Advice From The Pros On How To Start Collecting Art

Entering the art market can be scary. It’s one thing to pick up a cheap print that catches your eye at a gallery, but what if you’re looking to make a personal investment as well as brighten up your home? Where to even start? Gemma Rolls-Bentley and Legacy Russell have each worked in the art world for 10 years. The London-based duo currently works at Artsy, the world’s largest online database of contemporary art. It’s basically a huge index that allows you to see where a famous artwork is, scope out works to buy, or just learn more about what different artists around the world are up to. On a professional level, Gemma and Legacy have worked with galleries to negotiate sales with both collectors and first-time buyers, but, personally, they also both purchase art. This makes them the perfect women to speak to about how to collect art affordably and make good investments.
We asked them where to start when you’ve little to no knowledge of the art market and are buying on a budget. Hi guys. So to start with, how did you get into the art world?
Gemma: I grew up going to museums and galleries with my grandmother so from an early age I think I appreciated the value of art and knew it was something I wanted to be close to. At university I originally studied maths and A.I. but switched my degree midway to art history. While studying I curated an exhibition of work by fellow students, which got me hooked on working with artists. I applied for a place at the Courtauld Institute of Art where I completed an MA and have been immersed in the art world ever since. As well as Artsy I’ve worked as a curator and am the a trustee of an arts charity called Deptford X. Legacy: I’m from the East Village in New York, so was very fortunate to be born into a community of great artists. I remember spending my years as a little person going with my mother to see people like Sandra Bernhardt, Karen Finley and Patti Smith performing at various venues downtown. When I got a bit older, I got a job working at B.Bar and Grill for Beige, where I first encountered Sophia Lamar and other queer downtown nightlife idols. My first proper job in the art world was eons away from those club days, though – I started my training by jumping into the deep end, with a Fellowship at The Metropolitan Museum of Art while in college. When I graduated I started at The Whitney Museum. The rest is history, as they say!
A question I’ve always had is: what’s the difference between buying and collecting art?
Legacy: I think buying art can be done by anyone; collecting art however, is an art form in itself. It requires a real commitment to honing one’s tastes, shaping an aesthetic and tone in terms of the objectives of a larger collection, and in many ways, taking on a role as influencer and tastemaker within a larger art market. It’s also about being a devoted patron to an artist; a truly dedicated collector can play a big role in shaping the direction of an artist’s career. Gemma: Being a collector is definitely about supporting an artist’s practice. You might sell an artwork later but when you bought it you contributed to the artist’s development in some way. I think that can apply to secondary market purchases too – the collector shapes an artist’s market.
Why do you think it’s important to make collecting more accessible?
Legacy: Ultimately, art belongs to the people; it plays an important social function in holding a mirror up to who we are, and the worlds we operate within. Artsy aims to “make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection”, so with my work I get to collaborate with some of the best galleries in the world and bring those exhibition programmes to a new audience, and one that extends beyond the local. That is so important to me, that process of discovery... making the experience open to anyone. Gemma: Definitely. Everyone should have the chance to live with art, and the democratisation of the art world is long overdue. I know so many people that would love to own art but simply don’t know where to start, many believing that there’s no place for them in the art world. Even some of my friends that have already bought art feel fraudulent calling themselves a collector. Artsy’s platform makes art from all around the world accessible to everyone with an internet connection and it empowers a new generation of collectors. The more people that own and live with art, the more people are able to participate in the conversations, reflections and explorations that art creates space for. Has there ever been a time when you found the idea of buying work daunting yourself?
Legacy: Of course! The art world often is misunderstood as a place that is not for everyone. It’s good to work against that and for those who are interested in learning more to know that there are so many resources which can help. It can be an intimidating experience going into a gallery and trying to figure out all the rituals therein, as well as knowing how to ask the right questions. Gemma: Absolutely. Attending my first auction while interning at Sotheby’s I discovered a fast-paced world where everyone seemed to know what to do – but then I yawned, put my hand in the air, and nearly placed a bid on a £65k Giacometti sculpture. Fortunately for the new collector today, there are many resources available to make the process of buying art and building a collection more accessible. Artsy Editorial produces content aimed at demystifying those areas of the art world that can feel daunting, whether that’s buying at auction or collecting video art.
How can women get started?
Gemma: Women can get started in the same way as anyone else! I know lots of young women that are building great collections, many of whom put some money away each month in order to make one or two art purchases a year. Some female collectors might take inspiration from Valeria Napoleone, who tries to redress the gender imbalance in the art world by exclusively collecting art by women artists. The number of female artists featured in museum shows, gallery exhibitions, public commissions and private & public collections is still significantly less than male artists. If you actively seek art by female artists in order to learn about and support their practice, you are actively acknowledging that female artists face challenges than their male counterparts simply don’t face. Legacy: I agree. Art history is filled with examples of patronage between men. These men have maintained their hold on future-building by creating forums for their own kind, and excluding others – women, people of colour, queer people – from those platforms. It’s therefore important to become a stakeholder in reshaping and redirecting that history, for women to create new opportunities for other women, and as well make space for identities that extend beyond the heteronormative. Collecting in itself can be a feminist action. For beginners, kick off with Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, or Griselda Pollock’s “Feminist Interventions in Art’s Histories”. And check out the upcoming Guerrilla Girls presentation at Whitechapel Gallery! How do you know if something you're buying is a good investment?
Legacy: Investment should always be secondary to one’s instinctual connection with the work at hand. Gemma: Yes, if you like the work enough I’d argue that it’s always a good investment! But if you are thinking about the longevity of an artist's success and the growth of their market, I would recommend staying up to date with an artist's exhibition participation - is their work appearing at Biennales, being exhibited at public institutions or being acquired and exhibited by significant private collections? Once an artist's work enters the secondary market realm, keeping an eye on auction results is a good indicator of the strength of their market. It's also worth thinking about the type of work that you buy from a particular artist and where it sits in their oeuvre – is it from an iconic series, does it represent an important stylistic moment or did it feature in a key exhibition, for example.
Where's the best place to shop for art if your price range is under £1000?
Legacy: There are some fantastic institutions in the U.K. that have brilliant editions programmes—The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, for example, or if you’re thinking about London, I’d say Studio Voltaire, ICA, and Whitechapel all offer a diverse selection of artworks and artists. Editions are a great way to get a better sense of the market and the movers and shakers within it, without necessarily breaking the bank. There are many galleries that feature a portfolio of editions as central to their programme as well. Every year in London there’s The London Original Print Fair, which is a great place to visit many galleries all at once who are dealing in editions. There’s also OFFPRINT that takes place yearly at the Tate Modern which is a favourite of mine as well. Gemma: Prints and editions are a great place to start; buying editioned work can be a great way to collect pieces by high profile artists whose name you are familiar with. Lots of commercial galleries produce editions by the artists that they represent and many institutions, like those mentioned by Legacy, will produce an edition on the occasion of a blockbuster solo show, making it possible for more people to own work by an artist whose work they already know and love but couldn’t ordinarily afford. However, it’s also possible to buy unique artworks for under £1000. Many galleries, particularly those working with emerging artists, offer work within that price bracket and there are currently 7000+ artworks on Artsy available for less than £1000.
What should we do if we're not sure what our tastes are, but we want something that hangs on our wall and not in storage?
Legacy: I think experiencing new art, artists, and art movements is the best way to learn your own preferences. Gemma: That’s definitely the best way to begin to understand your tastes. Visiting galleries and museums and then researching and reading about the work that you’re interested in is a great way of learning about different mediums, movements and styles. I would also recommend visiting art fairs. It can be a full on experience, but you get to see a lot of art by a broad spectrum of artists all in one place.
Have you ever sold a work of your own? Or are you too emotionally attached?
Legacy: All the art I have in my home has a story that accompanies it; at this stage I couldn’t imagine parting with any of them, as that history is too meaningful to me. Gemma: No. All of the art that I own is special and I love living with it. And finally, where should we start if we want to sell something?
Legacy: On Artsy! Excitingly, we’ve just debuted consignments on the platform, which means that now collectors who have work they are interested in selling can go ahead and, with help from our specialists, explore having artworks placed at galleries or auction houses. Artsy is excited to collaborate with Whitechapel and its First Futures programme for a young collector party, taking place at the end of October. And keep up with coverage of Frieze over on

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