks, blind eyes, and the slow unpicking of recent years; we still pay our dues, and no its not fair.


And just as for everyone else witnessing the push of the brave new world after the Second World War, and when it finally imploded on itself. Money has been made and lost, but hopefully not love and fairness (although, apparently ‘loves’ the smart-ass answer to things) probably too idealistic.