Insights on how to start collecting art, approach artists and galleries and make the right choices from Arena Martinez and Frank Krikhaar from their conversation with Viennese art historian Katharina Zimmer at Young Collectors Talk at the viennacontemporary 2016.
First encounter with contemporary art
Frank Krikhaar: There is absolutely nothing to do with art in my day-to-day life. I don’t work in the art sector. I’m not an artist. I didn’t grow up in a family home full of art. It’s all very new to me. I was born in Amsterdam. I’ve now been living in London for the last 15 years. I work partly in an advertising industry, which is very visual but has not much to do with art. About five years ago I started to think about how I could educate myself about contemporary art, as I’ve always been interested in art but unfortunately couldn’t understand contemporary art. My journey to knowledge started when I joined and became a patron of the Whitechapel Gallery in London. At that time I wasn’t thinking about buying any art, I just wanted to understand what was on the walls. But since collecting is kind of like a disease, a virus you get from the people around you, the artists that you meet. I slowly started to buy my first pieces around 4 years ago. And I now have a small collection of about 25 pieces that I’ve collected over the last years.
Arena Martinez: I’m still a university student (graduating this year). I consider myself very lucky as I was born within a family of art lovers, from a very early age I was surrounded by art. At the beginning I didn’t really understand it, nor appreciated it as much as I should have. My father always told me this anecdote about me going for the first time for a sleep over. When he came to pick me up and asked how was my friend’s house? I was like: “it was great, but there are no paintings in the house”. I guess from that moment I started to realize it wasn’t normal to live surrounded by art. I think it was about when I turned 16-17 that I started telling my father that I really wanted to understand and learn what all these paintings are about. I began going to fairs with him and reading about art. I was about 18 when I started collecting with my father, so we started taking decisions together. I learned a lot from him as we went to the fairs and different auctions so I could see how it works. That was my introduction to the art world.
The first artwork
Frank: I’ve never had a moment when I thought “and now I’m going to become a collector”. So the first artwork I bought… There was a UK-based artist who does a lot of performances and one of them he did in the Whitechapel gallery.
When I started to meet the artists and build a relationship with them, was when I thought you know what, I’d like to have something of these artists on the wall, in my house, in my possession. Did I think at that time I’m going to be a collector from now on? No I didn’t think so. One of my friends always says if you have art in your house you are never really alone, because you have a lot of friends around you that you get to know over the years. And I think this is one of the reasons I started to buy art — I wanted to own a piece by this or that artist, so I have a piece of my friend right here in my house. I also wanted to support the artists. I don’t buy any established artists. I’m only working with emerging artists, and try to support their practice and who they are. That became the second driver for collecting. I never had a collection in mind.
Arena: I will explain a bit about the collection first. One of the themes of the collection we have at home is the painting itself. We have a bit of sculpture. We have a bit of video but not much. It is mostly concentrated on the painting in two dimensions. Once I was walking in Turin with a few friends and I saw this painting in a gallery, which was not hanging on a wall but sitting on a floor. I found it really interesting because it was black and I didn’t really understand it, it caught me. So I got in front of the painting, took it and moved around it a bit and saw that the actual painting was on the other side, and that’s why it couldn’t be hung. I thought it was interesting because it was kind of breaking the two-dimension kind of work that we usually have in the collection. I asked for some information about the artist, called my father, asked for his opinion and we ended up buying it. And I think this is how you should approach buying an artwork. Your instinct takes you to the painting and you have to love it because at the end of the day you’re going to have to live with it forever.
I think there is a difference between collecting and buying art. You can also buy art just for investment. But when you collect you actually build something. You are linking one piece to the other. It’s actually like being an artist because you are expressing yourself throughout your collection. Like an artist expresses himself in the painting, a collector expresses himself through a collection. I feel that is a process of learning, and also about supporting the artists. For example, we usually have more than one piece from one artist. We try to support the artist.
Frank: I think on the top of my list would probably be working with the galleries themselves. That is my number one source that I go to for information, new artists, and new works. I built a relationship with number of gallerists with emerging spaces in London. I try to go to their openings and follow their artists. Over time one figures out what he or she likes. After 5 years of collecting I still find a fair like fairly scary and daunting. There is so much to look at, all of which I have never seen before, and I would like to understand the artist, the context, etc. That is too much to do in one-two-three days. For me the galleries play the key role in sorting out the information, but I think it’s really important, right from the beginning, to know you’ll never know everything. You have to do something and try to change that. So for me it is, I have a number of subscriptions to Frieze, Art Review, Apollo, and that’s a way to get a lot more information when you are not in a gallery or not at an art fair like here.
Arena: I enjoy going to galleries and auctions. But I find something really interesting about fairs, it has a great atmosphere to learn and to buy because the works are extremely selected.
From my point of view, it is really important to broaden your environment and discover new pieces and artists. People tend to buy only what they see, not what they want to buy. If you always go to the same three galleries you will probably always end up buying the same artists. It is important to extend your environment and get to know as many people as possible, move around, have a bigger network and end up buying what you love and really want to buy, which is a fantastic feeling.
Approach to the collection theme and focus on emerging artists
Frank: I suppose the number one reason is the money really. I can’t afford Rembrandt or Picasso. But I wouldn’t want to buy them even if I could afford it. I would like to know the person who has made the artwork. To me the contact with an artist is incredibly important. That is the only rule in my collection — as long as the artist is alive, it’s fine. No dead people, please. Other than that there are no rules in my collection. I don’t buy art because it fits over the sofa or the colors go really well with the carpet.
Everything I bought was through meeting artists that are active in London today.
And that has brought together a really interesting mix of people. It includes video art, sculpture, digital art and all kinds of weird materials that I’ve never seen at home before. There might be not a single line or a topic, but it reflects the time I’ve been living in. I think that is one of the most exciting things about collecting. That you are working, right now, with history in the making that is not history yet but will be in 30 or 40 years.
I’m not going to say I will only collect women artists from Barcelona with one eye, that’s just too narrow. I would like to be open for everything that comes along. But I tend to buy more works from the same artist. I think there is the difference between Arena and myself. I think Arena has a fantastic collection with key pieces by everyone, whereas I’m sitting here with bags and bags of the same people basically.
Arena: I agree with Frank. When you look back at the collection, that’s when you find the themes and realize what your interests are. I guess when you start collecting from zero, you don’t really know, you start buying what you like and then you look bad and realize what your interests are. Our collection, basically, covers a bit of 80’s, the 90’s until today. As I said before, the main theme is the two-dimensional piece. We really like the painting itself. We have some conceptual art, but I personally don’t understand it that much so I wouldn’t really get into something that I don’t understand much. But we do have some conceptual artists who work on canvas, and we do have some interest in artists who express themselves through language. I also really like pieces by artists who work with mirrors. It brings something from inside of you, making you physically be in the artwork. And I’m really interested in the destruction of the painting as a new way of abstraction. Our collection is mostly based on abstract expressionism.
How to deal with lack of space
Arena: We do have a bit of a problem with the space, so we have a few pieces in storage. I would love to have them on a wall, but that’s just not possible, we’d have to buy another apartment. But as Frank said in the beginning, collecting is a bit of an addiction, once you start you really can’t stop. You find places where to put it. What is important is the harmony. I’d rather have pieces in storage then just all over the wall.
Frank: I’m not quite there yet with the 500 pieces, so I don’t have to put anything in storage just yet. But I do like to shake it up every now and then and do a re-hang little. What I also do is that I give some of the art to my friends if they really like something we have on the walls. As long as it’s ensured, I’m really happy it’s over there. And that is actually a great way of spreading the art a little bit to other people and sharing it with them. I’m definitely running out of space soon, and I try to not put anything in storage. But I don’t think I will sell anything at this point, so the only thing I can think of is either the ceiling or moving to a bigger house.
Which medium to start with when buying art
Frank: If you want to take your first step and buy your first work, you shouldn’t think that it has to be a painting or it has to be a sculpture. Video art is great too, because it’s just on a usb-stick, you should just remember which one is for work and which one is the art works, otherwise you’re doomed. So my tip would be not to worry about the format, not to worry about the medium, it’s just not about whether it’s painting or sculpture, what you really need to find is that piece of work that gives you the butterflies and the artist that you really, really like.
Arena: I completely agree with Frank. You should just buy whatever you like. I think you should educate yourself within the art world and make your own taste. This is how you have a great collection. It is something personal.
How to feel the pricing in the art world
Frank: I think after five years I still don’t really know what is reasonable and what is not. I see everything in the context of my budget. I can afford everything within the 4ooo Pounds range. That is a natural limit. That’s number one. Number two is I bring a lot of friends along that are not in the art world and if I can’t explain to them why it is worth that money and they say well it’s just absolutely ridiculous that is a good indication for me that maybe I’m too swept away by the prestigious gallery or the fantastic artist. I would advise when you go to a gallery, an art fair, or a museum to go with a friend. Because if you can’t explain, if you can’t share the work to someone then clearly you’re not getting it. And I the third one is, is to adopt the Northern European Dutch blindness about the money and just ask about how much does this cost. Just ask for the price list. If you don’t want to do it in the gallery then ask for a card and email them this question. If you want to be a collector and you do it for the love of art, then sometimes we might pay a little bit more money. We are not doing it for the investment and return. We are doing it for the love of the work and for the artist. I am not aware how much my art is worth altogether at the moment, I wouldn’t know if I overpaid for some of them. If we’ve bought something and after 5 years later out of 10 pieces one is more expensive, then you can see the market is confirming it. That makes you feel quite nice. You think: “hey, I’ve been very lucky, I love this work and clearly other people agree with me”. But that’s only one piece out of ten. The rest is the same. Or, you know if a burglar would break into the house wouldn’t steel your art because it’s not worth any money. Or they don’t know.
Arena: I believe quality and price don’t always go together. There are so many good things that cost nothing and so many bad things that cost a lot. Everyone believes that to buy art you must have a lot of money, but as I said before, if you educate yourself and set your budget you can still find very good emerging artists, who might become really big in the future, or not, but in the end you do it for yourself to have them in your house. So you can buy really good pieces for no budget or whatever your budget is.
How to learn and educate yourself about art
Arena: Nowadays on the Internet there are so many resources, you can go to Artnews, Artsy, get information about artists, the art world, and what’s also important; you can educate yourself by reading, but also going to museums, galleries, fairs.
Frank: From my point of view, what I wouldn’t do – I wouldn’t go and study art history. I wouldn’t pay Christie’s or Sotheby’s thousands of euros to learn in the evening the theory of art or how to become a collector. Don’t spend your money on that. I’ve never studied art history, neither Arena.
One thing I recommend is to download Instagram, but don’t follow the artists, you’d just go insane because they’re insane, you have no idea what they’re putting on. But there might be some people you know here in Vienna that you really respect — It might be the director of the Secession, or the curator at the Leopold museum – follow them, and you will probably go to the same exhibitions, to the same galleries as them. What have they put on their Instagram? What have they shared? And what do you think of that? Do you think that’s nice? Or do you think it’s rubbish? For me that is quite interesting. I will go away from this fair with two or three things I have taken a picture of and I will share on Instagram. What have the people who are accomplished in the art world shared from viennacontemporary? What did they think was really, really good? And the last thing I would do is I would go to, if it’s possible, are the graduation shows of students at art academies. Those are two my tips of what not to do and two tips of what to do.
Arena: I really agree with Frank. It’s very important to find somebody who is an art lover, who is really passionate about art and can teach you the way, because the art world is changing every day and it’s an ongoing process of learning, no matter how much of an experienced collector you are you have to update yourself and keep on learning every single day. So it’s really important for somebody who wants to get into the art world to meet somebody, kind of mentor – maybe a gallerist, or a curator, somebody who’s passionate about art.
Click here to see video record of other talks from viennacontemporary 2016.