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October Issue 2005

A View from Down Under
on Collecting Art

by Judith McGrath

Today I received an invitation to an exhibition that included a press release, to encourage a written review. The invite had the usual pictures and CV of the artist but the press release had me laughing all the way to the keyboard. It was a justifiable verbal tantrum about how this artist has been continually ignored by the 'art establishment' in this his home land throughout his forty year career, despite the fact that he is "the richest living artist in Australia" whose income is derived solely from his art. He dared go it alone and forever damned for doing so.

When first rejected by a commercial gallery, the artist began selling black and white drawings, small hand painted cards and large colourful canvases from his studio. He turned his popular images into limited edition prints, created designs for fabric, and set up a gallery-cum-shop in a tourist section of the city and sold only his own work. His art is bright and colourful, capturing the high key colours that are synonymous with Australia. People who like pretty pictures buy his work, tourists purchase ties and tee shirts bearing his designs, collectors in other countries acquire his original paintings, while agents from around the world commission him to prepare designs for various national events.

Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed astute collectors at home disregard this artist's work because 'those who know best' do not recommend him (they can't get a piece of the action). In this light, I say to the gallery who told the truth in their press release, "Good onya Mate." And to those art snobs, who are impressed by name or fame rather then good art, I say, "Get orf ya Drongo."

Art collectors fall into one of two categories; corporate and private. Corporate collectors buy art for its asset value. They employ professional curators who access art galleries or dealers to acquire work by well-established practitioners that will provide a return on the company's investment. Little attention is paid to the art beyond knowing its certified value and if it's a wall covering, floor piece or niche filler. The selections made by these curators, galleries and dealers are dictated by their own vested interest so it's not about the art, it's just business.

Serious private collectors acquire art for more personal reasons and tend to buy works they like for aesthetic, as well as, asset value. In my experience I've noted three distinct types of private collectors, which for lack of any existing classification I'll label Patron, Stylish and Appreciative.

Patrons are not ignorant of the investment aspect of art although they do have personal preferences in what they collect. They buy work they like at auction or from a gallery, and sell through a dealer, according to the ebb and flow of the market. To them art is a commodity only it's prettier then stock certificates. The Stylish collector purchases art to decorate the home and will select works that reflect their place and taste at the time. They have no qualms about disposing of a whole collection when they redecorate or relocate, and start anew in a different style. Appreciative collectors are passionate buyers of art who love each purchase like a pet. They acquire art with the intention of keeping the work until it becomes part of the family then passing it on through the generations.

In my job I've interviewed many private collectors and have noticed a certain rule of thumb. Those who collect art as an object for trade (Patron) will buy and sell what's hot; those who want to enhance the domestic environment with original art (Stylish) prefer abstract works by the newest big name; while those who buy art to live with (Appreciative) choose mostly figurative works they can personally relate to. When interviewing serious private collectors, I never have to ask 'Why do you buy art?' because the answer is often 'written on the wall'.

I recall one Patron I had the pleasure of interviewing, a man who enjoys the business side of art collecting. The large acquisitions and installations of his eclectic collection are on loan to universities, hospitals and government offices while the smaller works are precisely placed about the house. However the bulk of his collection is bubble wrapped, neatly labelled and standing in racks or huddled in corners of a locked storeroom in his home. This charming man can name every artist currently represented in his continuously evolving collection, the title of each work, where it is physically located, when he bought it, at what price, and where it fits in the artist's overall career. He keeps up to date by reading international art magazines, attending auctions by Sotheby's in Sydney, and knows who to buy and when to sell.

Then there was the interview with an intelligent Stylish collector who lives in a modern multi-storey, high ceiling, steel, glass and concrete, all white home where the art is Minimalist, from Melbourne, and mostly black. Although an art advisor guides her purchases, there is no doubt the lady makes her own decisions and loves each piece in her current collection. However, she admits to being in the third 'art chapter' of her life, and should her décor, address or mood change, so too will her art, albeit with a keen eye to the market. Meanwhile, she gets a great deal of joy from being wrapped in an environment aesthetically attuned to her current life-style.

My favourite interview was with an Appreciative gentleman who buys work he falls in love with and commissions local artists whose work he admires. Mostly figurative paintings and sculptures by celebrated contemporary practitioners and unknown art students share floor and wall space with work by artists we learned about in Australian Art History. The collection is so well integrated with the home any sense of ostentation is lost. When shown around, I was told the 'story' behind each purchase and when discussing a sculpture his hand absentmindedly stroked the artwork. This collector rarely sells a work, preferring to pass it on to his children when wall or floor space becomes scarce. That's how he received his first art piece, the one that started his journey and which he still has.

There may be a Corporate collection in this town that owns a work by the above-mentioned artist but none of the Private collectors I've met do. Besides being steered away from supporting an 'outsider' by the local art establishment, the Patron wouldn't have come across the artist's work at auction (those who have his work don't want to sell it) and the Stylish lady would not have his colourful imagery invade her black and white world, at present. The Appreciative buyer would ignore the bias of the establishment and, if he saw the press release, applaud the gallery's tirade. If he attends the exhibition and sees an exhibit he can relate to, no doubt he'll buy it, no matter what anyone says. And isn't that what collecting art is supposed to be about?

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia, 25 minutes east of Perth. She received a BA in Fine Art and History from the University of Western Australia. McGrath lectured in Art History and Visual Literacy at various colleges around the Perth area, and was an art reviewer for The Sunday Times and The Western Review both published in the Perth area. McGrath is currently a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. She also co-ordinates the web site Art Seen in Western Australia found at (www.artseeninwa.com).


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