Got Art?

Wendy Cromwell ’86 believes that even with limited means any art enthusiast can be a collector. All you need is to blend a little determination with desire.

by Jane Falla

Wendy CromwellWendy Cromwell ’86 has some simple advice for anyone who wants to turn her passion for art into collecting: Don’t be intimidated. Art collecting is accessible to anyone, she believes, even when you’re on a tight budget.

In 2002, she launched Cromwell Art to advise private and corporate clients on contemporary art sales and acquisitions. Prior to that, she worked at Sotheby’s for ten years. In 2008, she also helped found the Smith College Museum of Art Contemporary Associates, which supports the museum in collecting photography, video, and new media. The group has been responsible for four acquisitions to date: the animated video The Birth of RMB City by Cao Fei, the C-prints “Ready Crust” and “Jake with Wetsuit” by Roe Etheridge, and the video Shinju-ku 01-05-99 by Beat Strueli.

Although Cromwell consults on high-stakes art purchases, her personal evolution as an art collector has led her to the realization that not every art acquisition has to be groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be valuable or worthwhile. For would-be art collectors, she offers these insights.

The traits of a good art collector
Artists today are relating to the times they live in and expressing a particular point of view through art. A good art collector is someone who appreciates seeing the world in another way with an open mind, just like someone who loves literature and fiction and appreciates the author’s view of the world.

Getting started
Start looking and gathering information, just as you would for other big purchases. Art tends to confound people, but it’s really not that mysterious. You just need to inform yourself. Wherever you live, see exhibitions at galleries and museums, and talk to people—friends, art dealers, gallery owners, artists. Develop a relationship with someone who is in a position to give you good advice. Pay attention to the things that you like, and question yourself about things that you don’t like. If you like something that you might consider old-fashioned, don’t write it off because you think it’s passé. For example, you might like landscapes. Look for the avant-garde aspect of landscapes; everything gets reinvented periodically. Stay broad until you are ready to develop a focus.

The cardinal rules of collecting
• I don’t believe in buying just what you love, but I do believe in loving what you buy. Buying only what you love can lead to haphazard collecting of works that ultimately are without lasting value. Your purchase has to stem from an informed decision. Be aware of art movements so you know where certain works fit.

• Research the artist. Be sure the artist has been exhibited, has had museum shows, and is represented by someone reputable. Buy from a good source, preferably a dealer who has a proven track record for placing works and marketing that artist to the world. Buying directly from an unknown artist can be risky.

• Be patient. Collecting is a process. You might see something you love and it could take a year to get it. Take the time and invest the energy in being informed.

Collecting on a budget
Art collecting is possible even on a low budget. You just need to be savvy about how you find works. Go to cities where there is a core concentration of galleries and shows. You can also look online at previews of works for sale at auctions and follow the results to understand what things are selling for.

Possibly start by investing in drawings, which tend to be less expensive. Prints are also a way to go. When I was just starting to collect, there was a Jeff Koons print that was published on a Website. It was an edition of 1,000, but still, I could afford it and it was signed. Sure enough, about six years later I was able to sell it at auction. I paid approximately $600 for it and sold it for $4,000. New collectors should feel comfortable doing things like that.

A memorable collecting moment
There was an artist whose work I fell in love with at first sight: Marlene Dumas. When I was with Sotheby’s, I saw her work while attending the Carnegie International art show. At that time, I was collecting drawings and portraiture. I saw auction catalogs from all over the world, and I received one of Dutch art. To my surprise, this catalog contained a work by Dumas, and I decided to throw in a bid at the middle range of about $10,000. Surprisingly, I got it. It was the only way I would have ever been able to get the work at that price. I love it, and I would never want to sell it. Now it’s worth approximately $50,000.

The moral of the story: Be opportunistic, and if you’re well informed, you can be even more opportunistic. Trust your instincts.