Owning Art

Written by Kyu Jin Hwang

Translated by Youngjoo Kang

I come from a typical middle-class family in Seoul, grew up as the oldest daughter of three children. I recall that my family was financially stable, but we were not well to do by any means. My hardworking parents raised three kids and provided sufficient educational support, and when they had extra cash, my parents would take us for a family trip or out for a meal at a restaurant, or go play golf for fun. Extra cash, though, would not lead them to purchase artwork, expensive ornaments or furniture by a famous designer. There was no such thing as an heirloom of antique furniture or art piece handed down over generations, but I do remember that we would visit a museum or an art gallery or go see a children’s musical from time to time on weekends. As the common belief goes, art was what you "saw" and the music was what you "listened to."

I was an anomaly of my family to have decided to pursue art, and I have been living as an artist ever since. Even during my college years, art was either to "make", "see" or "exhibit", and "buying" or "collecting" art was abstract and unfamiliar, to say the least. As far as people from a similar background are concerned, I assume that I am not the only one who feels this way. Paying for artwork is generally not an easy task even for those who are interested in and knowledgeable about it. It wasn’t until I started working for a commercial gallery that "selling and buying art" began to feel concrete. It was a whole new world. "So many people actually desire to own expensive artwork and actualize it by purchasing it," I realized. The daughter from a no-art family experienced a different level of shock when she came to London.

When I worked as a member of the curatorial team in Korea, specifically in artists management and exhibition preparation, I would often hear stories from collectors I met for art sales at art fairs or sometimes from my colleagues. Meanwhile, what I experienced working for the sales department in London began to change my notions of "art purchasing". I consciously tried to think that I had to, at the very least, bridge the gap between my personal and professional life and acknowledge that what I experienced was just my work and not my life. Come to think of the reason for such discrepancies, I had a sense of slight envy at their ability to own artwork they liked, and, at the same time, childish disappointment with myself that I was not one of them. How come I am only able to see art! I learned how to get over these gaps in my head shortly after, however. (I am still dreaming of becoming a collector someday, though.)

This may be a bit of stretch, but in all fairness, one could say that certain eras of art history have been mainly influenced by art collectors if you look into some significant collections. The Medici family in the Renaissance, Peggy Guggenheim, the pioneer of American Abstract Expressionism, and Charles Saatchi of the yBa (Young British Artists) movement are some examples of how powerful patrons have changed the history of art. Collecting art was more than a hobby for them and they mainly gave back to the communities by starting art foundations or opening galleries which benefited the public, or they sponsored works by artists and art historians. Saatchi has been criticized for selling the paintings he bought of yBas for a vast profit, but it may be worth questioning whether his reselling of what he owned within morally acceptable standards deserves criticism. Whether he took advantage of the yBas or whether his contribution to society was insufficient in exemplary standards, it is indisputable that Sacchi played a huge role in reviving British contemporary art. After all, he is just a businessman.

Buying artwork is often perceived as either "a hobby of indulgence and pretense" or a safe long-term investment with low downside risk. It is particularly true in Korea that hidden art sales at a high price come with breaking news of political corruption, and, naturally, owning art is strongly associated with  "parking black money". Even now, people's predominant impression on art collecting is rather negative instead of positive. Truthfully, the price of the most artwork, besides some blue-chip pieces, barely increases enough in one or two years for collectors to even treat it as an investment. The textbook idea would be to start collecting art as a hobby according to one's taste and budget and keeping it rather than reselling it for profit. I believe that even for the collectors who consider the act of purchasing artwork as the "parking lot of black money", in the beginning, started it so they could hold their favorite artwork near to their hearts and in their arms.    

Then, is “collector” simply a lucky title for those who were born with a silver spoon in their mouths and have a family who is well-versed in art? Therefore, does it make collecting art a story from another world? Numerous collectors do indeed begin their art collection with family wealth or as a family tradition, but there are more modern art collectors than you would imagine who are from average backgrounds. Starting off with a far less budget than those from family money, they would do a tremendous amount of research and legwork, which naturally leads them to build a collection of distinct taste and philosophy. The Belgian couple, Anton and Annick Herbert are considered to be the most reputable collectors in the minimal and conceptual art worlds. Anton Herbert was a textile machinery salesman, and Annick Herbert worked in the fashion industry. From a young age, they began to purchase inexpensive artwork by little-known artists who were similar in the age. They would either buy pieces directly from artists they had been acquainted with or from a gallery. Their first purchased work was a text art of Lawrence Weiner, and it was later known that they used the money they had saved up to buy a TV so they were not able to watch TV for a while. Artists from the Herberts' early collection are now famous, and as those artists grew, the value, insight and faithful contributions of the Herberts' collection have grown as well. The Herberts once said, "Wealth might be detrimental to an art collector. They have a huge financial cushion that makes it easy for them to buy art on impulse and regret it the day after." Regardless of their budgets, because it involves a significant amount of money, collectors quickly acquire knowledge of their art of interest even if starting with a blank slate. They find experts or organize a reading group in order to get a better understanding of their artists and works, the most important period of the artist's' work, other artists from the same time period, and where the art world is headed, and consequently, they become decent experts themselves, infusing a breath of intelligence into their collections.

To give a more personal example, I have an acquaintance who works at a gallery, is in her 30s, and has just started collecting art. She is on a tight budget given the predictably low gallery wages, but she was able to save and purchase young artists' works ranging from 2-300,000 won to 1.5 million won from alternative art spaces, gallery charity auctions or direct sales from the artists. She didn't have a big goal in mind when she started collecting two years ago, but slowly discovering her taste of art by working in the art scene, she first purchased witty and genuine works by artists of her age and now she has six works in her collection. Owning artwork that I sincerely treasure is a very special experience regardless of its value or the artist's reputation. I see it just as the same as purchasing any other collectibles such as vinyl records, postcards, or limited-edition action figures. It is a very personal and intimate sense of happiness. If the work was an original and only one existed in the entire world, that would be exceptional, though works in editions are special as well.

On the other hand, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard made a scornful observation that the act of "collecting" enabled today's society of materialism and consumerism to replace human values and personal relationships with objects. We are inevitably living in a world that primarily operates under capitalistic rules, therefore abstract values, human qualities, and even the art would have a price tag. In February of 2016 at Sotheby's in London, a young Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie's work from 2014 (Adrian Ghenie, born in 1977) started with a bid of 400,000 to 600,000 pounds (equivalent to approximately six million won) and ended up being auctioned off at 3,117,000 pounds(4.5 billion Korean won) after fierce competition, five times higher than the estimated price. It was a reinterpretation of the masterpiece, Sunflowers, by the great artist Vincent van Gogh, on a huge canvas. Despite the fact that the auction was only available for ticket holders, the auction room was packed and short of chairs, and needless to explain the situation, blue-chip works from that day were sold at a far higher price than ever estimated. When it was time for the works by Ghenie, which was under the spotlight before the auction, bidding in person and over the telephone was intensely heated. The auction closed after this young artist's work of a mere two years was sold for a price comparable to that of a blue-chip as a result of macho collectors’ compulsive and desperate bidding on it, and a wild burst of applause followed. For whom and what was the applause to celebrate (or console)? After that evening of the auction, the phenomenal bidding price record was a very hot topic. Watching the bidding price spike far past the estimated point, I was stunned and instinctively began to think about how many houses that could buy, but also, I felt concerned for the young artist who has a lot more to paint in the coming years of his life. After the sweet success of the 39-year-old artist’s painting is worth over 45 billion won, the now critically labeled “commercial artist” faces tremendous expectations and hurdles. 

In the current art world, the scale of collections is growing, the subjects are diversifying, and celebrities' collections are gaining a brighter spotlight. There are more issues and standards revolving around them as well. What are desirable traits of an exemplary art collector? Is it fair to criticize the collections that benefit the collector who then builds up wealth from it? Collecting art is the same as collecting stamps or shoes as they are all the action of collecting, yet, it is not likely that ordinary people can partake in art collecting due to its absolute scarcity and relatively higher cost. I am not saying that collecting art is worth trying at once, at least, if you are interested in art. I even think that any attempts to suggest what makes a good collection and the right way to do it is meaningless because everyone has a different taste. Wanting to own beautiful things and collecting them is human nature, and we are living in a world where art is accessible, and it is my wish that people find something within their reach.

Kyu Jin Hwang

Kyu Jin Hwang is a private collection manager living in London.

Illustrator。 Adehla Lee
Adehla Lee left her hometown Busan to move to Seoul, and moved again to NYC searching for a fun and exciting life. In terms of her art, “fun” is also the most essential element. She is trying so hard to not make something boring, complicated, and blandiose. Cur- rently, she has been thinking that her work is like candy that is so sweet that it is fatal. adehla@gmail.com


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