Start Your Own Art Collection – Advice from our Urban Art Curator

We talked to the art fair curator and director of the renowned OPEN WALLS Gallery in Berlin, Guillaume Trotin, about what is it that makes art, how to recognize good art galleries and what art collectors should pay attention to.

What distinguishes art from pure decoration?
Art is considered a visual object with no functional purpose except to be admired and contemplated as an aesthetic object, while decoration is also visual and aesthetically pleasing, but serve a useful function such as furniture, tableware, textiles, etc.

‘Art’ originated from the Latin word ‘artem’ (ars) which meant “work of art; practical skill; a business, craft.” The concept that ‘art’ means ‘skill’ continues to this day, which contributes to the ongoing debates regarding modern and contemporary art and discussions about what constitutes art. Art is made by artists and exhibited in art galleries and museums. Art may consist of paintings, sculptures, drawings, printmaking, photography, performance, installation, sound art, ephemeral and conceptual art, digital and video art. The definition of Art is always changing. For example, today many people consider Andy Warhol’s silkscreened Brillo Boxes as art, and Italian artist Piero Manzoni’s Merde Artiste (where the artist canned his own fecal matter) as works of fine art.

Is good contemporary art always innovative?
That is a matter of taste. I personally think so, but again this an opinion.

Is an artist’s CV important?
An artist CV is totally irrelevant for me. What matters is the form and the concept.

What do you advise newcomers who haven’t bought art yet?
Before we start getting into more detail, we should first make sure that a common misconception is taken out of the way: there are fundamental differences between buying art and collecting it. Buying art is more of a casual activity through which you acquire pieces based on nothing but your likes, preferences or attractions at that particular moment. There is nothing preordained about it and you do not have anything planned for the piece in a long run, it just happened and you enjoyed the moment, bought the piece and took it home. Collecting art, however, is a whole other field with its own principles where almost everything is different, except that initial enjoyment of owning a new piece.

By definition, art collections are purposefully directed as long-term commitments through which you gather works that are somehow interlinked and assemble them in a way that tells their mutual story. In other words, an art collector must be able to choose each individual work in such a way as to form meaningful groupings.

Regardless of what your goal as an art collector is, whether it be a serious commitment or a recreational hobby, there are strategies that will help you function at a better level and maximize both the quality and value of your collection, as well as increase your personal satisfaction and appreciation of the art you gather. First of all, and this may sound a bit too cliche, accept that knowledge is power.

Where can you get information to find out more about art and artists?
Visit museums and galleries, watch documentary movies, read books – learning about art you collect is the most entertaining part of actually gathering it and without enjoying that process, why even do it at all?

Art fairs are also a great platform to get an overview of what is currently available in the market.

By getting acquainted with your targeted art, you additionally lower the risks of someone taking an advantage of your lack of information. Take this as a fair warning as the art scene can and will get rather dangerous for your pocket if you do not know what you are doing. However, keep in mind that regardless of how much you already know about what you collect, the educational process is an ongoing one and you should never stop searching for information. There is no such thing as an over-informed buyer.

How do you recognize a good gallery?
The most important galleries invent their own model. The best galleries also reflect the personality of their owner. Gallerists who are intellectual and reserved can be as successful as dealers who are outgoing and socially adept. What is important is for the gallery to embody a genuine personal vision.

The gallery that opens trying to emulate the most successful gallery of the previous decade will certainly not become as important as the gallery that pioneers a new neighborhood, find a new type of building or develops a fresh approach to the art experience.

Aggressive sales-people cannot make up for a lack of artistic vision. Galleries that inspire collectors often sell more than the galleries that pursue potential buyers with conventional sales strategies.

Last but not least, a good gallery has a consistent program.

What should you pay attention to doing your (first) purchase of art?
Before you even start considering collecting pieces of art, you must figure out your own motives for doing so. Basically, you need to decide what your goal will be, what you will be striving for. Is this a long-term commitment based on actual affection? Do you simply wish to find a few artworks to brighten up your study room or gather valuable pieces that have both the preferred visuals and the impressive price tag? Or are you hoping to make money from reselling the works on the art market? Regardless of what you motivation is, each of them requires a different game plan. If you wish to actually make money in the long run, I must warn and disappoint you that there is a reason why only a chosen few managed to succeed in this endeavor. It takes time, skill and luck with all three requirements being a necessity and not an option.

Can you buy good art with a small budget?
After making sure you are certain what the intent of your collection is, the next step is a bit of a dull one, at least if you fall anywhere on the lower half of the scale. You need to set a budget. If you are a millionaire or someone close to that status, then the sky is the limit and you will not only have most of the options available to you but also be lucky enough to have a virtually limitless number of trials and failures. However, if you are like most of us that have a limited budget, you might want to be realistic and set the bar a bit lower. You should consider starting with relatively cheap art, like the contemporary prints and multiples, and gradually work your way up from there. In the very beginning, make sure you buy stuff that you like and stay true to your tastes – this will enable you to enjoy the process as much as possible.

What would be your final piece of advice?
If you’re sure you will go down the path of an art collector, one last final advice is necessary – when a person starts collecting pieces of art, they immediately stop being an observer of the scene and become a part of it. They will deal with, buy, sell, trade, document and present the pieces that will eventually make their way into art history – the responsibility to handle them with care and accountability falls on the collectors.

By gathering pieces of Art, a collector is directly impacting the art scene and is effectively shaping it for the future – make sure to keep that in the back of your mind as you form and deal with your art collection. It’s undoubtedly fun and dynamic experience that can oftentimes be very rewarding, but art collecting is a process that is best approached with caution as disregarding rules can lead to rather risky situations for both the pieces and the one collecting them.