Op-ed Nov 25, 2011 No Comments

Twenty original artists, twenty original hits!Sharne Wolff on why buying art is like buying music, sort of…

It’s that time of year again – already. You know the time when all the commercial galleries have their Christmas/small works/stockroom shows. Although some may see this as an opportunity to get rid of everything that hasn’t sold, didn’t make the cut or was way too experimental during the rest of the year, it’s also an opportunity to find some affordable work or discover new talent. But how do we go about it when there’s so just much art?

This week we’ve put together a few tips for buying art. They’re based on the idea that everyone (surely everyone is the word?) has bought music at some stage in their lives – and generally we’ve bought a lot of it. We might have started with 45’s and 33’s, then CD’s came along and now we’ve moved onto downloads – but whatever way you buy your music you know what you like – right?

The big difference between buying art and music is cost. If you make a mistake with a $20 CD, it’s not the end of the world. If you’ve made a really bad choice you can always pull off the sticker, wrap it up and give it to your brother/sister or great uncle for Christmas. Given that even the smallest works of art can set you back a few hundred dollars, experimentation with art on the other hand just isn’t possible for many of us. If you’re buying art because you’d prefer to enjoy your money being stimulated by a nice picture on the wall instead of staring at your framed share certificates, where do you start?

Despite what you’ve heard it really isn’t that difficult for beginners to get a handle on buying art if you think about ‘collecting’ visual art in terms of your music collection. Relate your art buying to your penchant for whatever type of music is your individual thing and it becomes easy and natural. Just take this list of along to the local gallery and see if it doesn’t work.

1. Never ever buy something you don’t like.

This is so obvious but even those experienced in the market still buy art they don’t like because the gallery owner says it’s going to be the ‘next big thing’. Would you buy an album you didn’t like and then listen to it every day for the next 10 years? Art is the same. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.

2. The more you listen to, the more you know.

Following up on 1 is important. Maybe the first time you heard Augie March down at the pub you thought it sounded way too difficult, but having heard it a couple of times you later bought the album. Most people grew up with albums full of pop hits like So Fresh or Rock Explosion 1974 and their music taste matured. Art is the same. The more you know about it, the more shows you see, critics you read, museums you visit, artists you check out, gallerists you chat to – the better your knowledge gets and the more sophisticated your taste will become.

3 Genre is relevant – figure out what you like.

If you’re just starting out with your collection, stick with what you like first. If you’re a working class boy who has an unwavering allegiance to Jimmy Barnes and Shannon Noll you’re not going to get Bjork until you’ve had a chance to listen for a while (or never). Move on slowly and experiment with different styles – painting, performance art, video, photography, street art, indigenous art – check everything out just for fun. Group shows, like those pop albums, are a good way to check out a number of artists at the same time.

4 Debut recordings can be winners; sometimes you have to wait a few albums.

Just like every now and then a band or a solo performer releases an amazing debut album, there is such a thing as a great debut exhibition. It’s what happens after that really matters. I Wanna Hold Your Hand doesn’t sound a whole lot like Let it Be because it took eight years for the Beatles to get there. The best artists improve and evolve over time because lots of practise along with a handful of worldly wisdom make perfect. Young bands are often discovered playing in pubs or busking on streets – not unlike the exhibitions in artist run spaces where the next generation of great artists is likely to be found. It’s also very hard to be consistent with an excellent album every time a band records. Ditto with art.

5 Fashion plays a part.

You know what we mean here. We’ve had punk, boy bands, grunge, electric rock, house and so on. Lyrics will always be about love and death. Politics goes in and out. In visual art it’s the same. Genres like indigenous art or street art can be more or less fashionable in the art market. Skulls have been around as a fashion in art forever and text began with Picasso but both have also been prominent in the contemporary art of the last 10 years or so.

6. One hit wonders are alive and well.

Remember Here I Am by Natalie Gauci (#2 in the charts in 2007) and Only for Sheep by The Bureau (#6 in 1981)? Exactly. A great melody is one thing but the music that sticks around usually has the lyrics to match as well as an indefinable connection with the audience. That’s why we’re still listening to Paul Kelly and Neil Finn songs many years after they were written. Art can be dressed up as decoration but unless there’s ‘something else’ there, it won’t last – and you’ll get tired of looking at it.

7. Don’t ask an artist what to buy – unless your question is about music.

Maybe this is an exception to the music analogies because unlike musicians (who always seem to listen to a lot of other music), in my experience many artists don’t have a clue about what’s out there because they don’t see other artists’ work. They’re too busy making art (and listening to music) and more likely than not to recommend art made by their friends. This might, or might not, be a good thing.

8. Networking might help a career initially but it won’t go the distance.

Some might argue that this applies to music but not to art. We don’t believe it. To succeed in the art world in the long term you’ve got to have talent.

9. The best tracks on an album always stand out.

You only know this if you’ve listened to the album. Record companies spend time working out the order of tracks. Curators and gallerists try to ensure that art works are seen in their best light. Seeing art in the real and as part of a solo exhibition is the best way to understand what the artist is trying to do. It’s also the perfect way to spot the best work.

10. Rock Gods can do no wrong.

Do we have any Australian Rock Gods? Maybe AC/DC? In Australia the music market is so small we could only think of overseas bands like U2 or the Rolling Stones who have such a loyal fan base they will sell their albums no matter what. Our visual artist equivalents (at least the living ones) are few and far between but Ben Quilty is certainly a candidate, perhaps along with Richard Bell or John Olsen and a select few traditional indigenous artists like John Mawurndjul. Even if you’ve got the money, you may not get the goods. New work from our better artists usually has long waiting times.

11. If you obey Rule number 1 – none of the rest matter.

Sharne Wolff

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