When Toronto-based Spin Gallery asked me to moderate a series of panel discussions by art collectors on the joys of collecting and amassing art, I almost turned the gig down. My impression of art collectors, formed by years of hanging around (and sometimes showing in) art galleries, is not altogether fond.
People who consider themselves "serious" collectors -- of art, or comic books, or vintage ladies' undergarments -- are often tightly wound, obsessive-compulsive types with attention spans that begin at the mention of their hoardings and end with the next topic. Art collectors are even worse. They carry slides in their pockets.
Furthermore, the Canadian art collector was, until very recently, something of an oxymoron. For years, young Canadian artists have complained that collectors only open their wallets after the art has been taken to a debutante ball in New York or London or Paris. One well-known Canadian artist told me that throughout the nineties he was unable to sell a single work in Toronto, but when the exact same work was shown six months later in New York, wealthy Canadian buyers would fly down for the weekend and snatch up every piece. For these well-heeled buyers, Canadian often meant former Canadian.
You can imagine my reluctance to meet and make nice with such colonized connoisseurs, the kind of Torontonians who walk around with The Village Voice in their satchels. So far, however, I've been pleasantly surprised.
While a handful of older collectors are still stuck in the hype = right model of collecting (what Toronto curator Carla Garnett calls the "let me know when you're showing outside Canada so I can pay triple" syndrome), there's a new type of collector emerging who is interested in improving the quality of their life, not their investment portfolio, with art. And they are not afraid to think local and buy local.
The new collectors tend to be younger, well-off but not super-rich, informed but not academic, and -- most shocking -- focused exclusively (and unabashedly) on contemporary Canadian works.
Laura Michalchyshyn and her husband Rick Gilbert have filled their Toronto home with an eclectic, busy mix of photography, painting, small sculpture and DVD-video works, all of it by younger Canadian artists.
"I support the gallery circuit in my neighbourhood," Michalchyshyn tells me over the phone from her office at Alliance Atlantis Communications, where she is senior vice-president of dramatic programming. "Right here, in Parkdale," -- a notoriously rundown part of Toronto -- "I go out on Saturdays to do my shopping and stop into the galleries. Look, I'm from Winnipeg, where the cult of the artist is very strong, and I grew up in an environment where everybody went to everybody else's openings or screenings or performances, so it's natural for me to buy locally."
Although their collection is small by traditional standards -- "We have about 40 pieces, maybe 45, mostly smaller works. It just looks like several hundred in our house," Michalchyshyn jokes -- she and Gilbert, a film set designer, buy for love, not ego.
"I've only been buying art for the last seven years, after I got a real job," Michalchyshyn continues, "and since all my friends are either curators or artists or filmmakers, I never bought for any reason other than pure pleasure. I tend to meet people I really like and then buy their work. It's very personal, and I'm very, very loyal to the artists I love. And then sometimes I'll see some great art and know nothing about the artist -- but the visceral experience I have with the work makes me grab it up.
"Because I work in film, the similarities between film festivals and art events fascinate me. There's the same excitement, the same need for attention -- but artists have way more freedom than filmmakers."
Michalchyshyn balks at the idea that she is a "collector," dismissing the hidebound connotations with a laugh.
"Some people have called my collection ragtag, and I guess it is. I even have photocopies on my walls! Rick and I sometimes have to have discussions about what is an 'upstairs' piece and what is a 'downstairs' piece, but [artist]Stephen Andrews taught me the magic secret: Move the art around the house. Rotate!
"Now that my house is almost full, my friends are actually telling me that it's time to start buying bigger works -- as in large in size, not necessarily big names. Where am I going to put big art? Besides, I find small works to be more risky, more adventurous, because there's literally less material at stake for the artist, and he or she can take more chances. And I still have a couple of feet of wall space left."
In Edmonton, designer Peter Turner has been collecting risky art for years, and now adds a number of younger Canadian artists to his holdings.
"My partner [artist]Dana Holst and I have started collecting a lot of found objects as art lately, which makes my collection as a whole kind of complicated -- especially when you try to match the new, found stuff next to my older collection of Western Canadian art. But I'm not intimidated by difficult or challenging art, so I buy works by a lot of new artists, like Shary Boyle and Ed Pien, for instance. I even bought something by someone I'd never heard of whose work I saw at the Toronto Outdoor Art Show. Plus, in my design work I do a lot of buying for clients, and I've started bringing younger Canadian artists to their attention."
Turner and Holst are currently working on a multimedia project called Fraught, which will be exhibited this summer at Stratford, Ont., and the research for the show has exposed Turner to many young artists.
"Even though we're working on this project and it involves looking at a lot of different things, I don't buy something just because it's 'hot,' Turner says.
"I don't care who's hip or who's in. What I look for is an exciting quality in the work itself. It doesn't really matter who the artist is -- so I'm not buying work from any particular movement or school. . . Basically, I see it, I like it, I buy it."
Having said that, Turner is quick to remind me that he is not always an impulse shopper.
"If I'm buying something at a higher price, I like to do a little research, find out who the artist is, what their career has been. If you pay more money, you should know more. But I'm not a speculator by any means. My collection is not an investment, it's a passion."
Artists, of course, couldn't be happier. Toronto multimedia artist Patrick DeCoste, who exhibits across Canada and in the United States and Britain, has discovered a new market for small works -- twentysomethings with cash.
"I've sold big, expensive traditional figurative paintings to the usual buyers, architects and lawyers and professionals, but recently I've started making really tiny, for me anyway, works that are very unusual -- more personal and quirky -- and the rich kids, the kind you see in clubs, just snap them up. Younger collectors want a good deal. They can't usually afford a $5,000 painting, or they live in smaller spaces and don't have the room."
DeCoste feels the relationship between collector and artist is changing as well, primarily because younger collectors are not as obsessed with establishing a social relationship with the artists whose work they buy. The days of the rich collector who also collects artist friends are waning.
"I used to get nervous around buyers," DeCoste says, "I used to think I had to go out there and smile and nod and be nice and convince the buyer of the value of my work -- but the new collectors aren't interested in social climbing through the arts. I don't feel like I have to whore myself to them. If they like the art, they buy it. My personality is not part of their collecting process -- and I could tell you some horror stories about older collectors who wanted a lot more than my personality."