Collectors are—it should go without saying—one of the key parts of any art fair. In fact, part of what an art fair does is put collecting, which is often an activity that happens behind closed doors, on more public view. On October 25 at Art Toronto, three top Canadian collectors—Samara Walbohm, Ken Montague and Joe Friday—gathered in a panel moderated by renowned critic (and no insignificant collector herself) Sarah Milroy. Here are some of the observations shared both during the panel and in related conversations.
For its size, Toronto may be one of the most art-collector-filled cities in the world.
Ken Montague—whose collecting activity has grown into impressive and innovative exhibitions through his Wedge Curatorial Projects initiative—travels the world often to visit Frieze New York, the Johannesburg Art Fair, Lagos Photo and more. He’s also involved with an African-art acquisitions committee at Tate Modern. So he has a lot to compare to when he says, “I think for its size, Toronto is one of the most art-collector-filled cities in the world. Artists here actually have a chance to have a career because people will buy their work and support them.” He also suggests bringing in more international scholars to speak at the fair to give it more profile at home and around the globe.
Top Canadian collectors often buy from international galleries at fairs abroad, so it can be frustrating for these Canadian collectors when those galleries refuse to come to a Canadian fair.
Joe Friday, who has amassed what the Globe and Mail has described as the most significant private holding of art in the Ottawa area, says that “I would really desperately love to see Canadian and non-Canadian work brought together in a really rich mix” at a Canadian art fair. After all, he says “my own collecting is aimed at poking a few holes in those boundaries.” This year alone, Friday bought work—sometimes work by Canadian artists—from international dealers at Art Basel, Frieze New York and NADA New York. “Some of these galleries have consistently buying Canadian clients,” Friday says. “So that can be a little frustrating to say, ‘We have come to you. How about coming to us for a change?”
Sometimes collectors don’t consider themselves as such.
Samara Walbohm and her husband Joe Shlensinger have been buying art since the late 1990s. They gained more public profile in the last few years with the opening of Scrap Metal, a space that was originally used for storage and now showcases works from their collection to great acclaim. Yet Walbohm says, “We don’t consider ourselves collectors—we have huge gaps.” She says this came to her attention when collectors were visiting their home and someone asked, “Well, where’s your Borduas?” To which Walbohm replied, “We don’t have that!” As Walbohm explains of her choice to not consider herself a collector, “We don’t have a mission. We don’t have a game plan. And I think that’s kind of liberating.”
There is room for a healthy collecting-versus-shopping debate.
“The difference between collector and shopper is always in my mind,” Montague says. The difference, he says, is that the former is about telling stories and shaping narratives, while the latter is more about trends and fashion. He considers himself firmly in the collecting category, while Walbohm says emphatically, “We’re shoppers!” To this, Montague objects, “Well, you’re very discerning shoppers.”
Sometimes the best thing for a collector to do at an art fair is not buy anything at all.
Joe Friday says that one of the great things about art fairs is that is they are a more “relaxed and convivial environment” for learning and looking about art than, say, poking your head in a silent gallery. “Even if you can’t have the longest, most involved discussion at a fair booth, it still is a very good opportunity to ask as many questions as you can” about an artist or artwork, Friday says. Ken Montague agrees. “Use the art fair as opportunity for gaining knowledge and getting to know gallerists,” Montague says when asked about his advice for emerging collectors. “Talk to the gallery directors for a few minutes at the fair… and follow up with them via email.” He thinks it’s best to “take the time, do the research and save your money towards one or two very special artworks or artists …. than five really inexpensive things that might not have so much staying power.”
At the same time, collector regrets often stem not from buying something too quickly, but from missing out on something great.
While Friday warns new collectors about the need to strike a balance against what can be a “pressure-cooker atmosphere” at an art fair that makes purchases more urgent, “regrets are usually about work that you missed, not work that you bought,” Montague says.
Don’t just collect—hold on to your collection!
Collector regrets can also relate to work that you had, and then let go of; Milroy pointed out that J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere’s photos of Nigerian women’s hairstyles—a prominent inclusion in this year’s Venice Biennale exhibition “The Encyclopedic Palace”—were something she first saw in the collection of Ken Montague in the early 2000s. Montague says he originally had 10, and sold most of them. As you go, you learn to “keep the work, don’t sell the work,” he says. Joe Friday still has every work he ever bought—including the first piece he purchased as a student for $750—except for one artwork that he donated. “You can feel so validated when you put something you bought 20 years ago next to something you bought 20 minutes ago,” Friday says, especially when there is a thematic thread that runs through them.
The best way to start collecting is to begin where you are.
Walbohm, though best known now as a collector of contemporary art, got her start when she was doing her PhD on Toronto’s Heliconian Club—a club for women in the arts and letters since 1909. She says she was fascinated by a group of women artists who were working around the same time as the Group of Seven, but who earned much less recognition. Originally, she and her husband—then a photographer for the Canadian Press and an artist in his own right—started going to auctions to try to purchase works from some of these women she was studying. But her collecting in this area was stymied by a paucity of surviving work; many of the pieces, she says, were destroyed or jettisoned in the artists’ lifetimes. “If I every see an Elizabeth Wyn Wood bronze,” she says, ” I would sell everything to buy one of those.” Buying a Jack Bush painting in 1999 was what put she and Shlesinger on a more contemporary collecting track—but things could always change again. “It’s an untamed beast,” she says of her collecting activity.
This is part of a series of daily posts on Art Toronto, Canada’s largest modern and contemporary art fair. To read more of our coverage, visit canadianart.ca/arttoronto or visit Booth 940 to pick up our special Art Toronto edition.