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The inside track on how to collect works of contemporary art
A very few human impulses are probably as personal in nature and as mysterious in their in-built process as the inclination to collect something. However, the valuable advice on the subject comes from famous collector and financier, John Pierpont Morgan, who states: “Whatever you opt to collect, simply go for the hundred best examples, and then you stop.”

And as straightforward and simpler the strategy may seem, more difficult it is to put into practice. This though, is indeed a sensible approach since, as any collector will state, stopping is the trickiest step to take of the whole process of collecting. And then what about those, who posses limited resources and wish to understand not how and when to stop, but where to begin!

The contraction of the art market worldwide during the last couple of years doesn't fully erase the bitter memory of the spectacular and speculative rise in prices (by over 80% in a decade from 1995 and 2006), of the insatiable public appetite for zooming contemporary art market, over the earlier two decades, and the most recent fall, making the investors understandably a bit wary. This is exactly where some orientation can be very handy to see through the ups and downs. Keeping the fragile investor sentiment in mind, London based Whitechapel Art Gallery has conceptualized a comprehensive course, which it terms ‘the inside track on how to collect works of contemporary art.’

Unveiled in preparation for the prestigious Frieze Art Fair, the first edition of this profound exercise was apparently aimed at genuine art lovers. The inaugural session drew 20 of them, forming a varied bunch of professionals from different walks of life. Summing up the sentiment, a news report in The Wall Street Journal pointed out: “The prevailing financial climate sure has winnowed out the ranks of bankers probably hoping that their hefty bonuses might kick-start an art collection to rival that of Saatchi. This is just as well, for if there’s one consistent piece of advice almost everyone addressing the course offers the aspiring students, it is to purchase what you fall in love with, and not to focus too much on the potential or lure of financial return.”

The Whitechapel Gallery for over a century has premiered several world-class artists from modern masters, such as Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock, to contemporaries like Lucien Freud, Mark Wallinger and Sophie Calle. Regarding a new 5-part course to state, the website mentions: “It gives the inside track on collecting, giving an overview of art from the 1960s to the present day. The small group will meet internationally renowned artists, learn from some of the most respected collectors in the world and then put theory into practice.”

Incidentally, the renowned London gallery has also been promoting contemporary art and artists from India in acknowledgement of their rising stature. A recent landmark exhibition, entitled ‘Where Three Dreams Cross’ at the London venue, gave an insightful view of how modern India along with Pakistan and Bangladesh, have been shaped through the lens of their photographers. Renowned curator Kirsty Ogg closely associated with the gallery took part in Art Expo India last year. In an insightful talk session at the event, she discussed contemporary Indian art from a global perspective. According to her, ‘the representation of Indian art has been gaining in prominence internationally, and not just on a commercial level. Artists have been appearing in prestigious exhibitions and events. So there's a high visibility and awareness about Indian art.’ Her personal advice to collectors is: “Just because your work sells, it's not necessarily good. You hope it sells to a good collector who takes care of it. Work quickly sold by a collector can undermine an artist's career. In fact, people start thinking whether the work is good or not.”

Several art experts and artists invited by the gallery spoke about the intricacies of collecting art. "It's not merely a transaction," remarked sculptor Owen Bullett. Artist Doug White echoed to add: "You are often willing to offer more to someone who keenly engages with your practice." David Batchelor revealed having experienced a similarly fruitful relationship with the corporate world. The director of the Hales Gallery, Paul Hedges, explained that physical considerations matter. The first query he would pose is: "How much space have you got?" His other suggestion to aspiring clients is: "Film has no storage issues and is interesting and often cheap."

Many doubts and queries were raised during an insightful discussion with collector Dominic Palfreyman. A former investment banker and the founder of the Felix Trust for Art, he is an avid collector of drawings, paintings, prints, and photographs. He noted: "I think living with your works of art is very different from seeing them in exhibits or museums. You need things that you're happy to look at all day, each day, every day. And so the art I collect is a very small slice of that I like." His observations summed up the crux of the whole exercise on the process of collecting. The message it offered was simple and clear: “Buy what you love and learn to put financial considerations aside, and you will ultimately get the returns.”

We in India too, probably need few such informal exchanges and deliberations that will nudge both aspiring and even serious collectors towards appreciating and buying quality art.