Tag Archives: contemporary art

Some questions answered: talking about the Collective

Janey by Erica Eyres 2010. Owned by the Collective
Janey by Erica Eyres 2010.
Owned by the Collective

In June I met with Tatjana Schaefer, a Masters student at Goldsmiths University, London, studying Arts Administration and Cultural Policy. Tatjana was interested in analysing “the phenomenon of group collections versus the exclusive stand of the art patron” and wanted to understand more about the concept of our Collective.  Recently I asked her if I could post her questions in this blog as it might be useful for others wishing to find out more about our aims and ideas – and how we differ from other collectors in the art market.  She kindly agreed.

Q1 [Tatjana]. What does collecting art mean to you personally within the context of the Collective?

A1 [Marie-Louise]. The idea of acquiring art collectively was born out of a shared passion for contemporary art by all of us in the Collective. We wanted to find a way to be able to afford to buy, share and live with contemporary art in our homes on a cooperative basis. We wanted the work we chose to provoke and even disrupt in a way that provided more critical engagement. We needed to do it in such a way that fitted in with family life, we could share it, exchange it and circulate it around the six households. The majority of us are not involved in the Arts professionally, though two members are and have acted as guides. We wanted it to be more than just about acquiring a piece of art – we wanted to provide a deeper art experience by visiting artists studios and connecting with the artists whose art we wanted to purchase . So it was also a way to collect art experiences as well as art works. The buying process is a collective experience led by a purchasing panel usually composed of one member from three of the households. The purchasing panel has a budget range agreed with the others, but is otherwise at liberty to purchase according to their interests and tastes, rather than the entire group. During their time on the panel members are expected to visit galleries, shows, private views and the artists studios before making the final purchase. All members take turns to be on a purchasing panel. The other members can accompany the panel on its visits, offering thoughts and comments.

Occasionally there are “exceptional buys” which enables one-off purchases to be made outside of the purchasing panel. For example one of the members may see something at a show/exhibition that is an excellent example of a new work by an emerging artist and really good value. If they are not on the purchasing panel they can nevertheless recommend to the the Collective that, providing the funds are there – we make this purchase. If everyone agrees then the work can be purchased.  This year a few of us went to Drawing Room’s Biennial event and did exactly this, ending up bidding for and acquiring a drawing, Hang Man” by eastablished artist Mark Wallinger, “

The Drawing Room Biennial 2015.
The Drawing Room Biennial 2015. An opportunity for an “exceptional buy”

Q1.1 [Tatjana]Is the Collective a stable group of households?

A1.1 [Marie-Louise]Yes, it is made up of 6 households. Originally it was seven, but one of the households emigrated after the first year. So for the last 12-13 years there have been the same six households.

Q1.2 [Tatjana] Would you take on any new households to your group?

A1.2 [Marie-Louise]As we’ve been established for so long, it would be difficult to take on new members to our group. Instead we would rather encourage them to set up their own group – and we do have other groups around the country, in Scotland and Holland.

Q2. [Tatjana] Collecting has always been regarded as a “personal passion” and for most it is about building a collection as an act of individual creativity based on particular tastes. How is this realised in a Collective context as individuals can be so different in their personal tastes? Do you all have similar ideas and tastes about what should be purchased?

A2. No, not at all. Part of the experience of the Collective is about living with art that we may really like or not like that much. houseThe challenge of living with art opens up lots of new experiences, for better or for worse. Unlike visiting a gallery where you can walk away from something you like less and never see it again, living with contemporary art allows you to spend time with a particular art work, see it at different times, with different moods and form a relationship with it. It may not be your taste, but it can still be a valuable experience provoking new questions and ways of “seeing” differently. Living with art can influence or change your perception, together with meeting the artists and understanding more about their creative process to produce a particular work. You can grow to like something that you did not like at first glance.The purchasing panel are at liberty to buy according to their tastes at that moment in time, not the tastes of the entire Collective.

As households the art also impacts the rest of the family – children, teenagers, friends, family and visitors. Teenagers are the hardest to please!

Q3 [Tatjana]. What does the Collection itself (the works) mean to the Collective and does that meaning differ significantly from the reasons a typical art market collector would be collecting?

A3 [Marie-Louise]. First thing to say is that we don’t collect art for investment. We are a Collective that buys and shares art

No substitute for your love by Tracy Emin. Owned by the Collective
No substitute for your love by Tracy Emin. Owned by the Collective

collaboratively and cooperatively. We collect because we love contemporary art and we have a desire to share and “live” with art.   As our budgets are small we focus on emerging artists at the beginning of their careers as that is what is affordable for us. That said there are many artists now in our collection who have become more well known on an international level including Chris Ofili, Tracy Emin, Bruce McLean, Tacita Dean, Wolfgang Tillmans, and more recently Michael Armitage. There are many individual collectors who collect art for the same reasons as us but what separates us is our collaborative approach and that we collect, share and discuss experiences along with the purchase of art works. Ownership belongs to the group, not an individual, though purchases are made by each purchasing panel and not the entire group. Performance art is also included in our “collecting process” as we embark on our second performance piece this autumn.

As a Collective we have reached a point in its development where we are evaluating the collection as our twice yearly exchanges have become harder to co-ordinate because of the size of the Collection (over 50 works) and our homes have almost reach capacity in what we can display.  So selling some of the works has become a consideration for us. Under discussion is what we may do with the money if we did sell part of the collection – invest in new works, hire a curator for a fixed period of time or go on a cultural trip as a Collective? This may be a different experience for an individual collector or an investor collector. The Collective is not there just to acquire art but to collect experiences related to art, so simply reinvesting the money in new works is only one consideration we are discussing. It’s about the “whole package” – something other than just acquiring and handing over money for an art work.

In terms of what it means to us, the experience of the Collective itself has had a profound affect on most of us and in two cases spilled over in to our work place where we have introduced art projects in to non-art environments. These have been captured in separate blogs

Q4.[Tatjana] How is each Collective group formed and how does it evolve over the course of time?

A4. [Marie-Louise] We are the Founding Collective and we have a constitution in place setting out the structure required, it’s aims and principles. With the help of funding from Arts Council England we were able to help set up more groups around the country – in London, Bristol, Birmingham and Cambridge. New groups are asked to follow our model though there is flexibility to suit local circumstances and cultural differences. More recently groups have been set up in Edinburgh and Rotterdam .New groups are guided and helped by us as much as possible though how they evolve is not something that we monitor regularly. We try to meet up annually so that all the groups come together in one location to discuss progress and ideas.  We’ve had a number of exhibitions over the years where we’ve asked a curator to select works from across the groups. Hannah Higham, curator of modern and contemporary art at Norwich Castle Museum, produced a great show one year in Cambridge.

As the Founding Group we would like the Collective to continue to spread beyond the boundaries of the original group, maintaining the original model but remaining flexible enough to absorb local and cultural differences to suit each instance.

TRY ART! : The Rotterdam Connection

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Chris Ofili “untitled” 1999. Line etching. Owned by the Collective

At the end of June The Guardian newspaper reported Christie’s New York Auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen as saying “There were 10 world records with only 34 works” “probably the most exciting sale I’ve taken in my career” . With Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger fetching $179.4 million and Alberto Giacometti’s L’Homme au doigt $141.3m, they were prices one can’t even comprehend, let alone visualise.

Hot on the tail of this record breaking event was the sale in Christie’s London auction house of living artist Chris Ofili’s Black Maddona for $4.6 million. This was significant – not just because he’s a living 21st century contemporary artist; not because the painting, when it reached the Brooklyn Museum in New York caused such a ruckus with the (then) Mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani – calling it “sick” (in the worst possible sense) and offensive to the Catholic church.  But because Chris Ofili is familiar to our Collective.  His brightly coloured untitled etching was one of the first purchases by the Collective, one of a set of 20 mixed prints we acquired from the Cubitt Gallery, London,to get us started back in 2000.

It was a stark reminder of the divided and tiered art world – a million miles apart from one another and a million dollars apart. Philip Hoffman, CEO of the Fine Art Fund Group who specialises in art investment calls it “the most desirable market. It’s the most liquid market. It’s sexy, it’s easy to understand…”  No wonder that the principles of The Collective are sometimes met with scepticism and incredulity when the answer to “so you don’t collect art for investment?” is a simple “no“.  And “no” it remains, preferring to keep to those principles of buying art collectively, sharing and living with contemporary art and supporting emerging artists – just for the love of it.

The Collective is not alone as a group, but has expanded and helped other groups set up in the UK (Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge and in London). Just over a year ago another group started up in Rotterdam, led by Gallery Assistant, Jetty Keuning. Jetty met Collective members Tim Eastop and Bob Lee whilst on a trip to Art Rotterdam, in 2012 where they were giving a talk about the Collective to a small group of postgraduates.  It took Jetty another two years to get the group up and running, but having been suitably enthused by the idea, she didn’t let go. “you have to be a bit of an idealist – to believe in what you are doing“, says Jetty, but the reality is worth it.

I caught up with Jetty a couple of weeks ago to find out how the group was progressing one year on and learn about the hurdles she had gone through as well as the different cultural nuances within the Dutch art scene. I wasn’t disappointed!

The Rotterdam Collective, named TRY ART! operates under the umbrella of the RAM Foundation, an independent not-for-profit arts organisation that hosts a wide range of activities including exhibitions. TRY ART! doesn’t exist independently like our own Founding Collective but the RAM Foundation articulates clearly how TRY ART! is associated with the  model of The Collective and its principles. It also provides support and endorsement for the importance of collecting groups within the context of the Netherlands and Dutch culture.  This was an important bridge to cross and Jetty felt it was a more solid start for them.

One of the biggest hurdles for Jetty in setting up the Rotterdam group was The Collective’s constitution. “Anglo Saxon law is quite different to European Law” Jetty told me and she needed to find a willing lawyer to redraft it in a way that held credence to potential group members – and for nothing!  Free lawyer? An oxymoron surely? But find one she did, thanks to the policy of one Dutch law firm.  Jetty contacted the Rotterdam office of Loyens & Loeff an independent international law firm who believe that it is good for their lawyers who work daily with big companies to keep their feet firmly on the ground by working for local cultural not-for-profit organisations – for free!  It didn’t solve the need to get it translated in to Dutch, but it was an excellent start.  It fell to Jetty to complete the translation of their revised constitution and one of the reasons it took so long for the group to get started.   The differences were small but significant.  “Association” for example (used in our constitution) is not a word that is used in Dutch law and the word “Collective” has different connotations, so they had to be registered as a “society” to be established and recognised.

what left us low res
Robin Kolleman, What Left Us (2015), wool, cotton, porcelain, 46 x 22 x 4 cm.  Owned by TRY ART! http://www.robinkolleman.nl/index.htm

Jetty meanwhile set about finding members for her group. She started talking to friends and family about the idea, slowly spreading an interest, and trying to gauge reactions.  It was in fact her reading group who showed the most interest.  Used as they were to gathering in each others’ homes and sharing a common interest they took to the concept easily.  They had a lot of “what-ifs” as Jetty put it, which fortunately were ironed out when the constitution was ready and available in their own language.  There are now five members (including Jetty) – two work for the City Council, one is a Financial Consultant and the the fifth works in the flower industry.  “they balance each other” says Jetty, when I asked about the professional diversity and “bring different skills to the group“.  One year on, they are firmly established and have three works to share.

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Karin Arink, Glitter Cut-Out (2015), glitter foil, 27 x 43 cm, edition: 6. Owned by TRY ART! http://www.dekko.nl

Not enough to go round?” – that was sorted out naturally as Jetty has her own private art collection so was happy to forgo having one of the first purchases, and another member was in the middle of a house refurbishment.   Like us, they have a purchasing panel – but the purchase has to be agreed by all the group before payment is exchanged.  A big contrast to our own group where the purchasing panel have full control of what they buy – provided they stay within budget. Jetty admitted that for her group “reading a book you didn’t like was one thing, but buying an art work one of the members didn’t like was a step too far!“.    Another contrast lay in the fact TRY ART!  was made up of five “individuals”, not “households”, like our Collective.  The significance of this only came about when Jetty mentioned one of the members partners had issue with one of the art works purchased and her membership of the group.  Not a concept we had ever had to confront as all our decisions are made as a household “unit”, not as individuals.  Whatever comes back to our house after an exchange – is jointly agreed.  Jetty admitted that there can be many psychological and sociological processes going on within any group which may have an impact on how they collaborate, but equally that can be resolved easily.

The excitement amongst members, when the group started in Rotterdam was noticeable “they wanted to go out and buy art immediately” says Jetty “they were very impatient”!  So her first task was to slow them down, encourage them to see lots of art and develop a taste for what they liked most.  In addition to that it was very important “who” they went to see as Dutch artists do not want to be part of collections where the artists have no reputation or standing. To begin a collection with an unrecognised artist could be a liability for the group within the Dutch art scene –   “Emerging artists are ambitious and want to be proud of the collection they belong to”, but clearly not so unknown as to be excluded!

Jetty has acted as mentor, teacher, chairperson, and organiser for her group but is insistent that members now take the initiative and treat her as an “equal member”, not the leader.  With the reputation of the RAM Foundation behind her, she has given talks about this new way to collect, share and live with art, and as more people come forward to express a wish to form groups in Rotterdam she is keen that each new group formed has an art’s mentor for at least the first year, “they love the art and they love the stories from members about the processes and the artists they visit in their studios, but they may lack the knowledge”

As Jetty mentioned to me at the beginning of our discussion “you need to believe in what you are doing”  The experience is worth a million dollars more than the price of a Picasso kept hidden in a high security vault.

I don’t get it, do you?

Sarah Awan
“Hospital Girl” by Sarah Awan, owned by the Collective

In my last blog, Connecting Worlds, I wrote about the influence the Collective has had on my personal career, and how it had initiated a project that would not have been conceived had I not had that exposure to art, artists and a very particular model of sharing and collecting collaboratively.  Far from being just about “art on walls” it was about how, through art and the artists,  one could “see and think differently” in your working environment, how you could question issues that affected us whether on a business or personal level, and how you could engage with a part of your local community .

I’ve mentioned before that the Collectives’ members are from very diverse professional backgrounds  and the idea really came together as a result of friendship, family connection and a commonality of interest in contemporary art (more or less) . This time my story is about Collective member Theresa Nash and how her experiences have changed how she views art, how she works, and what she does in her own time.

When I spoke to Theresa about writing this blog she was eager to share the  “starting point” of her relationship with the Collective.  It was her partner, Chetan Patel, already long term friends with some of the other Collective members, who suggested they get involved.

Theresa described her initial “reluctance” to participate : “I really didn’t get it” “Why art, what was it? – I didn’t know how to relate to it” and she wasn’t keen on the upfront payment to buy the Collectives’ first works! But as Chetan was very interested already, “she went along with it”, nothing more.

Today, thirteen years later Theresa sees “art” as integral to her teaching, her work and some of the creative interests and achievements in her personal life – “it’s had a massive impact“.  She was more than happy to share her story.

Theresa started her career as a nurse and is now Senior Lecturer in Nursing (community and public health) and Enterprise Lead for the Faculty of Health & Social Care in Education at the University of Kingston and St George’s University in Tooting. She is also founder of Heritage2Health, a scheme that aims to develop community-led nursing by working  with those experiencing social isolation and providing them with better access to community and the countryside through specially designed  “events”.  Working in collaboration with colleagues, students, the voluntary sector and the National Trust , “art” in the broadest sense, is an integral part of how Heritage2Health works, and in the project’s success to date.

So how did her relationship with art change? What was it that had such an impact and changed her views?

Franko B
A drawing from Aktion 398, a Franko B performance. Owned by the Collective

The first change began when she met with the controversial artist Franko B. Well known for his blood letting performances to create his art, we met Franko B at an  exhibition that was held in a specially curated house.

For me, blood was what I saw in emergency hospital departments as a nurse”. “I struggled with the concept of his blood letting which really disturbed me. Even more so that people were paying to come and see it! ”

Theresa had the opportunity to challenge Franko B in person, and despite the fact she left still disliking his practices, the mere process of engaging with the art and the artist started her on a course of participating more with what the Collective were doing and seeing, in pursuit of buying and sharing art.

Then I found myself changing and going to more exhibitions and visiting artists studios with other Collective members“. Theresa soon realised it not only engaged her, but was relaxing and helped her to “cut off from the week“. She was also starting to think about art in relation to her work : how it might be the basis for a collaboration to help understand concepts  such as “self” and help develop “emotional resilience” in both a student’s own development and the community members they were working with.  A concept Franko B would in fact have applauded  ‘Art is not about looking at your navel, it’s about looking at who we are’.

Having already started her Health2Heritage scheme she met a young artist still at University and invited her to participate in one of their events which was themed around “story telling”.  The event involved taking a group of local community members, including a young boy with Down’s Syndrome, on an outing to a National Trust Heritage site.  On the day they would enjoy exploring the area, nature, and walking.  The boy’s mother was very anxious and felt his purpose-made buggy would not work cross-country and her son  was unlikely to walk the distance.  The young artist took a different view and started telling the boy a story about a king who lived in a castle and in order to get back to his castle he would need to walk across fields and up a hill – and he could be that King.  It did not take long for the boy to realise his buggy was a hindrance to his great role, so abandoning it (together with his shoes) he walked all the way to their finishing point. Along the entire route the artist continued to embellish the story encouraging him with every step.  He never once stopped.

After that Theresa realised how much value could be gained from integrating artists in to her projects – and now Health2Heritage has become a scheme where nursing volunteers AND artists are able to connect people who suffer from social isolation, to nature – and help reconnect people to local cultural activities and educational volunteering. With students, artist and community members working together all parties are able to transform their thinking about what any person can achieve, including themselves.

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Theresa Nash with her wedding dress crafted out of shopping receipts

But Theresa’s growing enthusiasm for the arts didn’t stop there.  As the Collective itself evolved and we worked more with artists, acquired more art and visited studios and galleries she decided she wanted to have a go herself – not just to look at it, but be an art practitioner! This in turn has made her re-look at the Collective’s collection and examine how and why she values a particular piece.   Spending her Saturdays in art classes and learning about the history of art, she realised how important the stories behind art were and how meeting the artists, as the Collective members do, is an integral part of how we buy and experience art . This was a concept that I also adopted at my work by introducing lunchtime talks with the artists and offering employees the chance to hear the stories around their works.

As part of her own creative journey Theresa wrote a children’s story “make do and mend” which explores addiction through the experience of a girl shopping, as she grows up.  The story was not only turned in to a performance but is being performed as a free event at the Rose Theatre on the 15th May.  Theresa spent two years collecting shopping receipts and hearing stories from contributors in the building of this story and then transformed the receipts in to an art work crafted as a wedding dress .

Theresa cites two important aspects in the influence the Collective has had on her day to day life : continued exposure to the art and artists, and the model of the Collective itself with its cooperative and collaborative structure that has become so central to her projects with artists.

In a recent lecture with her nursing students where she was using a painting to explain a concept – a student jumped up and exclaimed “I get it, I get it! ”  A moment of satisfaction for Theresa as she recognised her own transformative relationship with art in all its manifestations.