Are Art Fairs Good for Collectors?

Art fairs like Basel, Scope, and Bridge pack up their fragile wares and trek from city to city, like gypsies of culture, to satisfy a new-found hunger for original art. What does this mean to experienced art collectors and to corporate collections? A long-time collector in London shares information about his own history of collecting and his feelings about what art fairs mean to individual and corporate collections.

By Lynn Mueting

The contemporary art world seems to have inspired a passion that has taken the art fair concept racing around the globe like wild fire.

For example; each fall one the hottest ticket in town is the Frieze Art Fair in London. Dealing strictly with emerging artists, Frieze pulled in an estimated £33 million pounds (approx. $68 million) in 2005. Sales were expected to climb by 35% in 2007, but Frieze promoters did not make their 2007 figures public. Such copious amounts of cash-combined with A-list celebrity attention-have led to a number of fringe art festivals-including the Bridge Art Fair-popping up in London that same weekend, creating virtual art frenzy.

One Collector’s Impression on the Exploding Art Market

I caught up with Colin Walsh, the Managing Director of Cards & Payments at Lloyds TSB Bank, who is also a friend and long-time passionate collector of contemporary art. I asked him what this phenomenon means to him, his company, and on contemporary art as investment.

Colin purchased his first major piece at the age of 24, following his first job out of college. “It was a piece by Bunny Klien, an abstract expressionist painting I bought in Soho NY. I still have it,” Colin said. Since then, Colin and his partner have collected enough works to fill two homes and still require storage. “To me, it’s an exciting way to live. I just feel so connected to my environment because each piece has it own history. Especially with the living artists, I know many of them personally, I know their passions and it brings me a quality of life.”

Colin typically collects works by emerging artists who have already been shown in museums or in highly respected galleries. “We never buy art with the intension of selling it, but it’s always nice to have an eye to the value of your collection.” His collection is eclectic, mostly abstract, with approximately 80% created by living artists. “You know, as you grow and mature the things that speak to you change, but they are all part of me.”

The Stamos that Almost Got Trashed

Colin owns a number of significant pieces, including a work by Theodoros Stamos, a post-modern impressionist who worked with Rothko. “Stamos didn’t have good relationships with galleries and so his work was often not catalogued like that of other important artists of his time. A gallery I work with a lot in San Francisco came across a number of his paintings and I was just taken in by the work. Of course, none of us realised their value at the time. The gallery brought them by my house one evening to have a look. When they were reloading the car, they forgot one piece was propped up against the trash bins-and it happened to be trash night! I decided I wanted it. Now he is quite well known and the purchase of that piece has such a funny story. I love it!”
“Art Festivals – It’s a Good Thing for Collectors”
Colin believes the flurry of activity in the global contemporary art market is a good thing for collectors because they can see more art, as well as gallerists, who get more exposure, and especially the artists themselves. “Even for people like myself who travel a lot, there is no way I can ever see as much art as I’d like to. The biggest problem I see with the Frieze Fair, however, is that buying art in the UK is so expensive at the moment simply because of the strength of the pound.”

How About Corporate Collectors?

In addition to his personal collection, Colin has been involved in his company’s sponsorship of art festivals. “My company (Lloyds TSB) does not collect contemporary art for investment per se, but, the bank did take a role in sponsoring the Bridge Art Festival (a fringe of the Frieze) in London and did so without giving away any money. Our support came by way of inviting customers to attend the fair with an incentive to purchase art.”
For the bank, value was added to the customer experience. For the festival, it facilitated an introduction to the Bridge Art Fair and encouraged participation in something that Lloyds’ customers might otherwise not have known about. “There is always this process of needing to connect artists with people interested in buying art and Lloyds was happy to facilitate that communication. So, it was a win/win situation.”
Of course, there are also risks to the companies that sponsor such events. For example, emerging artists don’t yet have established reputations, while Lloyds bank is a well-established financial institution. “We can never be absolutely certain that our corporate goals will mesh perfectly, but, we always make sure we have the ability to opt out. But overall, many of our customers were impressed by the quality of the work and the range of artist represented.”

Will the Art Festivals Phenomenon Last?

Perhaps this latest “craze” is simply the affluence of a generation eager to move beyond museum posters left over from college days. But there is no doubt that art festivals are bringing in new buyers eager to become serious collectors. As Colin says, “This can only be good for the development of the arts and the artists themselves.”
At the same time, this surge of interest can drive speculation. There is some concern that prices for emerging art is becoming inflated. However, with recent record-breaking modern art sales, Colin thinks “art as investment doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing.” The Art Festival phenomenon seems to show no signs of slowing either.