Patrons who collect art would likely characterize the process as capricious and emotion-driven: They may recount an experience in which their decision to purchase the work was made suddenly and on impulse as they toured a gallery or artist’s studio, describing a sort of ‘eureka’ moment that may frequently occur while shopping for shoes, but rarely does when purchasing artwork worth thousands and thousands of dollars.

The reality is a bit different. While the decision to collect art or purchase a particular work can often be speculative, most experienced collectors take their time identifying artists and upcoming gallery shows before making the decision to purchase a work. The collecting process can be emotion-based, to be sure – it’s important to wholly identify with and love the work – but most collectors, particularly those who are just starting out, don’t take the decision to collect art lightly.

Drawing up a playbook to learn to collect art is a valuable tool for both aspiring collectors, emerging artists and gallery professionals managing an art business. Whether you want to learn how to collect art, or you wish to leverage that knowledge and build a better marketing platform for generating sales of your work or your gallery’s work, understanding the basic tenets of art collecting can help develop a detailed roadmap for both selling and owning artwork.

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Collecting art begins with defining the mission and vision of your collection.

Recognizing that collecting art is inherently complex, a panel of experts gathered at Miami’s PRIMARY Projects last month to shed some light on the process. Hosted in partnership with the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, a new contemporary art institution being erected in Miami’s Design District neighborhood, the Art Collecting 101 panel welcomed artists, art entrepreneurs and aspiring collectors who wanted to deepen their understanding of the business. The panel welcomed Jimena Guijarro, an independent art consultant that specializes in Latin American art; Christina Gonzalez, one of the co-founders of PRIMARY Projects, one of Miami’s longest-established local galleries; and Valentina Garcia, a Latin American art specialist and Associate Vice President of Phillip’s Auction House.

Guijarro noted that most who wish to collect art are often hesitant to do so because they fear its unaffordable. In reality, there are varying price points and artistic disciplines that make art collecting totally accessible. “The decision to purchase a young, emerging artist means that you’re part of their success,” said Guijarro. “In a lot of ways, you’re doing your part to advance their career by collecting them in the first place.”

Naturally, determining whether or not the art you collect will have some sort of resale value in the future is a consideration for many starting to collect art. But almost all panelists agree that your decision to collect art – at least initially – shouldn’t be viewed as an investment strategy. Instead, young collectors should purchase first based on their tastes, while considering the potential artists have to develop fruitful art careers.

Define Your Vision to Collect Art

Before setting out on a mission to collect art, there are a variety of steps you can take to simplify the process. Setting clear-cut expectations for your collecting goal will also allow the creative professionals to provide better guidance.

To begin with, young collectors should determine what they want their collection to say about them. Whether that means a collector chooses to purchase artworks from a certain region or time frame – Russian artists working in the late 20th century, for example – or choosing to collect art that reflects a certain aesthetic taste or complements your home. “It’s important to find your own voice in this process,” said Garcia. “Investigate a movement, build a narrative, tell a story about your life with the work you collect.”

Part of building that narrative is determining which movements or works best represent your tastes. Gonzalez suggested getting out in your community to appreciate the type of work being made both locally and abroad. Visiting museums can give you a sense of the direction the art world is heading while spending time in your local galleries or artist-run institutions can help collectors draw an analysis as to some of the most interesting, exciting, or in-demand work.

Collectors should also determine who their partners will be in the process. Will they work with a gallery or an art consultant or similar art business? Will they purchase directly from an artist, or spend time scouting art fairs? Guijarro suggested that when shopping for artwork, a potential buyer should have a neutral third party coming along for the ride to act as a buffer between gallery or artist and collector. Your buffer can ask questions and provide a neutral opinion when determining whether to purchase an artwork – this can be a friend, or a significant other, or even an artist, who can provide outside knowledge of the complexity of the work and an analysis of the value of the work and the time it likely took to produce it.

Artist’s Career Potential

The panelists agreed that determining an artist’s potential for success within the art market will be a key factor when deciding whether to collect art. Take a look at the artist’s CV to have a better understanding of who they are as an artist: Where did the artist study? Has he or she had any solo shows? Have they participated in group shows? Have they completed a residency? Won any juried competitions? Has their work been featured in any press?

“Obviously, with a younger artist, their CV won’t be that long,” said Guijarro, “but that doesn’t necessarily you shouldn’t purchase their work.” Instead, panelists suggest you do your research – find artists whose careers have taken off, and look to which CV items they may have in common with your younger emerging artist. Figure out whether the residencies, museums, and galleries they’ve collaborated with are worth their weight.

In addition, take a critical look at the artist’s entire body of work. Is it evolving? Is the work reactionary and provocative? Would you determine that their entire body of work is consistent? Understanding how the artist might be growing into themselves is a useful way to determine whether or not they’ll continue to flourish, and ideally, you’ll want to spend some time appreciating that before making the decision to collect art.

The panelists also cautioned collectors against believing the hype if it seems that there’s simply too much chatter swirling around an artist. “It’s often easy to spot fads in art, and that’s when I would say you should be weary,” said Gonzalez. Instead, think about whether the artist is getting attention because of shock value, or whether his work is genuinely meaningful.

Finally, the panelists also noted that collectors can play a role in the success of an artist’s career. “Introduce the artist to your friends, talk about the work you collect in conversation, and be a part of their career,” said Guijarro.

Artists can also benefit from understanding these tips if used as a means of approaching their career. Artists should understand that collectors will look to their CVs and artist bios in an effort to determine whether or not the artist is marketable enough to acquire. Artists should take the time to thoughtfully craft their CVs and bios, consider which residencies are the most sought-after and significant, and spend some time reaching out to arts journalists in their community as a means of obtaining press placement. Invite gallerists and journalists to your studio, get involved with your local museums, and spend a good portion of your time researching artist residencies and other enrichment programs that can catapult your career. Get to know your collectors and form a relationship with them that encourages the promotion of your work.

Where Will You Purchase Art?

When embarking on a decision to collect art, determine where you’ll feel most comfortable doing so. Do you prefer to purchase from a gallery or an artist? Will you attend art fairs to determine what you want to buy? Or do you want to experience the thrill of purchasing at auction?

There are different types of strategies depending on where you want to buy. If a collector is going the gallery route, then they should take their time and cultivate a relationship with the gallery owner. Collectors should feel like their gallery advisors are approachable and have their best interests in mind.

“The ideal situation is one in which you aren’t afraid to ask questions, and have complete confidence and trust,” said Gonzalez. “People think we only care about the fee, but that’s simply not true. She adds that many galleries often organize walk-throughs of new shows, in an effort to help potential buyers have some deeper context of the work and the artist’s intention.

Purchasing at auction, on the other hand, means that the collector should have a pretty good handle on the art marketplace. “There’s more lead time, so you should already know the game and the facts about the artist and the work being sold,” said Garcia. Garcia cautioned that collectors should keep in mind that most artists at auction are often past the point of ’emerging’ and are likely mid-career, which means works at auction are often more expensive. On the flip side, that makes the artwork a safer investment bet.

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Art fairs offer an enhanced opportunity to negotiate.

One of the easiest ways to collect art is by visiting art fairs. Since they’re planned far in advance, collectors have plenty of lead time to determine which galleries will attend and whose work they’ll show. That means collectors often have plenty of time to research participating galleries and artists, which allows them to hone in on the work they’d like to collect and the price tag that usually accompanies it. Often times, fairs organize special tours through the fair, which also allows the collector to become acquainted with artists and works they may have overlooked.

In addition, art fairs offer a unique bargaining opportunity. Many collectors attend early on to determine what they like, and wait until the fair is about to close to make their offer. “If you wait until the end of the fair, there’s more room to negotiate,” said Guijarro.

It’s a good strategy, and one art business owners should consider, too. Pricing your work higher at the outset gives you more room to negotiate at the end. Of course, you’ll need to walk a fine line – you don’t want to scare a potential collector away with an outrageous price point. Art fairs are also a good opportunity to meet and network with new collectors, so take your time approaching unknown faces and don’t shy away from spending too much time with any one visitor. Often times, art business owners view art fairs as crunch time, and therefore spend most of the time chatting with “serious” collectors only. However, not giving a visitor a good amount of face time can mean the loss of a future buyer.

Who is Making the Decision to Buy?

The art market is inherently symbiotic, and collectors, gallerists, artists and other art business owners would do well to analyze how the strategies offered by this collecting panel can be applied to their own art business. Artists should take the time to craft their bios and CVs and make career decisions based on the likelihood that a certain move will offer big rewards. Collectors want to tell a story through the work they collect: Understand that telling your own story effectively will likely translate to a higher probability of success.

Galleries, in turn, need to be aware of what makes collectors feel engaged and encouraged to collect art. Take the time to answer questions, tow the line between forceful and firm when making sales, and consider a collector’s negotiation strategies when shopping at a fair.

The most important thing to remember throughout the process, though, is that it should be an immersive and highly personal experience. “Figure out what you like,” said Guijarro, “then get lots of good advice.”

Do you collect art? Run an art business? What’s your best advice for aspiring collectors?

Nicole Martinez
Nicole Martinez

Nicole is a veteran arts and culture journalist. Her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.

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