What Constitutes a Collection?

Michael Reid is an Australian art dealer and critic. Here’s his rumination on what separates buying from collecting:

Fantastic skin, great legs.  These were the first two thoughts that popped into my head on meeting the actor Barry Humphries about 20 years ago, whilst working in the Sydney offices of Christie’s Australia. The next series of picture-thoughts to dance across my eyes, in no particular order, were: floppy haircut, he must be quite tall in high heels and that his choice of longish, high-wasted, tailored, bottle green shorts was sartorially ambitious. Mr. Humphries with two young children rioting in his car, a man with plenty to do, was in no hurry, casually perusing a hotchpotch of art auction catalogues across the front counter.

We fell into conversation. That is to say, I crowbarred in the odd dreary art comment whilst the good Mr. Humphries had every right to expect privacy. Art being that great communicating bridge that it is, and naturally being the puppy-keen company man that I was, I directed Mr. Humphries’ attention to a number of mind-numbingly dreary auction sales – Guatemalan First Issue stamps, tin plate toys, that kind of thing. Anyway in a last ditch attempt to engage the said Mr. Humphries, I made a positive comment concerning the then recent high-profile art purchases of a well-known multi-millionaire collector. I used the words ‘collector’ and ‘collection’ in relation to the man’s name. Well, Barry went ballistic,

“My dear young man, that is not collecting and his hoard is not a collection, it is a mere assemblage”

Well, that ended that. Mr Humphries exited stage left and we both got on with our lives. With the great gift of hindsight Mr. Humphries’ observation was wrong.  The art purchases of the now billionaire businessman represent one of the most significant private art collections in the country. We are as a nation immeasurably enriched by that man’s taste and choices. Mr. Humphries just needed to give the guy a break.

I raise this dusty, long ago brush with celebrity art conversation simply because I remember the exchange so vividly.  The conversation forced me to confront and examine a number of issues surrounding art collecting, as opposed to art buying and some of these concerns I would now like to discuss.  Lucky you.

To begin with it must be acknowledged that nearly everyone buys art to furnish the space they inhabit. And so they should. At the bottom end of the home art purchasing scale, there is a ‘this goes with that…” demand to match the paintings to the leather lounge. Many art consultants and dealers (and thankfully not this little duck) have to deal with clients and/or their interior decorators coming into the gallery with swatches of cloth, throws or, God forbid, the soft furnishings themselves, as THE ONLY guide to buying the art for their home.

Alternatively, the more art-aware in feathering a nest, look to acquire quality artworks that stand alone on their merits. Great quality, in all its diversity, hangs together. The Ming chair, the abstract contemporary painting, the early 1970’s Aboriginal board – quality sits comfortably with quality. Many buyers of art need to let go of the notion that their cushions should dictate the purchase of their paintings. Irrespective of my Churchillian plea in the wilderness (Winston banged on about the dangers of German rearmament) on the horrors of overbearing soft furnishing, let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind that for nearly every art buyer, all their worldly possessions must work within the house as one.

It is vitally important then for all consultants and dealers to work with clients (and other professions, interior designers etc) to place in a house, and within the client’s budget, the best art. The built environment must always be considered. My house in the country has nearly 6 metre (20 foot) ceilings. You cannot fight the house. Even if I hang relatively large paintings, say 90 x 90 cm it looks as if we are hanging postage stamps. At Bobadil House, nearly every painting we have is at least 300 x 200 cm. So like everyone else, I buy art with a house firmly in mind. However, that is not collecting art.

What I want to look at here is not why people collect, (even magpies collect and it is an innate instinct amongst the higher orders) but what constitutes an art collection? The short answer to the riddle of what differentiates a gathering together of artworks, such as the paintings that I hang at my country house, and an art collection, is the golden curatorial thread of narrative. An art collection tells a story. An art collection is formed when there exists an inherent dialogue between the artworks within the group that informs the viewer of a story and when this overall narrative, in relation to the group of artworks, is larger than any single constituent.  When the body speaks, then you have an art collection.

The collecting art trail may be centred on a certain type of object, for example Meissen porcelain, where a grouping of works over time tells the stylistic history of the famous factory. The grouping of artworks may tell the viewer about a period or school in art, such as early Australian Surrealism of the 1930s. The artworks as a group may look at an artist or craftsperson in depth, so that over time we see how he or she developed as a professional. For thousands of years art has been grouped together to express a strong spiritual aesthetic, the story of someone’s God. In the final analysis a collection of artworks can even tell as much about the collector themselves as about the artworks they possess; who they were, where they travelled, that sort of thing.  
Think Peggy Guggenheim.

A collection must be a story.  It is as simple as that.

So in my book you are either a quality art buyer, such as myself, or an art collector. Neither label is a value judgment. Both fields of endeavour can be done very well, and both can be done very badly.

In terms of what I collect, as a consultant and art dealer, I decided some time ago not to focus on collecting paintings. The art I own is always for sale and I own very few paintings. I hang the pictures of many, many artists or clients in my private space.  Again, these artworks are always for sale and as such I rotate them at joyous will.  I let go because I can always obtain.

Many of my art consulting and art dealing colleagues would disagree with this focus, considering their private art collections to be a sort of pension fund. In addition to this, many in the art sales game like to label themselves as ‘collectors’ in an effort to provide their clients with some sort of taste confidence. While some consultants and art dealers position themselves as ‘collectors’ in an attempt to distance their actions from the perceived stain of out and out trade. Whatever the bullshit positioning, I feel that there is a conflict of interest in a consultant and/or art dealer collecting in the field they sell.  It is my stance that you should not be competing with your own clients for the best artworks and invariably those who collect and sell in the same field do. Given this personal collecting stance it is not hard to understand why I channel much energy into the garden at Bobadil. Oh ….and a growing passion for Rolex Submariner wrist watches.

Michael Reid