The Art of Collecting

NCMA’s Director Emeritus Larry Wheelershares how anyone can get a taste for the art market by honing the eye through local galleries and film

Photo by Eamon Queeney

The global art market—one of the largest unregulated sectors of the international economy, valued at more than $64 billion—consists, in short, of the buying and selling of art. Galleries, art auctions, art fairs and private dealers are all part of the equation. That includes the gallerists of the Triangle, who showcase the important and emerging artists of our region.

This is a topic of great interest to me. As the Director of the NCMA for over 24 years and now its Director Emeritus, I’ve watched closely the vicissitudes of the art market during this era, since shifting values obviously influenced what the museum could afford to add to its collections. Equally breathtaking to watch has been the emergence of a collecting class in the Raleigh region, folks who are active in the art market on an international level. I often travel with these friends to art fairs in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, where the leading gallerists welcome them warmly. The North Carolina art scene is being noticed. These collectors buy significant art according to their tastes. They live with it, enjoy it and in nearly every case promise it to NCMA or other museums in our area. Art collecting by individuals is key to growing significant art museums.

The great thing about all of this is that anyone can be an art collector! Access to the world of art buying is not exclusive. Anyone can drop in on art galleries anywhere in the world, just to look around. Anyone can attend an art fair in any major city, New York and Miami included. There is always the possibility of bringing irresistible art into one’s life.

Going to a hub like New York, however, is not essential to enjoy collecting. We have a rich art scene right here in the artists, galleries and museums of the Triangle. And there’s no doubt that they all need your love and support. The first step to access is by opening your heart and mind to looking. That curiosity will lead you to look broadly and to seek advice. Our art museums, mostly free, regularly show the artists of our region amidst their international counterparts. The curatorial context that they provide is valuable in developing a critical perspective on the artists among us.

As a next step, why not meet a few artists? One good way is to attend openings of their exhibitions at local galleries and museums; you’ll find that artists are generally delighted to talk about their work. Most artists open their studios to the public on frequent occasions or nearly always on request, and gallerists are usually happy to facilitate these connections. And there are some very cool artist studios around us. Treat yourself to some new friends.

Just beware: Looking can lead to buying, and then you’re in the game. Collecting is an exciting process. Not only does it train and liberate the eye to make more critical choices, but it connects you to a community of folks who share your enthusiasm.

Take advantage of the resources available to you as you build your collecting confidence. Other collectors, museum curators and directors, the gallerists and the artists themselves are all willing guides. Art comes in all shapes and prices, so start by collecting what works with your taste and your budget. Three recent films, all excellent, explore the reality, excess and craziness of the culture of contemporary art. I encourage you to see all of them. The Price of Everything, a documentary film produced by HBO, takes a close look at art auctions and the much-publicized sales of recent years that have driven contemporary art prices, some through the stratosphere. The film explores the important issue of fairness to artists in the resale of their work at auction and raises the question of price as the measure of real value. The film has made the rounds locally with showings at NCMA, including a discussion with Director Valerie Hillings, and at the 2018 Full Frame Festival in Durham. 

The Square is a brilliant 2017 film by the Swedish director Ruben Ostlund which can be dialed up on Amazon Prime. Set in Stockholm, the film portrays in amusing and alarming ways the underlying hypocrisy, hysteria and preciousness of art world behavior, in art museums in particular. The focus of the film is on the debut and promotion of an art installation, The Square, which invites personal interaction and reflection. The eccentricities of art professionals and patrons are put on parade as they reckon with big social issues such as economic disparity,  immigration and race. The often-familiar behaviors are both disturbing and entertaining.

The most recent film of the three is Velvet Buzzsaw, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, which had its premiere at Sundance Film Festival in January (you can now watch it on Netflix). It is a little bit supernatural, a good bit horror and a whole lot of fun as it takes a clever look at the world of contemporary art collecting and the gallery and art fair scene. The strangest and most frightening things happen to people when they collect the wrong art… The art world is big in many ways: It’s undergirded by a huge economy fueled by thousands of galleries and points of sale, and more artists are being exposed to the public than ever before. But it’s also a world driven by millions of individual discoveries and decisions. Why not add your voice to the process that’s shaping our cultural history?