The collecting journey

  • Categories: Blog
  • Date: 17th March 2013
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To collect is a given; what to collect is the question. Once you’ve worked this out, the journey can begin……

If you are interested in contemporary art, or would like to be more interested in contemporary art, then this is the year to work all of that out, to take the plunge and commit. Opportunities abound over the next few months for the novice and experienced collectors alike to further knowledge, fine tune and expand their collections.



First up is Art Month Sydney ie art in March – which is currently in full swing. It is art at every turn: see, hear, play explore and collect. Exhibitions, tours, talks, dinners, drinks – every dealer and artist in town is vying for your attention.

5 of the group of 6 collectors featured in Collectors’ Space, 1 wishes to remain anonymous Art Month Sydney 2013

5 of the group of 6 collectors featured in Collectors’ Space,
1 wishes to remain anonymous
Art Month Sydney 2013

Buying art is a core focus of Art Month, though its not about buying the one piece for above the couch but encouraging the art of collecting.

The pop-up Art Month exhibition at CAS Sydney, Collector’s Space is worth checking out for inspiration. It is a series of rooms, each dedicated to an edited precis from the prized collections of 6 Sydney-based collectors. There are some really fabulous pieces here which, in this context, give an insight into how some people live with art in their homes. Videos, installations, big paintings, small sculptures – each room reflects the confidence these individuals have developed in their knowledge and taste, to buy some very interesting work.

CAS Sydney is a great venue, quite raw and informal – down a laneway, off Kent St – and lends itself well to this type of one-off event. Owned by featured collector Dr Clinton Ng, it has been the site of some interesting projects, including the  pop-up Arndt Berlin Gallery last year. Arndt Berlin brought 33 international artists such as Joseph Beuys, Gilbert and George, Sophie Calle, Georg Baselitz, Thomas Hirschhorn and Bill Viola to Sydney, for Sydney audiences to relish. So accessible, very little fanfare. Even John McDonald SMH art critic “was astonished by the range of this selection, and [he is] not easily astonished.” (quote, unquote)

David Noonan Untitled 2012
silkscreen on linen collage, 214 x 304cm
Image courtesy the artist and Xavier Hufkens Gallery, Brussels

Ng has been at the forefront of arranging these events. This suggests to me that, as with many sophisticated collectors, Ng has embraced collecting as a diverse and enriching experience which is more than simply owning a work, but has also become about sharing the experience.

Alexander Seton Dancing baby 2008
marble, caesarstone, hardwood 145 x 75 x 116cm
image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf Fine Art

Ng possessions are highly prized: the David Noonan is breathtakingly beautiful; there is a large, arresting Daniel Boyd, still wrapped in bubble wrap – ready for loan; a slightly unnerving marble sculpture by Alex Seton; and two recent works from the sell-out first solo show of Clara Adolphus at MICK Gallery in Paddington. 
The point is: here is a seasoned collector who seeks out quality from all corners of the globe (see the labels), be it at the top end or entry level price bracket. He is not following the institutions or the fashionista, rather treading his own path, with a discerning, increasingly acute, eye.

Clara Adolphus First day 2012
oil on canvas 38 x 61cm
image courtesy the artist

The packing materials props in each room – purpose-built crates, bubble wrap and video cases –  got in the way of really seeing the works. I guess these extra props gave a sense of the potential for the hard yakka a great work can be subjected to. It may not be meant for lazing around on a living room wall. Quality works owned by private collectors are highly sought after as loans for exhibitions.  And, given the rawness of the space, I imagine the associated packaging assisted with protecting the pieces. But I would have preferred no distractions.
Let me just go back to the bit about a keen and discerning eye. 
Collecting (contemporary) art is like collecting anything: it takes time, patience, depth of knowledge, confidence, an openness of mind, a willingness to explore and take risks, and, yes of course, money. It need not be vast sums of money but it requires a disposable income of some sort. You can join the cogniscenti without forking out a non-existent fortune and still have food on the table and a roof over your head. Many of the great collections began with few dollars, with works paid off over a period of time.

Nicole Ellis various from 2012Cotton, linen, metallic fabric, acrylic paint, backed and mounted on wood
image courtesy the artist and James Dorahy Project Space

Most dealers of contemporary art will acknowledge that their bread & butter is in the price category below $5,000. Take for instance James Dorahy Project Space: you would be hard pressed to spend more than that on a single item in his space. The work is good, interesting, intriguing, engaging with ideas of its time and place in the world. Dorahy is committed to nurturing long lasting careers for his artists, who are beyond the initial emerging stage but not quite at mid career. His artists are increasingly sought after by collectors and institutions. In a few years time, these works will be priced above the $5,000 mark when they will have earned that right.  Nicole Ellis, an artist he represents, is featured in Collector’s Space (a work owned by collector Michael Hobbs). 

Greedy Hen The secret level 2011
digital pigment print on watercolour rag, 42 x 59.5 cm
image courtesy the artists and Chalk Horse Gallery, Sydney

Amy Griffiths’ works featured in Collector’s Space exemplify the less expensive, but interesting approach. Unique beauty and quality need not cost the earth. A die-hard fan of Elvis paraphernalia, Griffiths also seeks out artworks by emerging Australian artists: the Greedy Hen duo (see my Xmas 2012 “an artful xmas” blog) and a couple of fabulous felt collages by Loretta Riley, a Gumbaynggirr artist from the Nambucca Vallery who was introduced to felting by Swiss artist Margrit Rickenbach
Collector’s Space is on until March 24.
Similar modesty, I think, is found in the story of Bronius (Bob) Sredersas, a Lithuanian migrant who came to Australia under the ‘Displaced Persons’ scheme, post WWII. He arrived, on his own, with a single suitcase. He found work in the steelworks in Wollongong and lived a modest, quiet life until 1976, when he was robbed. It was then that he decided to offer his (by then) substantial collection of Australian art (think from Chevalier to Gleeson) and Chinese artefacts to the City of Wollongong. This was the catalyst for the Council to commit to a Gallery and establish the Wollongong City Gallery, now a key player in the network of small public galleries in regional Australia. Sredersas died in 1982, with no known relatives but his name, generosity and story live on in the Sredersas Gallery, the main exhibition space in Wollongong City Gallery
The story goes, apparently, that each weekend, obviously in search of something more than Wollongong could offer, he would travel to Sydney to visit art galleries. He established a friendship with Frank Watters and Geoff Legge of Watters Gallery and bought extensively from them, on his weekly steelworkers wage. It is a great story about a thirst for knowledge meeting with two luminaries in the art world who nurtured a passion. 
What I think is also particularly interesting, is that Sredersas must have wholeheartedly embraced his new home, to the extent that he committed himself to its culture and history – both of which would have been completely foreign.  If you know more of the Sredersas story, please leave a comment.
I only have to mention 3 collections – MONA, White Rabbit and the Kaldor Collection – for you to understand the potential for an individual’s private passion to have a significant impact on the way a community sees itself (Hobart is no longer a forgotten city on a lonely isle, but a major international destination)Modesty plays no part in these ambitious mega collections which have shifted the landscape of Australian art museums with a jolt.

David Noonan 2012 exhibition
installation view Xavier Hufkens Gallery, Brussels
image courtesy the artist and Xavier Hufkens Gallery 
David Noonan 2012 exhibition
installation view Xavier Hufkens Gallery, Brussels
image courtesy the artist and Xavier Hufkens Gallery

So, back to Art Month’s Collector’s Space: Ng’s David Noonan, an Australian artist living and working out of London, was bought from Xavier Hufkens Gallery in Brussels. Apparently there were none to be had here so Ng took his search global. That is not the norm – Noonan is represented here in Australia – but it shows the extent to which people will hunt down a key work by a significant artist. 
Dick Quan is the same – his room of goodies is way downstairs. Only a tiny snippet from Dick Quan‘s extensive collection is on show in Collector’s Space. Quan seems to be equally passionate about travelling and collecting, confirmed by the artworks (and hotel slippers) presented. I’m sure there are many dealers overseas whose introduction to the Australian art scene has been through the travelling collector such as Quan and Ng (Nielsen, White Rabbit; Walsh, MONA & Kaldor). Australian collectors regularly visit international art fairs, exhibitions and events, to look, consider, learn about and buy new artists, thereby making deep and enduring connections with a very broad range of artists, dealers, curators as well as other collectors. 

installation view Art Hong Kong 2012

Several hundred Australians went to the Hong Kong Art Fair in 2012, on top of the approx 15 Australian galleries selected to take part. One can only assume that more will follow this year, at which they will be welcomed by the Art Basel group, which has taken over the management of this relatively recent and very successful Fair. From HK, many will take the short hop to the Venice Biennale Vernissage celebrations, before heading up to Basel for more. They will be feted as VIPs, offered special access and tailored programmes of extra delights (think visits to studios and special collections, dinners, talks, drinks etc) offered exclusively to them, all of which only strengthen the access, the knowledge and drive for more.

Simryn Gill  Inland (detail) 2009
cibachrome and black & white photographs 13 x 13 cm each
image courtesy of the artist and Breenspace, Sydney
Simryn Gill will represent Australia in the Australian Pavilion at
55th Venice Biennale 2013
Sam Jinks Untitled 2012
silicone, pigment, resin, human hair
36 x 36 x 18cm, edition of 3 + 2AP
image courtesy the artist and Sullivan & Strumpf Fine Art
Sam Jinks will be included inPersonal Structures: Time, Space, Existence
a collateral event of the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, held at the Palazzo Bembo
and curated by Global Art Affairs Foundation

New for Sydney in 2013 is Sydney Contemporary art fair (not the first art fair in Sydney but possibly the first one with gravitas). Now under the expert guiding eye of Barry Keldoulis, it will open in September at CarriageWorks. Keldoulis knows more about collecting art and participating in art fairs than most of us, as Founder and Director of GBK.
Sydney Contemporary is a serious commercial enterprise and has great ambitions for cementing itself as the go-to fair in the southern hemisphere. Already it has enticed several leading international galleries to come, set up shop and show their wares to a broader public. In part seduced by the sunny climes of the Antipodes but more realistically no doubt, lured by a founder with an international network and reputation (Tim Etchells), the strong Aussie dollar and the introductions already made to Australian collectors. With these galleries come other international collectors, people who will be just as keen to find a footing in and explore a different art scene. 
Surely the flow on effect across the Australian art world has great potential.  

But before you get carried away with international travel and ideas for architectural monuments to house your collection, come back to the basics, to the most important factors which I believe are:
– who you buy from – get started with any gallery which is a member of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association (ACGA), an organisation committed to “creating ethics, expertise and excellence in the visual arts.” 
– find yourself an independent advisor who can help you steer your way through the labyrinth of galleries, artists and artworks (and by that, I don’t mean an interior designer who is hell bent on finding any ol’ thing that matches the couch – a recurring theme…). 
– consider the artist’s exhibition history, collecting history (bought by any public institutions?), critical history. 
– look, look, and look again; talk to people, listen, question and learn. James Dorahy tells a great story about a client of his who initially visited his gallery over 12 months, looking, talking, considering, asking questions; just looking, not buying. Once he’d done his homework, he started shopping. His discipline and patience paid off for himself, the artists and the dealer who now all enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship.
– go to as many Art Month events, this year and next, as your diary allows. 
Be curious, bold, challenge yourself and step outside your comfort zone; have the confidence to commit ie get out your cheque book. Negotiate with the dealer if you’d prefer to lay-by the work. But most of all, you have to like the work, love it at best, to enjoy it, savour it, connect with it and be inspired by it. 
Life is meant to be interesting and meaningful and art offers an interesting, meaningful life. 

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