The collector as connoisseur

MEENAKSHI THIRUKODE

Down the centuries, collectors have always played a powerful role in the evolution of art. How prepared are the Indian art collectors to play that role in today’s scenario?

Photo: G.R.N. Somashekar

Changing perceptions: Collectors with an eye for art create their markets.

We all have moments in an academic setting, when your ideals are being ignited and moulded, that spark a debate within our conscience. Sometimes they come back to haunt you when you step out into the real world where more often than not you find your self forced against rather than amidst the tide. I had two such moments during my time at Christie’s Education, where I completed my Masters. Michael Findlay, former International Director of 19th and 20th Century art at Christies, New York and current Director at Aquavella Gallery, is a deeply respected individual within the industry and I am amazed at how his words have resonated within my mind time and again as I make sense of this complex industry. More recently they hit me as I came across an interesting and important player within the industry — The Art Collector.

Significant role

Collecting art signifies status and power for the individual. Be it powerful Popes who were one of the patrons of Renaissance art or The Rockefellers, these influential and wealthy individuals are now iconic figures that have shaped their country’s artistic growth. Take the Rockefellers for instance who, at a time when America was going through depression in 1929, opened up The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) with an aim to support Abstract Expressionism as a symbolic, all-American art movement apart from encouraging modern art appreciation within the culture. For these patrons, it was important to do so because up until that point Europe was considered to be the centre for producing significant artistic talent as well as the core of important Avant Garde movements. Today, we need to consider what defines the contemporary Indian collector and whether or not he/ she is aware of their responsibilities in shaping the art industry and the careers of Contemporary Indian artists.

Going back to the lessons I learnt, the first important message that Findley taught us all was aptly expressed in his lecture during our first week at school — “Trusting your eye”. He emphasised how important it was to train one’s eye in order to nurture the ability to discern and judge what good art is or if an artist has the potential to grow and produce intellectually and aesthetically driven works. To be able to see if there indeed is an effort within the artistic process to deal with the consequences of the current culture, be it in relation to the past, present or by extrapolating the future, should also be one of the aspects a collector concerns himself with. One does this by literally “seeing” as much as you can by visiting galleries, museums and making the effort to gain an education through lectures, reading and understanding historical frameworks and lineages. The second came towards the end of the programme, where we huddled together within the space of Aquavella — a charmingly infectious gallery that reconciles its French Neo-Classical architecture with works from the 20th and 21st centuries that adorn its walls. Findley discussed a number of aspects that define the current contemporary art world and one very important aspect we discussed had to do with collectors and what it meant to be one.

Both discussions brought two significant points that all collectors should consider if he/she is serious about their own development as a patron of art. While there are some Indian collectors who understand that, there are a significant number who can afford the art but are blissfully unaware of their ignorance when it comes to actually understanding what the works signify or mean. This is not only dangerous for the artist and the market but for the reputation of the collector himself.

Misguided approaches

Let me recount some of my experiences. I once met a collector who could not stop repeating the names of one or two important masters of Western Art who were part of his collection. Yet, he did not know the difference between the primary and secondary markets. All he wanted to know about a young contemporary Indian artist who was having her first solo show in New York was how much her work would appreciate and go for at auctions three years down the line. Another collector was completely blown away by an artist’s work because it had his favourite colour. He was torn in deciding whether or not to buy another one of the works because it wasn’t the “size’ he wanted. I could just stop at criticising these individuals but I find that redundant. Instead I think that it would be a lot better to offer a solution — Education.

I think it’s the responsibility of every collector, be it those who already have a collection or those who aspire to be collectors, to take on the responsibility to develop the very skills that Findley spoke of. Only by training his eye can a collector build a collection that has value. By value I mean not only art historically but also in terms of the market. I have come to realise that collectors like the ones I have mentioned above have no idea that they are the market. It is by being a part of a historically and critically strong collection based on the eye of the collector that a new artist’s work also attains a certain level of significance. This in turn may be one of the factors that influence the pricing of that artist’s works. Either way, a collector should not be collecting based on how much return he gets from his investment. Collecting art is about patronage. There have been collectors who also support an artist’s growth by commissioning works and projects. This is also significant in that it is another avenue by which artists have the resources to create and practise their art.

Right now there are younger Indians, both from India and those of Indian origin based outside the country, who have the financial means to start their own collections. I’ve heard of how young collectors of South Asian origin are all about the status, therefore vying to get the “big” names of contemporary Western Art. I am sure there are others who also want to bask in the glory of having Indian artists based on shallow parameters such as auction results. That would only set a bad precedent. In order for this to not take place, institutions such as galleries and dealers need to understand that Indian art is not about hard sales but also providing an education for their clientele. Galleries, for instance, should take the responsibility of not selling just about anything to a client in order to sell out a show. That would be short sighted. Instead, the focus should be on advising the collector who can then make an independent and informed decision on what kind of a collection they want and the kind of legacy they would like to leave, based on what he/she has learnt and seen. No one should tolerate the lack of conscientiousness towards the sanctity of art and an artist’s career amongst collectors. And no one should ever encourage that sort of an attitude amongst emerging collectors.

Deep engagement

One of the exercises we did during the lecture by Findley was to go to MOMA and find the painting, whose location was given to us. We were to stand in front of it for 20 minutes and observe it. I was assigned to see Andy Warhol’s “Gold Mariyln Monroe” from 1962. As I stood there looking at the painting I noticed the layers of silk screen, the intensity of the gold that at times popped out at you and at times faded, I observed the context in which this work was displayed at the museum, which other artist’s works were placed in the same space, what context did they all speak of? What does this work tell me about American culture in the 1950s and 60s? Has it changed from the time Warhol silk-screened this canvas in his studio? At the same time I couldn’t help but notice how everyone else at the museum would spend precisely 30 seconds in front of every work, more often than not snapping pictures in front of the artwork with their digital cameras rather than engaging with it. I would hope that anyone aspiring to be a collector if he isn’t already one, does not fall into the kind of passive disengagement that I noticed that day and instead engage themselves as I was inspired to do. That would be a good start.

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