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Why I Stopped Being A Collector (And Started To Collect)

Vienna  |  Austria  | 

Why I Stopped Being A Collector (And Started To Collect)

As a platform dedicated to opening public access to privately owned art, which further exists to give insight to all spectrums of contemporary collecting with an independent and open-minded approach, an exchange with a Viennese collector took an unexplored direction. An email conversation began almost one year ago and continued up until recently. This collector considers his collection as part of his work as a poet, which cultivates his unique approach. Pushing that notion and given that contemporary art explodes at the bold front, where the shock-value is a thing of the past, in this collection feature, we share following Benjamin Kaufmann’s thoughts on collecting art today:

“I never intended to become a collector. I was labelled as one because I didn’t fit any of the other boxes. I was neither artist, nor gallerist, nor curator, nor art writer, but I was hanging out at galleries all the time and dressed decently, so I had to be a collector. When that label was first applied to me I renounced it, but the narrative of the gossip was stronger than my refusal. My denial was interpreted as modesty or not taken seriously in another way. So I eventually assumed the role.

Had I known what that entailed, I might have pushed back more. Initially, the lure was very sweet. Galleries invited me to dinner and fairs sent VIP cards, then they sent the better VIP cards with a chauffeur service, then they booked hotels for me. This little rumour, that I hadn’t started, even denied, had made me quite popular very quickly. I was what fairs and galleries lusted after: the young collector.

Five years ago things changed after I made a naive mistake. Within a few weeks, I was featured in an article about young collectors and participated in two panels on collecting. What was an inside rumour had suddenly become known to an, admittedly only slightly wider, public and yet I was completely unprepared for what followed. Artists that I’ve never met walked up to me and sneered at me for not recognizing their brilliant work, gallerists that I was never introduced to acted like they were my friends, writers quoted me on subjects I had never discussed with them. It was then that I commenced my slow retreat from the scene.

I continued to participate in panels after 2014 and talked to art writers, but I was much more cautious and spaced these appearances out very far. The one question I was always asked at these events was about the beginning of my collection. I didn’t answer that I was guilted into collecting, but rather, I resorted to telling the story of how seeing the Dakis Ionnau Collection at Kunsthalle Wien at the age of fifteen made a great impression on me, and how I understood, then and there, that a collection could be greater than its parts, even a work in its own right. Under that impression, I bought my first piece by one of the artists in the show from a Munich gallery. That story is entirely truthful, it just happens not to be the whole truth.

The prevailing myth of the collector with a small budget, well versed and daring, who supports artists early in their careers and builds a collection from there, has only ever been true for few, and today is true for far fewer still. After all, someone has to pay for museum-grade exhibition spaces in five cities. The costs of representation are too high because the art market does not aim to support artists, but to entertain collectors. The prices of works by young artists have become completely disproportionate to those of established artists, not to speak of old masters. This is also reflected in the ever-increasing gap between primary and secondary markets, despite both galleries and auction houses scrambling to keep the illusion of a common valuation intact. Selling the work of young artists cheaper seems uneconomical at the cost galleries incur, yet at the same time, these galleries often struggle to sell this work, either at all, or, after a short-lived period of hype in which prices are steeply increased.

It is evident that the system is broken, and while everyone is searching for alternatives on a very unambitious level (think: Condo instead of fairs, nomadic spaces instead of galleries…), no significant changes are introduced. The most disturbing of these phenomena is the renouncing of a public exhibition and discourse space altogether, an asset that, coupled with sufficient opening hours, the industry-defining fairs once understood as a requirement for acceptance. This stance was first loosened for select dealers and their privilege has recently been extended to an increasing number of galleries.

None of these supposedly cost-cutting measures are working. Although they do initially lower the galleries costs – while simultaneously increasing dependency on costly fairs – the smaller and more daring galleries are in such a precarious position already, and under such pressure from larger galleries, that they are unable to pass this break on to their collectors. At the same time, multiples and editions continue to be belittled, justified by no artistic rationale, but only by the principle of scarcity. The common practice to increase prices within an edition with each piece sold is equally absurd. Nonetheless, I believe the galleries specialising in editions, often thought of as an old model, are among those that truly lead the way.

Recently, a gallery director asked me over a glass of wine, if I was disappointed in the art world. If one were to be disappointed, it would be over the disillusionment of the ideal of the art world being a better place, which, obviously, it is not. As much the scene prides itself in performing otherwise, it is a closed and elitist society and as racist, classist, misogynistic, and in other ways exclusionary as any other. On top of that, large parts of it use critique and critical discourse as a tool rather than seriously engaging in these practices. Over time, I learned which invitations to accept and which to decline in order to avoid phoney friendliness or open anti-intellectual aggressions.

Sign value is moving from the materiality of the artwork to the immateriality of being a part of the art world. The vast amount of funds that mega collectors pass on to mega galleries, which in turn pass them on to mega fairs, are entertaining a whole class of pseudo collectors; bon vivants who are gaining much more than they are giving by participating in these well-choreographed shows of distinction. That by itself, might be nothing to waste another thought about, were it not for a class of critical artists that are being divested at the same time. Artists, whose work does not fit the zeitgeist of the galleries that are forced to show increasingly hegemonic work in order to advance in the self-validating hierarchy of fairs.

For any writer, this is a deja-vu moment. I expect that we will see galleries evolve from independent businesses to “imprints” of larger conglomerates, each tailored to their niche audience of artists and collectors. Although, with regard to the clientele and the idea of selling experience rather than product, comparisons to LVMH or Kering might be more obvious than to Random House. Increasingly, diversity will only be performed, while there will be less but more powerful gatekeepers deciding who is in and who is out.

These problems are not confined to the sphere of galleries but also affect institutions. They equally rely on private funds and employ similar strategies to secure them. Last year I sat down with the president of the circle of friends of an institution whose program I feel very close to, as they wanted to acquire me as member of said circle. The entire presentation I received was centred on entertainment and socialising although I repeatedly stated I was not interested in any of that and tried to move the discussion towards programmatic questions several times.

One might rightly say, that the observation that the social and financial layers overpowering the discourse is rather banal, and not especially new either. However, I do not think that does justice to the impact this is having on the reception and packaging of art today. This is not a problem of the art scene or the art market, this is very much a problem of art itself. The gallery system only evolved with modernity, and through it, a bourgeois middle class funded the evolution and claimed revolutions of art since the mid to late nineteenth century. Re-elitising the funding – beginning in the second half of the twentieth century with the assertion of the representation model – means no less than de-democratising and re-feudalising the conditions of art production.”