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September Issue 2003

A Few Words From Down Under
A Collection of Collectors

by Judith McGrath

We have what are called art collectors' clubs in this town, three of them in fact. Each is very different in the way they operate yet all are founded on the same premise; to educate potential buyers to a level where they feel confident in purchasing contemporary art. Now, as an ex-art lecturer this sounds like an excellent idea. After all, anything that breaks down the barriers between the artwork and the audience has to be a good thing, right?

The object of these clubs is to introduce people to modern art in a manner that transforms them from befuddled appreciator to informed collector. They do this by providing informal evenings, usually in a gallery, where members sip wine, socialise with like minded art appreciators, chat with artists or gallery managers, hear informative talks by curators or educators, and enjoy intellectual and cultural stimulation. Along the way they learn which artists and styles are considered good investments. The only problem that I can see with this is how club members are learning only about the art preferences of each club's organizer while all other art forms and practitioners that do not fall within the particular parameters of the club, are dismissed as good but not really investment quality.

As noted above, we have three of these clubs in our fair city. One was started by an elite little group where entry is by invitation only; another is run by a commercial gallery and available to all comers; while the third originated with a collective of mid-career artists looking for support.

The Elite Club is flexible with its events but rigid about who may participate. It commenced when a curator of a prestigious private art collection gave a talk in an up-market gallery to invited guests gleaned from the gallery's clientele. It soon evolved into a private club where members are required to; 1) attend a certain number of scheduled lecture evenings per annum, 2) purchase at least one major art piece a year, and 3) be able to validate their choice by noting its artistic and financial significance at the Club's annual dinner and exhibition of members' purchases night. Membership was initially limited to two years, on the assumption that is sufficient time to become confident enough to join the ranks of the "informed art collectors" brigade. But turnover is minimal and seven years after its inception most of the founding members continue to participate and screen newcomers.

The more recently created Gallery Club uses membership fees to assist its artist-in-residence program and purchase new works from a select list of local artists, which go into a lottery draw. An unlimited membership is opened each year and for their annual fee members receive; 1) discounts on purchases made at the gallery, 2) access to the studio of the resident artist at appointed times, 3) invitations to informal evenings for informative talks, and 4) a chance to "win" one of the purchased artworks at an annual gala night. The club is in its third year but numbers are dwindling, a fourth year could be doubtful.

These two commercial collectors' clubs grew from a concept formulated by an art collective about a dozen years ago. Eight, forty-something, mid-career artists found their market was being squeezed between the demand for work by the young rising stars and the old established doyens. To survive they devised a unique plan. The group sells "subscriptions" at a set price to a limited number of "subscribers". The total amount collected is sufficient to support one artist for one year so s/he can concentrate totally on making art. At the end of the year, each subscriber receives one original painting and a folio of limited edition prints produced by the selected artist. About six times during the year, subscribers are invited to the artist's studio for either afternoon tea or a coffee evening, to chat with the artist (and others in the collective), view and discuss developing artwork, and generally socialise. At the end of the year, at an informal get-together, subscribers receive their art package and a new subscription list is opened with the naming of the next artist recipient. Subscriptions are available to anyone who can pay the amount, and close when monies pledged equal projected expenses. Each one of the artists in the initial collective has had their turn, now other mid-career artists are being invited to participate.

In the beginning, the accusation "incestuous" was thrown at this group's idea, and they agreed. After all, the reason to start the subscription club was to help their friends, and they did. It's not surprising that other, similarly motivated, groups would evolve albeit toward slightly different ends. In the beginning, the two offspring groups were accused of "commercialism" and they agreed. They're in it for the money, they are business people. Yet all three clubs provide satisfaction to their members, who learn about the processes of making art, the workings of the art world, and receive a proven investment as the artists whose works are purchased are all well established practitioners.

On paper the collector club is seen as an ideal concept; in practice it an effective form of select promotion and selling where artists and galleries reap the benefits and fee paying members get value for money. All three art collectors' clubs are about nurturing informed art buyers in the hope of maintaining financial viability in the art world. Although two were motivated by commercial gains and the third as a survival tactic, all encourage cultural enrichment. I have no quarrel with any one of them; I just find it distressing the art world has been put in a position where they have to compete with chain stores and charities. Next it will be galleries and artists' collectives setting up call centres filled with young telemarketers making unsolicited phone calls at dinnertime.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writing on her website at (www.artseeninwa.com).
A collection of her articles which have appeared in Carolina Arts can be found at (www.CarolinaArts.com).

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