Friday, July 20, 2007

Addicted to Art

Paige West, author of The Art of Buying Art: An Insider’s Guide to Collecting Contemporary Art, works from “the belief that great, affordable art should be part of everyone’s life.” West, herself “a nonrecovering art addict,” founded the online gallery Mixed Greens out of that belief and wants to spread her addiction to everyone who loves art but has been too afraid to take the financial plunge. (Vic Muniz’s picture of Jackson Pollock painting done in chocolate appears above. West features the work of Muniz and her other favorite contemporary and emerging artists throughout the book.)

The name Mixed Greens rose from the heart of West’s egalitarian vision of art collecting. “Collecting art is an experience no longer reserved for a privileged few,” West explains. “Just as we have come to expect more availability and variety in the produce aisle, we are also beginning to expect the same in art.” Thanks in part to the power of the internet, buying affordable art can be as easy as buying what used to seem exotic lettuce. West wants you to know that you don’t need to settle for iceberg anymore.

The first obstacle is the obvious one—fear. “I am amazed at the sheer panic people feel facing their first or second purchase of art,” West writes. “My response, over and over again, is to stop thinking about purchasing and just do it.” West sees a compulsion for perfection behind much apprehension: “Forget about trying to perfect your collection right out of the gate… Collecting is supposed to be fun.” The Art of Buying Art consists of a lot of gentle hand-holding, something West does in person for many of her clients. Much of the book reads as a pep talk for newbies, an “Idiots Guide to…” or “for Dummies,” as West tries to start from the basics and break down fears and misperceptions. When she points out that the same disposable income that goes to luxury items such as CDs, DVDs, or clothing could go to artwork, it’s hard to argue with her.

My main argument with West’s approach lies in the heart-versus-head quandary of buying art. Understandably, West asks the new collector to take a leap a faith early on, to go with their heart. Later, she shows you how to also shop with your head, i.e., informing yourself before buying by reading up on art trends and artists, by evesdropping on artists and fellow art lovers at galleries and other venues, and, most of all, by seeing as much contemporary and emerging art as possible—all with the ultimate goal of developing a keen “eye” for art. She titles one section, “Buy what you love, but…” That huge “but” seems to come a little too late, overwhelmed by the earlier “just do it” Nike-esque inspirational rhetoric.

The two strengths of the book are the beautiful illustrations and the supporting materials West provides. The illustrations provide a valuable primer in what you can expect to see in art galleries. In that respect, West prepares the total newcomer to the world of art collecting and inoculates them from any kind of culture shock. (Sticker shock is a different matter, but she does a good job of softening that blow as well.) The sheer variety and volume of works displayed might even seem overwhelming, but I saw it more as a total immersion technique similar to learning a new language. By the end of the book, you should be able to “speak” enough contemporary and emerging art to get by in that brave new world.

Equally valuable are West’s helpful breakdowns for the new collector. Sections such as “What can I get for $1000?” and “Ten Questions to Ask at a Gallery?” encapsulate years of experience into manageable pieces of information. West even categorizes collectors into different types (Decorators, Investors, Specialists, Vacationers, Thrill Seekers, and Addicts) to help the newcomer self-diagnose the true nature of their blossoming art “addiction” and, perhaps, envision how that addiction will evolve. A section on “Living With Art” wonderfully answers all the questions you might have after actually buying the art, showing West’s practical side to the art collecting experience. (This “Living With Art” section contained the one true sour note for me in the book. “You Are Not Art,” West proclaims, relegating all family photos to less than 8 x 10 inches and discreet corners of the home—something I found a bit too strongly put. Here, children are to be heard but not seen. But maybe I’m too sentimental.)

“You don’t need a formal education in art to become an accomplished collector,” writes West. More important is to see as much art as possible and learn more about the art world and, ultimately, yourself. As a pusher of her own addiction to art, West provides a valuable service and teaches that the only true fear we must overcome in collecting art is fear itself.

[Many thanks to HarperCollins for providing me with a review copy of this book.]

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