Art: On collecting contemporary art

28 January 2021
Art: Justine Asprey; contemporary sculpture
26 January 2021
Destinations: Botswana, Desert & Delta Safaris
14 February 2021

On collecting contemporary art


Misunderstanding as to how the art world works and about where the best art can be found is widespread.


T here are in fact multiple art worlds. Like a Venn diagram these worlds are related and sometimes connected, but they offer surprisingly different art.

One world that we are familiar with involves the outraged headlines and extraordinary prices of multi-million-dollar auction results, but this is as relevant to most of us as the sale of Hollywood mansions.

Another art world is found in the sheer volume of mediocre or derivative art pushed at fairs and by some galleries. There are many such galleries, of all size and status, which offer work that's really just furniture or decoration. These galleries often pretend the art is more significant than it is, frequently making these poor offerings very expensive.

They make fantastic claims as to the quality, but the artists will never be seen in a museum, or receive critical acclaim, or be an investment. No matter how impressive the gallery space, or how well turned out the staff, the work is not good, and time will bear this out. A diamond encrusted celebrity portrait is never going to be any more than simply an overpriced bauble.

Time and knowledge are required to be an astute collector and it is easy to make mistakes when there is so much art about and so many unscrupulous galleries pushing their wares.

However, for those with the time to look, or the inclination to be guided, then underneath the world of Instagram mediocrity and high street decoration lies a world of intelligent and thoughtful contemporary art which is both affordable and enlightening.

There are artists working in studios across the world who are making intelligent, progressive work that stands a very good chance of finding its way into public collections and eventually the history books.

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Sean Steadman, Installation view: 1,000,000,000,000 @ Project Native Informant, London, 2020

Supporting and collecting these artists, those who are emerging or brilliant, but under the radar, is incredibly worthwhile. Firstly, this kind of patronage and support has a long and venerable cultural history and is mutually and socially beneficial.

You’re not just giving money to struggling artists, you are buying the best available contemporary work from artists who are yet to gain full recognition and helping support them at the same time.


A diamond encrusted celebrity portrait is never going to be any more than an overpriced bauble


Secondly, each time you buy their work, add it to collections and enable them to make more work, you are increasing their profile, thereby causing the very thing that both you and they want. Artworks and artists partly gain their credibility through the collections they're held in and the exhibitions that they are part of. It improves the works provenance. If you wish to raise the profile of an artist that you are invested in, then enabling them to create more work and show in more exhibitions is invaluable.

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Jane Hayes Greenwood working on her painting, Self Assembly for the Caitlin Prize 2016

Thirdly, there has been a considerable amount of positive research suggesting that art in the home or workplace (currently the same place for many of us) increases creativity, efficiency and productivity.

If there is even a small percentage increase in productivity, then a modest investment in art is clearly hugely beneficial.

What is particularly interesting is how the kind of work displayed effects the conversations that are fostered. A lot of art that finds its way onto our walls is not truly contemporary. It is derivative, aping aesthetics, processes or techniques from decades past. Real contemporary art involves an ongoing discussion that is related to and reflective of contemporary culture. It engages the world around us and how we see it - helping us to see things afresh. To paraphrase the American artist Jasper Johns, it clashes two flinty ideas together, causing a spark, and then seeing becomes thinking.

If the work you’re living with is what might have been contemporary decades ago then the benefits of seeing that work will be less. Contemporary art is not ‘art that is made now’ – it is art that is made now that understands its place in history and addresses the world around it. Living with searching and experimental art broadens your thinking and understanding – it encourages thought and conversation.

With an open mind and good guidance, the rewards of collecting are enormous. For no more than you would spend on a sofa, you can begin to build an intelligent collection that you can leave to your children. Whether the artists are emerging or recognised, a good art advisor can lead you straight to those credible artists who most closely match your needs.

Those who are willing to be guided and learn and take those first steps into this art world, as collectors and investors, find it is an endlessly fascinating and rewarding place.

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