What Artists Need to Understand About Collecting by Cara Ober

“There’s something irresistible about art that is hard to get. Like love, it fuels desire.”

This quote is from a collector in the Art Basel chapter of Sarah Thornton’s book, ‘Seven Days in the Art World.’ Although prone to sensationalism, this book is required reading for any artist who wants to understand their own prospects for sales.

This year I have made a concerted effort to understand the weird, much maligned, and counter-intuitive amalgam that is the art market. This research has taken me outside my comfort zone to talk to self-identified art collectors from the Baltimore /Washington area.

My goal has not been to sell collectors on Baltimore artists, although I do think Baltimore has artists who can participate in a national dialogue, but ultimately, to figure out how to encourage an art market in Baltimore that reflects the interests and income levels of more of the general population – people who do not think of themselves as collectors. These people may be artists who want to support their colleagues, young professionals who are building a life in Baltimore, people who love art and attend openings, and the many folks who choose to buy designer clothes and appliances, but rarely consider buying original art.

Reactions to collecting in Baltimore ran the gamut – from bemused interest to disdain, from curiosity to heartfelt support. For the purposes of this article, I will discuss three types of collectors that I have identified in the Baltimore/Washington market and some conclusions I have drawn.

1. Blue Chip Collectors

The good news is there are a number of serious, museum quality collectors based in and around the Baltimore area, but the bad news is few of these “1%” collectors are interested in local art.

“Art is like baseball,” one collector said in a recent conversation. “Only the major league players get paid big bucks and the rest are amateurs.” I think this assumption is not unusual among collectors operating at a vey high level and has resonance in the general population as well.

When I press about ‘buying low, selling high,’ the same collector acknowledges, “There are minor league players who may be coming up, and you keep your eye on them and may want to invest in their careers at this point, but the rest of the world’s players, the vast majority, are hobbyists. Other people might want to own and live with that work, but I want the work I buy to be part of a national dialogue.”

In order to learn something, it’s important to listen and not judge, but after writing about Baltimore-based artists for over a decade, it’s difficult not to advocate for the great potential and talent available here at affordable prices. As an artist myself, I think it’s healthy to hear what high end collectors have to say, and to accept that my work and the work of my peers is not what they are looking for.

“I don’t buy art by Baltimore artists,” explained another locally based collector of museum quality works, “because there’s no guarantee that the value of their work, or their career, is going to rise. An artist doing well in New York or Berlin has a much better shot at becoming a big name and my investments are worth more.” Although he lives in Baltimore, this collector buys work at art fairs, New York galleries, and at auction. His collection boasts a number of big names from the past fifty years and loaning his works to museums is a source of pride for him.

When I press, as to why he doesn’t invest in some of Baltimore’s brightest art stars – and we have a Prix di Rome recipient, and a few Whitney Biennial and Venice Biennale participants in our midst, not exactly paltry accomplishments – he explains that a serious artist can base their practice in Baltimore, but they need a New York gallery if they are really going places and he would consider buying from that source.

From my perspective, it seems that representation from a handful of New York galleries offers a certain kind of validation for a certain kind of collector, but not much else. To me, this method of vetting artists seems arbitrary for most of us, but I also do not have thousands to spend on art and I will admit that I do not understand what goes into this type of decision.

When I ask why collectors choose certain works, they all reply that they LOVE the work and believe in the artist. No one cites investment strategy as their main reason and few even acknowledge that their investment in an artist’s career can be significant in helping to sustain and enhance the artist’s practice over time, effectively stimulating the very growth they desire to see.

For me, it’s frustrating to see serious collectors investing in careers that are already established, when their funding could go so much further in Baltimore – it could effectively establish the career of a Baltimore-based artist and bring it to the level of those in NY, but this type of investment is too risky for most. Please understand I hold no judgement over the decisions of  collectors; they support the careers of artists, which is great, but they operate out of a different world than I do.

2. Locavore Collectors

Not all the collectors I talked to avoid buying locally. In fact, there are a number of serious collectors, although more based in Washington than Baltimore, who purchase works exclusively or mostly from local artists and galleries. For this type of collector, buying locally is a source of pride and engagement with the local community, a way to participate in a scene and conversation in a meaningful way.

When they attend openings, these ‘locavore collectors’ are greeted warmly by all the artists and seem to know everyone – and not just in a superficial way, that people want them to buy their work. It’s more that their support is appreciated and has earned them a place in the community. Although their investments may be more modest than blue chip collectors, this type of collector buys more art than they have wall space for. They are much loved, local celebrities in the art world.

3. Potential Collectors 

From conversations with those who collect from a variety of sources, I have found many who purchase art in Miami, New York, Los Angeles, but said they would love to buy more in Baltimore. However, most expressed frustration in finding a variety of art venues from which to buy and connecting with local artists in Baltimore. They claim it is difficult to find the art they want in an arts community that is insular and based in warehouses and out-of-the-way studios in neighborhoods which can be unsafe and unmarked.

What can you and I do to create a local art economy?

I would love to suggest a simple solution to this problem, as it seems that there are many collectors who would like to buy art locally and a treasure trove of Baltimore-based artists who make national caliber art and have CV’s to prove it. However, this problem is complicated and requires many small steps and a fundamental change in our local culture concerning who collects art and why.

I know a number of local artists who think a robust art market is fine for other cities, but feel that Baltimore should exist without one. They believe that serious artists should ship their art elsewhere if they want sales. I think this view is backwards and see any direct investment into local artists and galleries as a win for everyone who lives here.

We have a few great initiatives that have recently begun, like the Station North Art CSA and SNIP Card that encourage local buying and collecting. We have new galleries popping up that sell affordable work that all of us can buy – and if we want these galleries to stay, we need to pony up and support them by actually buy the work they’re selling, even if it’s just a print or small work on paper for a hundred bucks.

I am encouraged by the opening of Strongbox, a new space to purchase locally made fine art and craft, as well as XOL and Randall Scott, both galleries who recently relocated from DC. I think the BMA Print Fair, the Prints and Multiples Fair, as well as the Alternative Art Fair at Artscape both created great opportunities to buy excellent local art. Alloverstreet has done an amazing job organizing a walkable art crawl with printed materials – an accessible way for newbies to participate. And this year, the amount of local holiday craft fairs was unprecedented, pointing to a growing movement of artists working together to create environments where their work can be purchased.

It’s important to remind ourselves: we should all support local venues with our presence but this doesn’t pay their rent. We need to actively support these businesses by buying. As artists we are the majority of this ecosystem – we can become our own collectors. We can invest in the careers of Baltimore-based artists and do our part to develop a local economy around the arts.

In addition to supporting local venues, artists need to make an effort to invite non-artists to our studios and our exhibits. Our family and friends are our first supporters and their input and networks should be cultivated and encouraged. As artists, we need to remind ourselves that our work is valuable in ways we cannot understand and it is our job to make it accessible to an audience that appreciates it.

I recently helped to orchestrate a modest studio tour with Match Contemporary in Station North for potential collectors and I feel like efforts like this – informal, fun, and designed to create connections between individuals – will have a residual effect over time.

Conclusions:

Insane auction prices and blue chip collectors may garner headlines that make 99% of the art world seem like deluded children playing Candyland, but I assure you this is not the case. Do not buy into this stereotype. The art market is not a zero-sum game.

Museum quality collectors will remain out of the league of most artists and this is perfectly okay. Our work still exists to enrich the lives of those who want to live with it in a number of different ways. We may choose purposefully for our work to participate in a regional or local dialogue, instead of one that is international, and there is nothing wrong with that. Just as local food garners local pride, it’s my goal that local artists create the same kind of buzz, existing in local residences and businesses.

For a certain type of collector, local artists may seem like hobbyists or amateurs, but, rather than denigrating one practice over another, the majority of us – the artists – need to recognize that different work functions in different markets and we need to respect them equally.

The responsibility in developing a local art market rests not on galleries, but with each individual artist. Like our rent, food, electric bill, and clothing, we need to realize that purchasing original significantly enriches our lives. My suggestion is to set aside a modest monthly sum that is to be used exclusively for local art. Save up for the piece you want, put something on layaway, or buy a small work on paper – just make a conscious effort to do it.

If we all reach outside our comfort zone even a tiny bit, Baltimore-based artists will receive more of the investment needed in nurturing their careers to the next level.

Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt.

* Quotes have been paraphrased from the author’s memory.