Have a Taste For Contemporary Art?

Tips On How To Start A Collection

by Laura Lester, Principal, Lester Fine Art

Jumping into the vast and nuanced contemporary art market as a new collector can be intimidating! I have spent the last 15 years of my career advising art collectors on what to purchase and how to enjoy collecting, in my roles as an auction house specialist, gallery director,Bend Sinister, 2002 by Cecily Brown and now as a private art advisor. I evaluate artworks on my client’s behalf for aesthetic, market and art historical value as well as teach them how to hone their eye. 

 I always tell brand-new clients to spend plenty of time just looking at art, with no pressure or objective to purchase. Visit galleries, museums, and art fairs at home and while traveling. Start learning about what you respond to innately, and what you dislike, which is equally as important to learning your own aesthetic! I still do this, and keep a notebook as well as 100s of categorized iPhone notes about artists I’ve seen. Viewing art in person is so vital; some conceptual artworks or installations cannot be appreciated unless Nice to See you Again, 1996 by Yoshitomo Naraseen in the round. I think it is wonderful that so much can be viewed and discovered readily online now, but there really is no substitute for an in-person viewing especially while you’re getting comfortable looking and evaluating. 

I also recommend picking up a few books on the history of art— the most successful artists look backwards, and an understanding of art history adds another layer of enjoyment to the looking experience. The Story of Art by E.H. Gombrich was first published in 1950 and it stands the test of time- it is an excellent survey of Western art from ancient to modern times, and while a broad overview, it is a truly engaging read. Michael Shnayerson’s Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art is a fantastic account of our current madcap contemporary market. I just pre-ordered Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men- I can’t wait to read it! 

When making your first purchase, dip your toe in with a budget that makes you feel comfortable. Do a bit of research on the artist you’re considering– what is their biography? Do they have an exhibition history, forthcoming shows, or an auction record? Are they supported by a gallery or dealer with a good reputation? If it’s a secondary market (previously owned or historical) work,Boat People, 2016 Genieve Figgis what is the condition and provenance? This information helps you form a more rounded picture of what you’re acquiring. Never think of art as an investment alone, but ensure that the price you’re paying is justified.

Most importantly, buy what you love and what will fit your home and lifestyle. Art should appeal to the head and heart. Hire a professional art handler to assist with installation, and confer with the gallery or artist about framing. After a few weeks or months of living with your first acquisition, if it has enhanced your life- and sparked curiosity and joy- collecting has done its job! Now it’s time to get back out there and discover- and perhaps acquire!- more. 

Artworks pictured top to bottom:
Bend Sinister, 2002 oil on canvas 48×48 in by Cecily Brown
Nice To See You Again, 1996 acrylic on canvas 70 3/4 x 59 in by Yoshitomo Nara
Boat People, 2016 acrylic on canvas 59×59 in by Genieve Figgis