The Art of Collecting: A Closer Look at Small-Scale Art Collectors

The Art of Collecting: A Closer Look at Small-Scale Art Collectors

The word “collector” carries a certain weight and conjures images of grand rooms filled with pieces or a long tradition — with areas of shadow — that dates back to the cabinets of curiosities of the 17th century. So, first and foremost, it must be clarified that hardly any small collector considers themselves a collector, no matter how respectable — all are — their accumulation of artwork may be. Additionally, the media discourse, so focused on institutions or the more sensational and debatable phenomena of the art market, often fails to give a voice to those who collect away from the major auctions or the stratospheric figures. Thus, outside their circles, small collectors are often discovered through friends who have visited their homes and point them out with comments like: “Juan has a collection of drawings that won’t fit another one on the wall” or “Beatriz’s apartment is filled with contemporary sculpture.” Then, Juan and Beatriz — hypothetical names — say that no, they are not collectors, but well, they do have a few things.

The Impact of Taxation on Art Collecting

When on March 6th, Minister of Culture Ernest Urtasun conveyed to the Gallery Consortium his intention to reduce the VAT on art sales from 21% (general rate) to 10% (the rate that has been applied since 2018, for example, to cinema or concert tickets, and still higher than the 4% applied to books and newspapers), a small storm erupted on social media. A part of society (which, for once, included both people who perceive themselves as left-wing and others who perceive themselves as right-wing) did not understand why taxes on a business that, as often read, moves billions of euros and breaks profitability records every year were being considered for reduction. However, as gallery owners and artists comment, the news was well received in the sector despite causing some confusion during fairs such as Arco and Justmad, which were being held at that time.

Perspectives from Art Galleries and Collectors

Rafael Bonilla, co-director of the Paisaje Doméstico gallery, explains that “collectors have been complaining for some time. They wonder why a novel or a play has reduced VAT and a work of art does not.” This gallery owner emphasizes that he tries to ensure that the price is not an obstacle for “the collector who falls in love with a work” and, for example, always allows payment to be split. Paisaje Doméstico works with pieces by some of Spain’s most important artists of the moment, but the audience acquiring the work is of all types and, certainly, is not predominantly made up of magnates or investors: “There is no fixed profile; it would be as adventurous as asking who likes music: it can appeal to anyone. Just as a song generates a powerful emotion and you will follow that singer for life, in the world of art there is a moment when a work excites you or changes your mood and the spirit of that artist takes hold of you.” When pressed, Bonilla tries to refine and improvises a profile of that small collector who repeats (“doctors, civil servants, executives of small companies…”), but then adds that there is always a client who “instead of buying a print at IKEA, decides to buy a work.” Very positive because “collections often depend on a first click, on that first work followed by the rest.”

Collecting for Pleasure: Beyond Decoration and Speculation

“As a capricious collector or seeker of small pieces that give me pleasure, I am governed by very different things from what moves the curator,” says Carmen Iranzo, a professor at the Escuela Superior de Diseño de Murcia and a collector for decades, although she still struggles to recognize it. “The curator is guided by a series of market issues, values of the moment, fashions, and prestige… And the very small collector does not follow market criteria, nor does he think about the value the work will have or the possible heirs.” To finally settle the most morbid question, she immediately confesses that “the price is only experienced as a fear of not being able to access a certain work, never in terms of its presumed value” and details how her first purchase went: “I thought it was beyond my means. At an exhibition of original drawings at the Sin Sentido gallery, I especially liked one by Elisa Aguilé. And that night I dreamed of that drawing in a display case with glass that belonged to my grandmother. When I finally bought it, I was surprised that in my memory it was completely different. But not because of that did I like it less, and I still love it. I realized that of course I could have it, but it’s a matter of priorities.”

Both the bibliophile (who relies on that phrase, already a bit out of date, by John Waters: “If you go to someone’s house and they don’t have books, don’t…”) and the record collector have been more accessible to the general public for decades than the art collector. But both the book and the vinyl are reproductions of an original or media for certain content and, as Walter Benjamin pointed out in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a manifesto that becomes more relevant with each technological advance: “Even in the most finished reproduction, something is missing: the here and now of the work of art, its unrepeatable existence in the place where it is found. In this singular existence, and in nothing else, the history to which it has been subjected during its duration was realized.” Unlike other objects, the work of art is an unrepeatable presence, and Vicente Martínez Gadea, an architect with dozens of them in his usual residence, is amazed that there are those who do not feel this way: “I do not understand those who have never decided to buy even a print or a small drawing.”

“Lack of space is not a sufficient excuse. I was in the house of a Dutch collector who had ceilings full of paintings,” Martínez Gadea continues. Iranzo agrees, although she acknowledges that, in her case, “the desire to buy a piece always appears first, always above practical matters,” and sometimes the danger of deterioration is real because her house is in worse condition than the piece she buys. “For example, now I have acquired a small painting by Hermann Reimer and I think about how I should fix the house, whether I should paint or not, to give it a dignified space,” she admits.

Without the need for a strategy, most collectors know what they are looking for. “I have works on paper, some collages, and some small paintings,” says the professor. “Minor works that never seem minor to me. Original drawings make me very happy because the drawing contains many things: the germ and an intimate work that can stay there or transform. It is a first phase during which the artist or illustrator is seen experimenting,” she continues. However, interests often evolve and, from time to time, even those with experience doubt. Then the gallery owner intervenes: “I ask the undecided what they like, what their house is like, what their life is like, what their concerns are, and even how their economy is, because sometimes money, like time, needs to be talked about,” explains Bonilla. “I like to advise and be a

kind of agent who guides and indicates where their collection could go if they decide to buy it. And if they already have a collection, I advise on whether a piece fits or not in that collection. I, in addition to being a gallery owner, collect, and there are pieces that I love, but I don’t buy because they don’t fit into my collection line,” he concludes.

Artist Preferences and Relationships with Collectors

What do artists prefer? That their works coexist with a private individual or that they become part of institutional collections? Luisa Pastor, with work at the Nordés Gallery, comments that both options are satisfying: “I am interested in the collector being happy with the acquisition. I like to think about how it will relate to it later and the place it will occupy in its space alongside its personal objects. Works have to travel and become independent! On the other hand, relevant collections, public or private, are those that allow growth and draw a trajectory.” What are those relationships established between collector and artwork? The Alicante artist continues: “Art has the power to make us reflect on the world around us, as a thought device rather than a decorative object. I like to think that you do not live in the same way in a house surrounded by books and paintings, as you do without them.” Regarding the “use” that each client gives to the works, Bonilla recalls an anecdote that he finds tremendously beautiful: “I have a client who collects video art, and one day I asked her how she really enjoys her collection. And what she does is host parties and dinners at her house and project all the works she has been buying.” There are many ways to enjoy the works, but in all cases, collectors speak of the pleasure they bring. It will be the aura (another term from Benjamin).