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Collectors are calling the shots at Art Basel and beyond

Roles in flux as patrons establish private museums and foundations or work directly with artists

Collectors are in the driving seat at Art Basel and, increasingly, in the rest of the art world. Thousands of collectors, including the hedge-funder Steve Cohen, the publishing magnate Peter Brant, Susan and Michael Hort and the Belgian collector Mimi Dusselier, visited the fair during yesterday’s preview, and many more are expected for today’s second VIP opening.

The growth in the number of high-level buyers is underscored by the size of Art Basel's VIP relations team, which has almost tripled since 2008, from nine to 26 people working internationally to cultivate collectors. Many buyers have flown in especially for this year’s fair; the private plane company NetJets has reported a 16% increase in the number of flights registered (a total of around 110 jets). Christian Boros, the Berlin-based founder of the Boros Collection, paid a flying visit to the fair yesterday.

Decline in public funding

The rise of the private collector coincides with the decline in public funding for the arts, and is creating new power dynamics. “Increasingly, collectors view themselves as the authority,” says the New York-based dealer Edward Winkleman, whose new book Selling Contemporary Art, which is due to be published in August, analyses the evolving role of private collectors. “There’s a larger cultural tsunami coming,” he predicts.

In the past ten years, new money has poured into the contemporary art market to such an extent that there is an “urgent need to adapt behaviours, procedures and structures”, says the Belgium-based collector Alain Servais. “The main downside of this influx of money is that it brings a lack of connoisseurship."

An increasing number of collectors are creating foundations and private museums, while many are working directly with artists and others are acting as market-makers. Servais himself is something of a market commentator. He says he has access to information that “few other stakeholders have the independence to reveal… I consider it my responsibility to try to make the debate more open”.

'Hybrid setups'

While power, privilege and patronage have been bedfellows since the Renaissance, what has changed is the "enormous diversity of how this ambiguity is being played out”, says Max Hollein, the director of the Schirn Kunsthalle. Some collectors are creating “hybrid setups that are a manifestation of connoisseurship… and yet also have a strong connection with the commercial world”, he says. “It is a transformation of the institutional cultural landscape.”

There are positives, says the art adviser Emily Tsingou, who cites Basel’s Fondation Beyeler as an example of an important institution established by a dealer/collector. But she also strikes a note of caution. “People can take advantage of the fact that they’re setting up a foundation; their access in the market is increased, and the doors open wider," she says.

Others are more forthright in their criticisms. Speaking at a conference held at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris last week, the art historian Patricia Falguières called private collectors who establish their own foundations and museums “terrible and narcissistic”, and said that their spending power “does not give them the influence to rewrite art history”. Chris Dercon, Tate Modern's director, who also spoke at the event, has previously criticised many collectors’ taste in art. “Stupid art is produced to compensate for [their] lack of knowledge,” he told the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung last year.

These kinds of attacks may explain why some collectors feel that “established museums can sometimes come across as hard to become involved with”, says Mihail Lari, a Los Angeles-based collector. “It’s no wonder that many collectors are gravitating towards creating their own playpens. But if we all took our art and set up private museums, it would be a sad day for public institutions.”

Not to be overlooked are the progressive collectors stepping into the breach where there is meagre public funding. “In South Africa, there is a small group of incredibly forward-thinking and generous collectors who are [aiming] to actively grow the careers of the artists they believe in,” says Liza Essers, the director of Cape Town- and Johannesburg-based Goodman Gallery (R12). The gallery's sales include William Kentridge’s Untitled I (Drawing from Lulu) (2015), which went for to a private European collector for $185,000.

Active participants

Some artists are also benefiting from collectors’ largesse, says Adam Sheffer, a director of Cheim & Read (D17), which has sold Joan Mitchell's painting Untitled (1957) to a private US collector for $6m. “Collectors have become active participants in making great things happen for artists. Galleries rely on independent wealth and private foundations to supplement what we do," he says.

Collectors need to make “a choice between short-term investment and long-term commitment”, says Valeria Napoleone, a longtime patron based in London who launched a new initiative this month. Called Valeria Napoleone XX, it aims to bring work by female artists to UK and US museums. “It is not a power game and I am not trying to expand or exercise my influence. It’s about support and collaborations, an extension of what I have been doing for the past 18 years,” she says.

“Collectors certainly have a lot of power, and that’s not a bad thing,” says the New York-based dealer Jack Shainman (T6), whose sales include Carrie Mae Weems’s House/Field/Yard/Kitchen (1995-96), which was bought by a private European collector for $90,000. “There are some top collectors who are very independent, and there are also collectors who buy with their ears. All in all, there’s room for everyone."

Critics need to move with the times, says Alia Al-Senussi, Basel’s head of VIP relations for the Middle East and the chairman of Tate Young Patrons. “Privilege and power are not just about money, but about the ability to influence and create, so I can understand why collectors are becoming involved in other significant ways,” she says. The tendency for collectors to carve out new roles is something we should “work with to ensure it is a positive development, because it is not going to go back to the way it was”, she says. “The complaints about the direction of the art world are a reminder of the same conversations one has with a grandparent recalling life being better in a simpler time; basically nostalgia, rather than fact.”