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Contemporary Art 2.0: A Buying Guide

Art advisor Maria Brito spends most of her days navigating the art world and all of its iterations—it’s a landscape that changes incredibly fast, as the digital world makes it accessible to everyone. It’s a fascinating scene, and so we asked her to outline some of the basics of collecting—she also gave us her list of 15 emerging artists she’s watching closely. (Meanwhile, you can see her piece on decorating with art here.)

by Maria Brito

1. The Context for Contemporary Art

It’s always important to give context to art because since prehistoric times, humans have used art to communicate ideas around them, react to their environments, and express their feelings on current issues (social, political, cultural, racial).

Contemporary art, defined as “the art of today,” implies that the artists of our time not only have available all of the media used by their predecessors, but also are making use of up-to-date technologies including the internet, tracking devices such as GPS, data collected by technological devices, sound, video, social media, among many others. Therefore the variations in media existing in the marketplace also create many different art categories and many ways of collecting it.

Additionally, the fluidity and dynamism of art these days has democratized art to a level where the conversation has expanded way beyond the galleries, museums, big shot collectors, and newspaper critics. This is in part due to the internet, including all social media platforms and the advent of millions of blogs and art websites (editorial, sales, auctions, news), and in part due to the fact that there seems to be an art fair in every big city in the world almost every week.

2. New Media Art: Understanding & Collecting Digital Art

Helen Benigson

A lot of artists like to remain elusive, hard to grasp, and create art that is a bit ethereal and hard to collect. Commerce, however, always finds a way to package and monetize even the strangest forms of art—whether it is conceptual, immaterial, or incomprehensible. Perhaps the first experiments with digital art were aimed at uncollectibility. Things are changing in that arena. Fast.

Web-based, purely digital art is, obviously, sold online, and has sprung forth from several platforms like S[edition] and more recently Daata Editions, which offers great pieces created specifically for their site by artists such as Amalia Ulman and Takeshi Murata, starting at $100.

There is an artist-built web platform for artists called Newhive where artists can create and experiment with new media without having to go through the painful process of knowing how to code. Newhive has curators who organize online exhibitions and those shows have the agility expected of a space that isn’t constrained by geographical or physical limitations.

The question for many who purchased or felt curious about collecting editions of digital art was: How do I live with this? Can this be displayed? Until a few months ago, I would have just told someone to be creative and to have a computer screen showing the edition or perhaps projected on the wall. That has changed now with the launch of Depict—a company founded by MIT engineers who created a super High-Definition glass/screen and frame that is connected to an app that displays and rotates the digital art that is shown on the screen/frame. People can have their previously purchased digital editions saved in Depict’s digital art storage (which will “virtually” stamp each piece with an authenticity watermark) and it is also possible to subscribe to an ever-rotating selection of digital art pieces that will change monthly.

3. Social Media & the Recreation of Art

Olaf Breuning

Five years ago it was unthinkable to imagine museums, galleries, and art institutions posting and having open conversations on every social media platform that exists. Today, it isn’t only necessary but is part of the everyday dialogue between big and small players in the art world.

In the ever expanding art world, there have been feuds fought on Instagram and Twitter; museums from all over the world have posted each and every one of their art pieces to communities on Google+, and long and interesting art discussions have been documented on Facebook.

I think it’s worth highlighting how smartly this card has been played by the ultimate art critic provocateur, Jerry Saltz. He was quick to jump on the bandwagon when he opened his Facebook page to the public and has been very vocal about how much he has learned from, and enjoyed the discussion and comments posted by art enthusiasts, gallerists, artists, and others. Last December, Instagram shut down his account during Art Basel Miami Beach because Jerry, notorious for never attending Art Basel, posted a picture of Charles Ray’s MoMA-owned sculptural masterpiece of four nude figures holding hands, American Romance, and captioned it mocking some of the ABMB parties and their exaggerated money-fueled scenes. Instagram brought his account back and blamed the outage on a random algorithm. Then Facebook banned him because some of his own followers were outraged by Jerry’s numerous posts on ancient Roman and Greek art and medieval art, saying he depicted images that were too raw and brutal to take. This last episode prompted Jerry to write an explanatory article in New York Magazine and his account was reinstated shortly thereafter.

While I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says or posts, Jerry has expressed his point of view with humor and candor and without the need to shield himself with pseudonyms or fake accounts. The way Jerry is working his social media gives us a glimpse of a man who not only can amuse and laugh at himself but who, being the embodiment of what a critic should be, gives us a chance to think, react, and see things differently.

Artists have also embraced social media, especially the darling of everyone: Instagram. Some artists have developed an entire different body of work that’s only been created and shown (for now) exclusively on Instagram. For example: Olaf Breuning (funny faces created with food or other materials) and Ryan McGuinness (conceptual white-font words or quotes on a black circle background).

Furthermore, Instagram has created such a massive reaction in the art community that established artist Richard Prince appropriated Instagram pictures taken from other people’s accounts complete with some of the comments below the image. The whole thing grew to outrage when some Instagram users saw their photos (and selfies) turned into art by Prince, unveiled at Frieze New York this past May and sold by Gagosian for $90,000 each. Celebrated by some, discredited by others, Prince’s pieces captured a very specific moment of our time, cleverly created public buzz, and never once broke the rules of Instagram or fair use.

4. The Market

Oh, the market. With its ups and downs and its sure-fire ways to make money out of everything (or nothing). The art market, being completely unregulated, is a bit dark to say the least. But don’t get me wrong, having an art market is absolutely necessary. Galleries have to pay their bills, artists who are good at what they do have to get compensated, and in a free market economy, market players are at their own will pushing prices as high as they can or liquidating assets that don’t serve a purpose anymore.

The market is, generally speaking, composed of active players such as museums and other institutions as well as collectors, galleries, websites that sell art online, and auction houses. There are collectors who love art and have the money to really support artists at different stages of their careers. And there are more modest collectors who may not have as much to spend but who still actively make several purchases every year, especially supporting emerging artists.

There is also the “collector-altruist” who has been able to build something big enough over the years so that, at some point, their collection can be turned into a foundation of sorts. Some of these foundations may very well be of great help for some artists and can also put together beautiful shows to be enjoyed by the public, but some others are just narcissistic, self-indulgent projects that, besides a power-trip, also provide tax incentives for their “altruistic” owners.

And then there are market speculators. Speculators aren’t new at all, it’s just that some of them have decided to come forward openly and feel proud about their practices. For example, it is not unusual for these speculators to go to an emerging artist’s studio and make an offer to buy every piece of art that’s inside, for a third of the actual value (or less) in exchange for support, introductions, connections, media exposure, and occasionally to help with the inflation of a bubble-market that can’t be sustained for long. I’m not saying that “the chosen ones” aren’t good artists, in many cases they are, but it’s the way that the whole thing is manipulated (in some cases with the use of resources like ArtRank (see below)) that I find unworkable in the long term.

It’s outside the scope of this piece to deeply analyze auction houses or any other “market-maker.” But it must be noted that auction houses provide, as of today, the only measurable and sort of verifiable data available to the general public to know if an artist has built enough interest so as to have a secondary market and learn how much the world is willing to pay for a specific work of art. Auction houses have been vilified and accused of artificially pumping prices, have been frowned upon for having too many artworks with guarantees in place, and have been criticized for having a business model that can get away with charging fees to both the buyer and the seller for the same transaction and leave it all under the same roof. The problem, in general, is that high prices typically reached at auction houses are usually very hard to match for the larger art market.

There used to be a time, not that long ago, where the price of the art being sold at auction got higher and higher because a) either the artist was dead and therefore unable to keep producing (i.e., scarcity, uniqueness and past performance drove prices up), or b) the artist was alive, worked at his/her own pace and the collectors who owned pieces didn’t want to part with them, therefore making it harder and harder to get anything by that artist.

But that’s not the case anymore. Now, the artists whose pieces are sold at “hip and cool” auctions are in their late ’20s and ’30s (a time when they are supposed to be starting their careers and proving themselves) and they are owned by people who can’t hold an asset for too long without wanting to turn a profit on them. This is an excellent strategy for financial markets but not so much for the art world.

In 2014 the website ArtRank came to the surface. According to their own FAQs, they are “a multidisciplinary partnership between a data scientist, a financial engineer, and an art professional” and they developed an algorithm whose “intent is to quantify deep industry knowledge and grant access to both collectors and institutions interested in the emerging segment… providing actionable recommendations that are based on a calculated intrinsic value rather than the easily manipulated market valuations created at auction.”

As any other index, ArtRank categorizes in its first four columns what they consider to be “buy artists” but as the index moves to the left, the last two columns become “Sell Now/ Peaking” and “Liquidate.”

Interestingly, I know that every time I get an obsessive series of emails/texts/phone calls from one or more of my clients about a specific emerging artist, I already know that it is because that artist has shown up somewhere in the “buy” columns of ArtRank.

When buying art, there are so many other factors than just looking at it as a purely financial investment. I’ve tried explaining to my clients that since it is the intrinsic nature of art to be as unique and special (unless we are talking about editions) as the artist who creates it, and artists are so very different from one another, then the data collected by Artrank, when compounded and analyzed, seems to be a bit flawed. And art, no matter how much Artrank wants to create a market, isn’t really a liquid commodity. I’ve known so many collectors that while trying to sell certain pieces, have gone for months from galleries to brick-and-mortar to online-only auction houses only to end up without a buyer or even a decent offer for what they have.

Markets have no feelings, that’s absolutely right, they shouldn’t. The S&P 500 should not have feelings or subjectivities attached to it, that’s the premise. However, art has no empirically measurable or enough quantifiable properties to establish a fair market, much less to have a reliable investment index. Nobody can analyze an artist and his or her work and split the canvases, the oil tubes, and how many good press pieces they’ve had into equal measurements to turn them into a stock. Furthermore, many of the artist on ArtRank are in their 20’s or 30’s so the pricing is being calculated on future expectations and not at all on past performance. As an example, the dotcom bubble that burst in 2000, the toxic securities that poisoned the books of investment banks that declared bankruptcy in 2008, and the real estate housing crisis that followed were all triggered by expectations about the future.

Part of me feels that it is necessary to have art indexes that include much more data than the information released by auction houses. But part of me feels like ArtRank coupled with speculators are acting a bit like a boiler room trading desk who pumps and dumps—buying for themselves (or their “insiders”) early and quickly and building up an artist’s career until it’s time to sell (or technically liquidate) as they aptly say. I don’t think this is beneficial for artists at all.

5. Multimedia Art Communities, Alternative Art Platforms & Artist-Run Galleries

Lizzie Wright, photo by Kyle Knodell

In the past few years there has been a proliferation of alternative places to show and experience art in a variety of different contexts. Whether the spaces are conceived by artists for artists, by curators, or by creative entrepreneurs, the truth is that change, edginess, and uniqueness is always needed.

  1. One of these hybrid places is Pioneers Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Founded and financed by artist Dustin Yellin, Pioneers is a building that has more than 24,000 square feet, enormous exhibition spaces with soaring ceilings, classrooms, artists’ studios, and multimedia rooms. It is all in the spirit of what Dustin aspired to create: a laboratory of ideas that can be executed, an incubator offering residencies for young artists, a space so massive that it offers an alternative to artists who work in large scale format and who would want to exhibit something big. Additionally, Dustin has been credited with revitalizing the otherwise remote and hard-to-reach area of Red Hook.

  2. Mana Contemporary, a massive complex in Jersey City, provides one million square feet that are distributed among artists studios for rent and also for residencies, dance studios, exhibition spaces, framers, printing companies, art storage facilities, and the incredible museum that contains all of architect Richard Meier’s models. It’s worth the visit especially when booking a private tour guided by their own staff.

  3. Video art, as one of those mediums difficult to collect and difficult to show, found a stalwart supporter in curator Rita Pinto, who, combining her passion for nail art and video art, opened Vanity Projects: a nail salon with locations in New York and Miami where she not only gets the best nail artists from around the world to have residencies but she also curates a selection of videos made by emerging and more established artists that anyone who’s getting their manicure or pedicure done would necessarily have to watch (you can look the other way or close your eyes, but the videos are too interesting and sometimes too crazy to miss).

  4. In Los Angeles, Six01Studio was founded with the idea to create a dynamic, supportive think tank for artists. Here, in an open warehouse space, artists can rent studios and work in many multimedia projects.

  5. The Beacon Arts Building in the area of Inglewood in Los Angeles offers 32,000 square-feet of studios for rent to local artists and exhibition spaces that host pop-up shows. The environment here is cool, fresh, creative, and collaborative.

The artist-run gallery isn’t something new but, perhaps in an effort to empathize closely with other artists and to offer alternatives to the more commercial, dealer-run space, there has lately been a large resurgence of these spaces. There’s something very cool and very powerful about artists supporting other artists in this way. They usually put together very exciting, daring group shows.

Manhattan and Brooklyn are sprinkled with these galleries. Some of my favorites are: Essex Flowers (Lower East Side), Storefront (Bushwick, Brooklyn), Canada Gallery (Soho), Regina Rex (Lower East Side), Greenpoint Terminal (Greenpoint, Brooklyn), Bodega (Lower East side), and 47 Canal (TriBeCa).

Los Angeles also has its fair share of alternative spaces including metro pcs in Chinatown, Secret Recipe (happening once a month in a garage in Echo Park), Traction Arts in Downtown, and Adjunct Positions in Highland Park.

Artist Collaborations

REX USA

Interdisciplinary collaborations with artists aren’t really new. Picasso, for example, designed dresses for a company called White Stags, Dali combined his creativity with Elsa Schiaparelli to come up with perfume bottles and jewelry, and Warhol founded Interview Magazine in collaboration with journalist John Wilcock.

Conceptually speaking, combining creative minds, artistic talent, and different platforms will always bring something fresh and exciting to the market. There is also something very special about taking the art to another group of people who probably would not have known about the artist had it not been for the partnership. The truth is that an artist who is willing to collaborate with creative companies releasing products like jackets or skateboards, designing sets for music videos, or shooting campaigns for shoes has to be very secure in who they are and very open-minded, because participating in these projects only increases their visual and artistic vocabulary. They can also be a lot of fun.

Generally speaking, great artists love to work with different media and create things that are beautiful and relatable. Collaborations provide the perfect environment for that, and even led me to work with artists I love on a limited-edition accessories collection.

When presented with a collaboration be aware that there are different levels that also determine the price:

  1. Numbered Limited-Edition
    The edition is set from the beginning so it is clear from the outset if someone is getting number 1 or number 20 or whatever the amount of objects have been produced. The smaller the edition the more expensive the items will be.

  2. Limited-Edition
    These objects aren’t numbered but will not be available for a long period of time. This is typical in fashion collaborations so that the prices aren’t as high as if the pieces were numbered, but the edition is still small enough to be considered exclusive.

  3. Multiples
    These are objects that aren’t numbered or limited. They are less expensive than the above and the partnership usually operates with a renewable license from the artist to the company, typically allowing the products to be available throughout seasons.

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