A house with stuff on the walls is better – that’s just a fact. But figuring out what to buy and where to get it is not so obvious. Rhianna Walcott, who has more than 12 years of experience in the art world, says it’s not actually too hard if you follow a few easy guidelines.
Walcott is on the board of city-wide festival Art Month Sydney, which is happening from March 6 to 29 and is all about spotlighting homegrown talent and getting Sydneysiders into galleries. She is also the associate director of Rozelle’s Artereal Gallery, sits on the Young Ambassador Committee at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and on the Artistic Advisory Council for Milk Crate Theatre. She’s worked with the University of Sydney Art Collection and writes for contemporary art publications.
Here she offers her tips on how to become an art collector and debunks the two biggest myths of the art collecting world.
MYTH ONE: You need a lot of money to start an art collection
One of the biggest myths about art is that you have to be an exceptionally wealthy cultural connoisseur to collect it. Having worked in galleries for more than a decade, I can definitively bust that myth: you don’t need to be rich to buy art and you don’t need an art history degree.
How much do you actually need?
Your budget could be as small as $200 – there are some amazing pieces of contemporary art out there, you simply need to know a few insider tricks. Of course, you can pay up to $20,000 for a museum-quality piece by an established blue-chip artist. Or you can take a punt on an early-career artist and support them when it matters the most. Collecting on a budget might inspire you to decide to focus solely on one type of work. Works on paper or photography or ceramics are all affordable entry points into the art market, allowing you to build a beautiful and cohesive collection while also becoming an expert in a particular area that grabs your fancy.
So, you’ve decided you’re going to buy art. What now?
Start by visiting as many galleries as you can. Sydney has over 100, each with a distinct personality. Take note of which galleries appeal to you in terms of aesthetic and the artists they represent and pretty soon you’ll notice there are many specialising in work by emerging artists. Buying from these places allows you to play a vital role in supporting emerging talent at the crucial early stages of their career and also means you can collect their work at an accessible price.
When you do stumble across a gallery whose artists you love, introduce yourself. Contrary to popular belief, most gallerists are friendly and love any opportunity to talk about their artists. Let them know which artists you like and ask to be kept up to date with new works and upcoming exhibitions. Don’t be afraid to be upfront about your budget and any other parameters you are working within (for example any size limitations). Over time, this will allow you to work together to find the right pieces for your taste, budget and collection.
Some galleries and events to help with your hunt
When it comes to the next generation of artists, Artereal Gallery, Galerie pompom, Woolloomooloo’s Jerico Contemporary and COMA Gallery are all great places to begin. You could head to the National Art School’s end of year grad show and pick up a piece from one of their recently graduated bright young things. Alternately, pay a visit to 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art during their annual 4A A4 fundraiser, which typically includes over 100 unique artworks by a mix of leading international artists and homegrown emerging talent – all A4 in size and priced at $200. Sydney’s oldest artist-run space, Firstdraft, has an annual fundraising event that is another favourite for collectors interested in collecting emerging art.
There’s a solution for when you fall in love with a piece and the price is just out of reach
Art Money is an Australian startup that allows you to visit a gallery, put down a 10 per cent deposit, take the artwork home then and there, and pay off the remaining balance over 10 months, interest free. Suddenly that $1500 artwork doesn’t seem so out of reach when you pay it off $150 per month. I mean, you probably regularly spend that amount on a big night out without thinking twice about it.
When you find the piece, act fast
When you see the right artwork, a piece that captivates you, intrigues you and gets you excited, act decisively. If it’s an editioned photograph, print or video work then maybe you can afford to take your time and mull it over. But if it’s a unique artwork like a painting or a sculpture, and especially if it is an affordable piece by an exciting new emerging artist, you need to trust your instincts and act fast. Always buy what you love and don’t be swayed by trends or promises of a future financial return.
MYTH TWO: Galleries are cold, elitist white cubes filled with expensive and confusing contemporary art you won’t be able to understand or afford.
I grew up in Tamworth (which boasts very few art galleries) and my first few experiences visiting galleries in Sydney were definitely shaped by this belief. Even as an art history student, I often felt out of place, uncomfortable and intimidated, and I worried the gallery staff would be dismissive. Then I started working in the art world and I realised that people might think the same about me – that I was operating in some clandestine world in which they were not welcome. But it’s not like that.
Remember, galleries want you to come in and look at art, no matter what.
If there is one thing I want you to understand and remember about art galleries, it is this: they exist as a space for looking at art. As a gallerist, there is nothing worse than having to tell an artist you’ve had a quiet Saturday without many visitors. Gallerists open art galleries because they want to share art with the world. Artists make art because they want it to be seen. Not only are you welcome, you are a crucial part of the equation, regardless of whether you are buying.
What role do big art institutions play, compared with smaller, artist-run and commercial spaces?
The art world is an ecosystem. Our local institutions are already well recognised for the exceptional job they do – the MCA announced last year it is the most visited contemporary art museum in the world, with over a million visitors annually since 2015.
But the smaller, privately-owned, commercial art galleries and artist-run spaces in Sydney also play a vital role. These galleries are the lifeblood of the art industry and a direct conduit between artists and the general public. This is where artists test new ideas and exhibit new artworks; where artworks first enter public consciousness and get noticed by curators who acquire and exhibit these works in our public institutions. They help artists by selling their work, introducing it to new audiences and having conversations around it.
And how about Art Month Sydney – how can it help me find art?
Held every March, Art Month Sydney is a good way to begin exploring galleries and artists. Pick a Friday night and head to one of the festival’s Art at Night events. These are one of the few nights a year that the city’s best galleries are all open late at the same time. It’s a fun and easy way to dip your toe in. It was founded in 2010 with the objective of breaking down perceived barriers and making the art world a more inclusive and welcoming place. And based on what I have seen, it seems to be working.
Art Month Sydney also runs a program of talks on collecting art, (including tips for beginners and how to buy at an art auction) and present an annual exhibition Collectors Space that showcases the private collections of some of Sydney’s most enviable art collectors.
Art Month Sydney happens across the city from March 6 to 29.