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Starting an Art Collection Crib Sheet

The June 1st AGO Next event on ‘Starting an Art Collection’ was a hit, leaving the audience hungry for more. We received several requests for a follow-up communication that captures the highlights of the information and resources that were touched on. We went back to our panelists to ask them for their personal responses to a series of questions designed to articulate what they feel is most important for those wanting to develop an art collection.

Notes from our panel:

Ed Pien, Artist & Collector

Daniel Faria, Director & Co-Founder, Clark & Faria Gallery

Sophie Hackett, Assistant Curator of Photography, AGO

Bill Clarke, Collector & Arts Writer

Notes from Ed Pien, Artist & Collector:

What advice do you have for someone looking to cultivate an appreciation for art or a “good eye”?

There’s no magic formula…it takes work
Visit galleries, talk to the gallery attendant, read the wall panels, do follow up research via books, newspaper reviews, publications or on the internet. Talk to the art dealers if you are in a commercial gallery. Your sense of what is good and bad as well as your own taste will develop over time. What you must first strive to learn/realize is to be confident and comfortable engaging with art so that you don’t shy away from works that, at first encounter, might seem alien or baffling.

Engage with artists
Artists aren’t some rare species – they are actually quite approachable and want to talk about their work. I encourage you to go to different artist and curator talks in order to get to know more about the works from the actual source. The AGO has excellent talks and so does The Power Plant and U of T.

Engage with the work
Your personal interpretation of what the work is about is equally as valid as the artist's and other people's view of it. The art work, as Marcel Duchamp has stated, is completed only when it is being engaged by the viewer. So with that thought in mind, I would encourage you to go and experience art with a friend so you can discuss the work together. Dialogue and sharing thoughts about art works will, without doubt, add richness to your art experience.

Notes from Daniel Faria, Director & Co-Founder, Clark & Faria Gallery:

What galleries, magazines and resources would you recommend to people wanting to become better informed on art and artists?

Gallery Going
For public galleries, of course check out the AGO, but also check out The Power Plant and MoCCA for contemporary work. Their public openings are always packed with interesting people. Also visit the ICC at the ROM and local artist run centres like Mercer Union and YYZ. These centres often show really cutting edge emerging artists that have not yet received the attention of bigger institutions. Don't forget to Google artists you see in museums that peak your interest. You can learn more about them by visiting the website of their commercial gallery. Artists that are being shown in these institutions should definitely be on your radar…and are usually worthy of collecting!

There are great commercial galleries all over the city. Hot spots are, of course, the Distillery District, Tecumseth between Queen and Niagara, Queen Street West and Ossington, Dundas Street West and Yorkville for the slightly more established galleries. Plan an afternoon of visiting a few galleries in one neighbourhood while out for brunch or shopping. Galleries will often have their openings on the same night, so plan to hit a few openings (and have a few drinks) in one evening. Artists are usually present at the openings, and there is always a colourful cast of people.

Visit a few spaces and you'll start to sense which galleries you connect with aesthetically. Meet the gallerist / dealer and don't be afraid to ask questions. Ask if museums are collecting and exhibiting the work. Is the artist reviewed in publications? Also ask to see what other works they have in their inventory in the back room. Gallerists are happy to answer questions and talk about their artists. They are passionate about what they do and love to share that passion. If you go in on a busy Saturday, you might ask if you can set up an appointment and come back at a more convenient time.

Reading List
Check out Saturday's Globe and Mail to see what has been reviewed and visit the exhibition to see if you agree with what has been written. The Toronto Star, National Post, Now and Eye all have weekly reviews and listings of openings.

Subscribe to national magazines like Canadian Art, Border Crossings and C Magazine to read more extensive articles and reviews from past exhibitions and look at ads for upcoming shows. Canadian Art also has a fantastic website with weekly emails that outline openings and exhibitions that should not be missed. I spend my Sundays flipping through Artforum, Art News, Modern Painters, etc. to keep up with what is going on internationally. The ads alone serve to give a sense of the international scene and then you can visit websites to see new work and exhibitions abroad.

Art Fairs
During the talk, I forgot to mention visiting Art Fairs, especially Art Toronto, that happen every year in the fall. You can see over 150 galleries in one visit. (AGO Next note: Watch for upcoming details on a special offer for AGO Next members to get involved with Art Toronto). The Armory in New York, Art Basel Miami, Frieze in London and Art Basel in Switzerland are the main Art Fairs on the international level. All the major galleries participate in these fairs.

Notes from Sophie Hackett, Assistant Curator of Photography, AGO:

At the AGO Next event, you illustrated that there is great opportunity and value in collecting historical photography. Where do you suggest we go to find it?

In addition to the local galleries that sell historical material, like Stephen Bulger Gallery and Corkin Gallery, there are also a few good private dealers. Ask to be on their mailing lists and they’ll let you know about any exhibitions they participate in and when they get new inventory:

Camera Lucida (Ross Winter and David Moore)

Steven Evans Vintage Photography

Neil MacDonald

The Photographic Historical Society of Canada, based here in Toronto, also regularly hosts photographic fairs, which are great places to dig for old cameras, books and, of course, photographs.

Is it possible to collect historical photography on a shoestring budget?

For a few hundred dollars – and sometimes even less – it is easy to find compelling photographs in great condition. If you can spend $750 - $2,000, you can often acquire something historically significant by an acknowledged figure in the field. Works by unknown photographers (and there are many) are generally less expensive than those by known makers. The people listed above are all extremely knowledgeable about the history of photography and are great guides. Ask lots of questions, and don’t be deterred by low prices – there are some great photographs available for a steal!

Any pointers in terms of conservation considerations for photography?

The things that most affect the condition of any photographic work (historical or contemporary) – and works on papers for that matter – are temperature fluctuations, humidity levels and light exposure. To assure the long life of your works, make sure that you protect them from excessive amounts of any of these. For example, if you want to hang a work on a wall that faces outside, make sure that this wall is properly insulated and that is isn’t overly exposed to the elements which could raise or lower the temperature drastically over the course of a day. Avoid hanging anything in your bathroom – the humidity generated by showers and baths could create condensation inside an artwork’s frame, which could create mold. And, any photographs that get direct sunlight for extended periods will fade over time, especially colour photographs.

The same goes for any works you may be storing long-term: make sure to store them in dry, cool places (ie. the basement is often not the best option).

Notes from Bill Clarke, Collector & Arts Writer:

What do you suggest to get started?

The first thing to do is educate yourself. This isn't as difficult as people often think. There are numerous publications out there in print (Canadian Art, C Magazine, Border Crossings) and online (like the one I'm the editor of, Magenta Magazine, and blogs such as View On Canadian Art). Or, you can just plunge right in and start doing the rounds of the galleries on your own to see what is out there. (You can go to Canadian Art's website, which has a directory of most of the galleries across Canada if you want to look something up.) Those who consider art to be an investment should look at artists' CVs, which will contain their exhibition histories and info such as where their work has been written about. In a way, this is like looking at a 'consumer report' for a car or a refrigerator. It is always a good sign when an artist's CV contains 'upcoming exhibitions'.

Having an "Oh my god. I love that," response to a work is really important. That way, if a work doesn't appreciate in value, at least you've got something that you'll always enjoy possessing. When you first start out, you have to accept that your initial purchases probably will not be the works on your walls 10 years from now. With time, your eye and taste will become refined and you will gain confidence in what you feel constitutes a 'good' drawing or painting. Confidence about your taste in art is similar to having confidence in what you wear out into the world.

You’re a great example of someone who is developing quite a remarkable collection on a modest budget. Can you share some advice on how to collect art in a way that is affordable?

There are a number of galleries, such as Show & Tell and LE Gallery on Dundas St. West at Ossington, and Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects on Queen St. West that, I think, have art and prices that speak to the younger, somewhat more budget-conscious collector. But, affordable works can sometimes even be found at the higher end galleries. For example, a painter you really like who shows at Georgia Scherman Projects or Clark + Faria may also do works on paper, or they may produce prints or multiples. There are also places like Art Metropole (on King St. at Tecumseth) and Paul + Wendy Projects (online) that specialize in artists' prints, books and multiples. There are a lot of options to explore beyond traditional paintings and sculpture.

Auctions are also a good way to educate yourself and, sometimes, acquire art more cheaply than you would at a gallery. There are a number of auctions that take place around the city, like the C-Magazine and Hunter & Cook magazine auctions, which usually have work by more emerging, affordable artists, and then there are more upscale ones, like Casey House's Art with Heart auction. Even if you don't go to the auction, all of these events put their auction catalogues online, so you can look at them there, see names of artists, what their work looks like, and get a sense of prices (because there will be estimates on the works in the catalogues). These auctions are compiled by people who are 'in the know' (curators, magazine editors, writers, collectors), so you know that you're looking at artists who may have some longevity.

Are art prices negotiable?

When you make your first purchase with a dealer, expect to pay full price. I don’t recommend asking for a discount as it will start your relationship off on an awkward foot. If you want to pursue collecting seriously, you need to work at building strong relationships with art dealers. However, you may be able to negotiate a payment plan, which can be very flexible. By paying for the work over a reasonable amount of time, you will build trust with dealers, and a number of benefits will start to come your way. For example, you might start to gain access to the work of an artist you really like before official openings and thereby have the opportunity to purchase one of the best pieces before anyone else. Once a track record for purchasing work is set, there is the "friend of the gallery" discount that will eventually come your way. It is usually about 10 percent off, but this is something you have to earn.

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