Contemporary Collecting

by Mark Calderwood

To the outside observer, the art world can seem impenetrable, a baffling combination of commerce, ideas and aesthetics detached from the everyday world. And for many, the art it trades in is just as perplexing, something strange and frightening that they are unable to understand.

And to be fair, the art world did gain a reputation for excess and lurid sensationalism during the heyday of postmodernism some 20 years ago, a period when convoluted academic theories ruled and artists being provocative and obscure was what mattered. Audiences were often left hopelessly adrift, and feeling rather hoodwinked.

But fortunately art isn’t what it used to be. Contemporary art has matured well past this phase to achieve a new sophistication and relevance that is proving appealing to private collectors. Collecting art is a uniquely rewarding experience that not only yields intellectual, social and perhaps financial dividends over years, but realises a desire to be involved in an exuberant industry. And those who collect contemporary art in particular, are people who move with the times and appreciate what’s interesting and new.

Contemporary art is dynamic, complex and breathtakingly diverse, and the art that has emerged since the turn of this century is marked by its well-considered engagement with the mentality, technology, aesthetics and philosophy of today. It is art that speaks to the experience of the present, and talks about old subjects in new ways.

But it is by no means simple, or even comfortable. The best contemporary art is even slightly unsettling: its role in society is to challenge our thinking.

For almost two decades, many of those changes have been led by Antipodean artists coming to grips with – and audaciously questioning – the attitudes that uniquely shape our culture. International critics now regard art produced in Australia and New Zealand to be the equal of contemporary art made anywhere in the world, and artists like Tracey Moffatt, Ricky Swallow and Francis Upritchard have found remarkable success overseas.

And collectors are responding, as the enduring strength of the art market amid choppy financial waters attests. Art dealers are not surprised. Owning art is no longer seen as something out of reach or elitist, but a savvy investment with unmistakable cachet. And once they start exploring contemporary art, potential investors are surprised how quickly they get hooked.

‘All kinds of people collect art, for a wide variety of reasons,’ says Roslyn Oxley, director of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and agent for some of the most prominent names in contemporary art including Bill Henson, Del Kathryn Barton and Tracey Moffatt.

She explains that some see collecting as an intellectual pursuit, a way of learning more about art, whereas for others, it reflects their appreciation of creativity and the desire to care for and promote important work. It can even be a trophy hunt, a confident boast of affluence, taste and style.

But as Oxley notes whatever their motivation, those who are drawn to cutting- edge art ‘appreciate the note of strength and clarity that contemporary works strike. They open up new avenues of thinking’.

Before leaping into the fray, art dealers advise seeing as much art as possible – in museums, commercial galleries and online – and there is a lot to take in.
Contemporary art comprises a breathtaking array of formats and techniques, with artists harnessing every medium from hand-refined oil pigments to digital technology that was unimaginable a decade ago. Art now not only means painting and sculpture, butalso photography, video and time-based art, installation, performance, interactive technologies – every possible avenue for creativity.

Nor do artists tie themselves to a single format. Some work consistently in a single discipline, such as Archibald prize-winning painter Ben Quilty whose distinctive oils have portrayed everything from crashed cars to soldiers in Afghanistan. Or the undisputed master of photography Bill Henson, who uses an ‘old’ painterly aesthetic to confront youth, sexuality, ageing, love and grief in an entirely contemporary way. But others like Patricia Piccinini range across the available media according to what expresses their ideas best. While best known for her hyperreal sculptures that explore a strange biology, her practice also spans painting, video, sound, installation and even recently, a hot air balloon.

Between auctions, international art fairs and biennales – and indecipherable jargon: digital intervention, altermodern, slow art, the new gothic – the art market can be a confusing place and experienced advice is essential.

Aspiring collectors should source work from leading commercial galleries that far from being intimidating or judgmental, ensure that seeing art is accessible and enjoyable while maintaining rigorous standards. Top galleries carefully select the artists they represent and show only the best works by those artists. Many also offer valuation services for their investors’ art portfolios.

‘No one would invest tens of thousands in the stock market without consulting a broker,’ says Martin Browne, director of Martin Browne Contemporary. ‘And the same goes for art. A gallerist can share their in-depth knowledge of the art world and offer their professional opinion to steer you towards work with strong criteria.’

Like most art dealers, Browne advises new buyers to take it slow, and build a quality collection rather than a large one.

‘Choosing art that represents quality takes time, education and experience. See what is out there that appeals to your taste and budget. It’s like learning to appreciate fine food and wine. There are no shortcuts, it just takes a lot of tasting.

‘Most people develop a discerning eye quite quickly, because once they start looking at contemporary art, responding to it, and thinking about it, they understand why they are drawn to certain genres and start to buy with greater sureness and direction. And before they know it, they’ve caught the bug to collect.’

Browne believes contemporary artists offer a way of seeing that is sometimes startling, but rewarding. He especially admires Linde Ivimey, who since her debut exhibition in 2003, has gained international recognition with her innocently macabre, totem-like sculptures in fibre, feathers and bones. ‘It’s unlike anything else in contemporary art. It looks at things you would normally skip away from, in a way that completely holds you.’

It pays to ask hard questions, especially if collecting with an eye to investment as well as pleasure.

‘Collectors need to plan for the long term and understand the market,’ says William Nuttall, director of Niagara Galleries. ‘Short-term collecting does not give artists time to mature or for their work to become known and rarely returns the investment,’ he says.

He also cautions against buying according to trends. ‘As soon as something is declared to be hot, it’s already over. And you’re left at the mercy of the market. But if you have collected works that will build in significance, you will be in a better position to make a profit and get a great deal of satisfaction along the way.’


A well-established profile and strong exhibition history is a good indicator of an artist’s calibre, and often the key to substantial returns. Shaun Gladwell, globally acclaimed at the 2009 Venice Biennale for his haunting video suite Maddestmaximvs – planets and stars, is a prime example. Prior to the Biennale, Gladwell made headlines when his poetic work Storm Sequence fetched an unprecedented price for a video artwork when auctioned at Sotheby’s.

Simeon Kronenberg, director of Anna Schwartz Gallery Sydney, reassures that even ephemeral works like performance or digital media are highly collectible. ‘They are not straightforward art objects like a painting, but formats such as limited edition DVDs or stills are produced for private collectors,’ he says.

While art is certainly an investment, dealers agree that collecting isn’t about the money. The rewards art offers every day go far beyond simple financial returns. Indeed, the best and most valuable collections are built by people so passionate about their art they would never dream of selling.

‘Contemporary art stimulates you intellectually, it raises questions to mull over and talk about,’ says William Nuttall. ‘It gives you an emotional connection and a deep-seated sense of solace and restoration.’

One noted collector is even more succinct. ‘Don’t buy what the market tells you to. When you close the front door, it’s just you, and the things you really love. You can’t put a value on that.’

It’s an important distinction that building a collection is not simply purchasing on a piece-by-piece basis. A mature collection is a coherent whole, greater than the sum of its parts, that relates with authority to each of the works and to the collector, and builds a story while prompting reactions and emotions.

Eminent collectors Brian and Dr Gene Sherman blend eclectic tastes with just such a methodical approach, focusing on contemporary art from Australia and the Asia Pacific – with a few ‘oddities’ – in their 800-strong collection that includes paintings and photographic prints by Mike Parr, Savandhary Vongpoothorn and Lily Kelly Napangardi, porcelain busts by Ah Xian and fruit delicately sculpted in salt by Ken and Julia Yonetani.

Often, this coherence is an unconscious rather than a deliberate process, and Wellington-based collectors and philanthropists Jim Barr and Mary Barr revel in the complete freedom that private collecting affords. While selecting art freely, the Barrs maintain a single-minded focus for each artist they gather into their fold, including Michael Parekowhai and Hany Armanious.

Increasingly, art held in private collections is becoming more important to the wider discourse of contemporary art. Jim and Mary Barr habitually lend substantial portions of their idiosyncratic collection, helping public institutions ‘plug the gaps’ and make their own holdings more substantial. In fact, they feel that private philanthropy can galvanise and supplement a public sector, struggling with low acquisition budgets.

‘Private collectors have always shaped institutional collections,’ Jim Barr says. ‘Public art museums tend to live in a world of their own, but collectors can take some risks, be open to experiment, and be willing to break the rules. That is where private collectors lead the way.’

Published Il Tridente, Winter