Why I collect emerging artists

Byrma Braham, Gallery Director, Avisca Fine Art Gallery

(Black Art In America archives, originally published 2/1/2011)

I often get the question. “Who are the artists that you collect?” In many instances my answer is met with either a somewhat blank stare or a mildly quizzical look.  You see, I mostly collect works of emerging or middle rank artists, not necessarily the household names, nor for that matter the popularly known. My motivation touches on the practical, the altruistic and a quest for adventure (I’ll get to those later), but mostly it just feels so right for me.  As most of my associates and peers tend to collect and chase after those artists who are in the top tiers of historical importance on the secondary market or at auctions, I often feel like I’m bucking the trend scouting young talent.  Don’t get me wrong, there is much to be said for acquiring works of dead masters or mature artists: their historical significance cannot be diminished and our debt to them cannot be overstated.  Their works are the life-sustaining repository of history – cultural, socio-political, and art history.  They, indeed, are the ‘influencers’ and mentors to the generation that follows them.  Not to mention their solid investment value and potential. And who doesn’t get a little high on the prestige that comes from collecting masters’ works.

For me, though, my eye and heart invariably are drawn to the ‘nowness’, the newness and the freshness of contemporary and emerging artists, to art that reflects the present. I am drawn to the fearless experimentation with formal aspects, the inventive use of materials, the vast creative inquiries that have exploded their art-making pursuits beyond the mere act of painting. I look for smart and intellectually challenging work with a conceptual leaning. But before I get carried away any further, I must issue the caveat that emerging art per se does not necessarily embody all these characteristics. Let’s face it, some of our young artists are more than direct heirs to the artistic traditions of the past, they are slaves to it, bringing no new perspective to what has gone before. Then there are the market pressures that have lured many younger artists to thinking about developing a signature style, to producing a pre-defined product rather than letting their artistic identity come through hard, sustained work, creative thinking, and experimentation.

It goes without saying that building a quality collection of emerging artists is not without its pitfalls. It is sometimes hard to put your finger on the pulse of the contemporary art world; it is hard to project a young artist’s future path; and it is challenging to figure out the real value of work that has not stood the test of time.

Still, I think I can make a strong case for embracing the work of young talent and newly emerging artists. Consider these advantages and (yes, the practical, altruistic and the thrilling) benefits of collecting newer artists:

Affordability. Well, mostly. I’m sure we’ve all had our ‘you must be kidding’ moments looking at the price stickers on work by some of our young talent. Yes, we are in the era of art as commodity. And if we’re going to be honest, we have to acknowledge that price is sometimes used to make statements about self-worth and may not necessarily reflect the real value of a work. Yet, relatively speaking, if we can separate the hype from the talent and side-step the fads, we can find the best values in this segment of the market.

We support the artist’s career. The building of an artist’s career is a process and we participate in that process by supporting and acquiring work by that artist.

We build our own artistic legacy. Most of us know the story of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, he a postal worker, she a librarian, who amassed an amazing collection of modern art in their one bedroom apartment by buying small pieces by relatively unknown abstract expressionist artists, many of whom went on to become renowned. Today most of the 4000 –odd works in their collection are being distributed by the National gallery to museums in fifty states.

The thrill and adventure. What could be more exhilarating and self-affirming than following one’s own eye and taste in discovering a future star or master.

We collect work that speaks to ‘our time’.  Artists of this generation invariably reflect and respond to the mood and spirit of our times. They are in tune with contemporary culture and movements and, especially for younger collectors, our experiences and sensibility will more closely align with the work we buy. For many of us who are a little older, ‘fresh’ work can take us someplace we have never been before.

We can establish a personal connection with the artist. I often listen to stories from clients and older friends of visiting with ‘Romy’ at his Canal Street studio, or hanging out with ‘Ernie’ at gallery openings in Brooklyn. We have the opportunity to make our own stories.

So, really, most of us simply buy art that we love and all of this may be irrelevant. But it’s hard to ignore quality concerns and the investment potential of the art we buy, even when it’s not our main consideration. Or at least we want to feel that we’re getting good value. Much has been written and said about how to collect art, on this site and elsewhere, and many of the considerations hold true for collecting work by contemporary and emerging artists. The key here is to exercise our eye for we are assuming more of the role of critic. For me, the overarching question is whether the artist is saying something unique (or giving a new perspective on something familiar) in an imaginative, aesthetically pleasing, and technically competent way and do I connect with the work or with the artist’s passion.  And there is nothing wrong with demanding hard, honest, creative and passion-driven work from our young artists in exchange for our hard-earned money and loyal support.

What do you think?