In the Clay Room, 2016.
Of all the sales that Ficus Interfaith—the creative moniker of artists Ryan Bush and Raphael Cohen—has made, one last summer remains among the most memorable. The buyer, the owner of an art collection the pair admires, expressed continued enthusiasm in their work and followed through on the paperwork and payment for one of their terrazzo compositions. But the situation increasingly became less rosy during the installation process.
“It was sort of torture,” Cohen said. “There were times it felt aggressive and bullying, the amount of attention he needed days in a row. He kept inviting us over to dinner, but dinner wasn’t some nice meal in a nice house.”
“It was raw shark meat in our faces, and telling us how we were all going to eat it together,” Bush added. “I don’t want to eat a shark with you in your backyard.”
Untitled (Les grands voyages), 13, 2014-2015.
Getting acquainted with an artist beyond a purchase can firstly lead to a better understanding of the art you live with; more importantly, doing so can engender better communication, greater transparency, and more empathy in the highly stratified art world. In some cases, an earnest relationship can even be akin to a friendship. However, the nuances, loose regulations, and fundamental nature of art transactions—involving deals and ownership over something ostensibly valued beyond a price—can make strained relationships common occurrences. When they sour, they can become the stuff of art market lore.
Danh Vō and Dutch collector Bert Kreuk fought over contractual agreements in a famously bitter and highly public two-year legal battle; Cady Noland has tried thrice over to sue German collector and former photographer Wilhelm Schürmann for restoring one of her works, a log cabin that had rotted, without consulting her.
Like a pas de deux, the artist-collector relationship can be tricky to maneuver but develops best with grace and mutual understanding. As several artists told Artsy, meaningful bonds can develop beyond the sale of a work, but buyers interested in friendlier relationships that don’t feel transactional should also know when to step back. The following are a few helpful tips to keep in mind when developing a new or budding connection with an artist.
Be thoughtful from the get-go
Flowers with Roots Elegy, 2019.
Vanitas with Roses Elegy, 2019.
As with any social encounter, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways for collectors to make themselves known. If an artist has gallery representation, it’s best to first reach out to the gallery to help make the connection. “If a collector wants to have more contact, a studio visit is a great thing to request,” said artist Valerie Hegarty, who is represented by Malin Gallery. “Ask for the artist’s email and express how much you love the work. That way, the artist can have a say in the relationship. Just because someone buys something doesn’t mean they just bought a relationship. They have to build it.”
A key to building a strong relationship: “Keep it personal,” said Ryan Bush of Ficus Interfaith. “It’s pretty easy to identify when someone is being honest. The most healthy and sustainable relationships we have are with people who we truly feel like we know where they’re coming from.”
Portrait of a Modern Man, 2020.
Christopher Moller Gallery
One Milkshake for the Saint, 2020.
Christopher Moller Gallery
Lagos-based artist Dennis Osadebe still remembers the conversation he had with his very first collector. “When he decided to buy the work, it felt that he was invested in it, saying ‘I believe in you so much,’” Osadebe said, adding that the exchange helped him set a framework for future interactions with buyers. “I want to feel like collectors are buying into a belief system, into my story, and are also just invested in my growth. Red flags are people who are more interested in just talking about their collection as opposed to why they connect to the work.”
In addition to sharing their motives, collectors who take time to do proper research on an artist’s practice before they reach out are also better positioned to earn an artist’s trust. “Show that you’ve read a couple of articles—don’t just say, ‘I’d like to learn more about your masks,’” Osadebe said. “Show that you care. It’s important to show you’re invested before you reach out.”
Honor their work’s worth
Self Portrait 01, 2020.
Christopher Moller Gallery
Frame Branch Elegy (#2), 2019.
At the heart of most collector-artist relationships is a transaction—with that in mind, money is the root of many a conflict. Aside from flipping an artwork, attempting to negotiate a deal is one of the fastest ways to put off an artist and mar a relationship. “A no-no is trying to get a bargain,” Osadebe said. “You’re meeting another CEO, so act like it.” Seeking discounts with artists who have gallery representation also puts them in an awkward position. “We try to give repeat collectors a good price anyway, so when they’re asking for more that puts me on the spot,” Hegarty said. “I either have to talk my gallery into it or just take the hit.”
Collectors should also consider how to respond to prices over their estimate. Once, Ficus Interfaith received an inquiry about a potential commission for a terrazzo ceiling. “We gave them the figure, and they said, ‘That’s way more than we thought you would say,’” Bush said. “That was insulting. I felt devalued.” A better strategy, according to Cohen, is for buyers to be transparent about their budgets. “If they just said, ‘We can’t afford it,’ it wouldn’t have been insulting,” he said. “We had someone else email us to commission a small sculpture, and they wrote, ‘This is what I can pay you, I like your work.’ It was really straightforward, and it set a good tone for the dialogue.”
Courteous collectors would also do well to extend that spirit of transparency to any instance in which they choose to give up an artwork. One of Hegarty’s frustrations is not being notified when a collector sells her art at auction. “It seems like an easy thing to do, to be more thoughtful about how it affects the artist,” she said. Recently, one of her collectors had to part with two pieces because they were leaving the country due to the coronavirus pandemic. “They contacted me, told me what’s going on and how they felt bad about it. We brainstormed ways to get the pieces back from them so [the gallery] can resell them on their behalf,” Hegarty said. “This way, the works are not just thrown out at auction without anybody knowing about it. It is a commodity, but this is our life’s work, and we need to keep track of it.”
Support beyond buying
Taymour Grahne Projects
While a collector and artist might initially begin a relationship around an artwork, maintaining that tie doesn’t necessarily have to happen through a buyer’s continuous flexing of purchasing power. Collectors can help mentor artists in various ways. Collector and businesswoman Pamela Joyner, for instance, hosts a residency at a studio adjacent to her home in Sonoma, California. Bernard Lumpkin has amplified visibility and generated positive buzz for artists in the recent catalog Young, Gifted, and Black, which is also the subject of a traveling exhibition.
In Osadebe’s experience, he has become acquainted with collectors whom he can call up for marketing advice, troubleshooting with tech, and lessons on bitcoin as payment. Brooklyn-based painter Dominique Fung remembers one collector who helped her with her letter of recommendation for graduate school. Recently, one of her closest collectors, Steven Abraham, has been sending her resources to help her draft stronger contracts as demand for her paintings rapidly grows.
Taymour Grahne Projects
Many artists say that one of the simplest and most appreciated ways that buyers can affirm their commitment to them is to spread word of their practices. “I can really pinpoint a couple of collectors that have been pivotal to my career because they were willing to essentially shout my name from the rooftop,” Fung said. “I’ve also had collectors that buy one or a few things, and they drop off the planet. As much as those are great when you’re starting out, I think in the long run you want people who are willing to advocate for you.”
For New York–based artist Pamela Council, support can still happen without any purchase of an artwork. “The most important collectors for me are the ones who support me without asking for work,” she said, adding that that can mean awarding grants or providing in-kind services such as the help of a lawyer on retainer. “Just ask the artist what they need, and it usually comes down to some combo of money, time, and space.”
Broken Rosebush, 2018.
As rewarding as these relationships can be for both parties, the power dynamics between collectors as patrons and artists as creators can place undue pressure on the latter, whether to deliver work or simply provide a collector with attention. “Collectors can’t expect a certain relationship because they bought the work,” Hegarty said. “We’re not obliged to be friends with them if we don’t want to be. Artists are pretty busy, too.”
This means doing away with the assumption that just because you purchased a piece means you automatically garner greater access to an artist’s studio or their various inboxes. “Some collectors can message you every day and push you,” Osadebe said. “I work independently, and I don’t owe anybody five new works. It’s a big no-no when collectors start to act entitled to the artist and the work.”
Nigerian Soldier With Teddy, 2018.
Galerie Liusa Wang
Jade Dragon Bathhouse and Spa, 2017.
As Fung sees it, “There is an etiquette to the right amount of messaging and the right amount of asking for studio visits. You can ask, and if the artist clearly seems busy, maybe wait a couple of months before asking again. It’s also just nice to be checked up on. Just asking, ‘How is your practice going? How are you doing?’ Rather than, ‘Where’s your next piece? How can I buy it?’ I’m a person, not just a product.”
“Collectors play different roles in the life of an artist, and it’s important there is a balance,” Osadebe said. “Not all collectors should be stakeholders, not all collectors should be your friends. Some collectors even prefer the mystery of the artist. As an artist, I also enjoy the mystery of the collector.”
Collectors should understand that no one approach is guaranteed to plant seeds of healthy connections. Ultimately, however, as with any relationship, a bond between a collector and an artist can build only with a commitment to honesty and empathy. Being genuine, respectful, and considerate goes a far longer way than deep pockets.