How to build a contemporary collection

The British collector Frank Cohen reviews a guide to the intricacies of buying new art


It does not seem so long ago that artists and dealers bemoaned the lack of collectors in Britain. Serious collectors in the UK, it was said, could be counted on the fingers of one hand. By “serious”, it was meant collectors who understood and were committed to the acquisition of the latest in contemporary art both home-grown and from overseas. It is arguable that the success of the first really internationally renowned and cohesive art movement in post-war Britain, the Young British Artists (YBAs), owes it success to the acquisitive efforts of one lone visionary British collector, Charles Saatchi. Mr Saatchi set the stage for a new breed of collector who began to emerge first in a trickle and then in a gush, as his promotional chutzpah made collecting sexy.

These days, every town and city throughout the world seems to have either an up-and-running or a planned contemporary art biennial. In recent weeks, biennials and triennials have opened in Singapore, Shanghai, Gwangju and Liverpool and, I am sure, others too. The art world is creaking under their weight, but an alternative is fast developing, the art fair. Art fairs have most of what the biennials have to offer: fringe activities, cutting-edge art, large exhibitions of the work of major contemporary artists, parties, networking, discussions, celebrities, plus a special something that biennials do not have—all the work is for sale. They are the breeding ground for new collectors.

I started my own collection over 30 years ago. Its growth has gone hand-in-hand with a personal journey that has extended my understanding of contemporary art. Not everything I have collected over that time remains in my possession; collections change as the collector’s appreciation grows. My knowledge of contemporary art and, more importantly, my increased awareness of what makes sense to me, has deepened and matured over that time as my knowledge of the intricacies and intrigues of the art world has grown. I have spent a lot of money, seen dealers and artists come and go, established long-term relationships with others, and gradually gathered together a collection of works that begins to make sense as a statement that, I think, tells the world what I am about.

This process, fascinating though it has been, would have been a whole lot easier if Louisa Buck’s [this newspaper’s contemporary art correspondent] and Judith Greer’s book had been available in the early years of my collecting. It is the most informative book on the mechanics of the contemporary art market. It does not miss much. Ms Buck’s and Ms Greer’s book takes the reader through each aspect of collecting art—from tax and insurance to framing and conservation. It will become, I am sure, essential reading for those who, at the moment, are in the early stages of collecting as they progress from what is effectively high-status shopping to the building of a serious collection. Although this book details painstakingly all the nuts and bolts of collection and is, thus, like any other manual for a leisure activity, from car maintenance to cookery, it is most valuable in its revelations about the human and abstract aspects of collecting.

Contextualised by an abundance of interviews with and quotations by those who really know the field, Owning Art illuminates the more mysterious dimensions of collecting. The drive and compulsion that motivates collectors, the intellectual imperatives that attract and challenge their intelligence and confront their taboos, the desire to be taken by the artist into a hitherto unknown realm of experience, and the excitement and diversion from the banality of everyday life that that brings are all explored. Read carefully, Owning Art is an encouragement for collectors to become much more than canny investors and to comprehend the deeper nature of the course that building a collection takes. Rather than merely providing a toolkit for aspiring art buyers, as the publisher’s press release suggests, this book’s great value lies in the insight it provides into what makes artists and their world tick and how an understanding of that distinguishes the mere shopper from the more selective collector.

In an otherwise excellent book, there is, however, one oversight. It is something that is particularly relevant to me as I plan the imminent opening of my collection to the public. It applies to any collector whether he is mentioned in the book or not. It is this piece of advice: be resilient to the critics. If you lend works or put shows on in public spaces for no personal gain or even write articles, remember: if the show takes a bashing or you are personally criticised, take it on the chin. Maybe there should have been a chapter on how to develop a thick skin.

o The first exhibition of the Frank Cohen Collection will be at Units 19 & 20, Calibre Industrial Park, Laches Close, Four Ashes, Wolverhampton WW10 7DZ in October. It will be open on Saturdays and Sundays, 11am-4pm, and by appointment. There is no entrance charge. For dates and details: +44 (0)1904 798 999.