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Collecting 101: How to Start Collecting Art

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Aired 8/28/09

San Diego's first international contemporary art fair begins next week, showcasing $4 million in artwork by 23 national and international galleries. Organizers of the fair hope to reach as many established and new collectors as they can, which had us wondering how one begins collecting art and is it only for the wealthy among us.

Fish photo, India
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Above: Fish photo, India

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. In the beginning of this hour, we learned how to behave at an art opening. Now we move on to a big contemporary art event coming to San Diego. The "Beyond the Borders International Contemporary Art Fair" is being called the first of its kind ever held in San Diego. The event will showcase over $4 million in artwork by 23 national and international galleries. The organizers are hoping that this art fair will draw established art collectors and possibly create new ones. But is it possible for anyone besides the very wealthy to begin collecting art? My next two guests say yes, it is. Ann Berchtold is the executive director for "Beyond the Border International Contemporary Art Fair San Diego." Welcome, Ann.

ANN BERCHTOLD (Executive Director, Beyond the Border International Contemporary Art Fair): Hello. Welcome. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Larry Poteet is an avid collector and practicing attorney in San Diego. Larry, welcome to These Days.

LARRY POTEET (Attorney, Art Collector): Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Well, before we start talking about collecting, I know that the two of you listened to this last segment about etiquette at art galleries. And, Larry, you saw some bad etiquette at a gallery. Would you like to share that story with us?

POTEET: Well, I have to say that's the exception rather than the rule but we did have a situation. There was a very well known gallerist up in Los Angeles on La Cienega, and my wife and I were in the gallery. We had our 18 month old daughter in a little child carrier. And it was a show of Jim Shaw's work, and Jim Shaw does these wonderful little works on paper but there's a lot of text and you have to get down really, really close to look at them and to enjoy the pieces. So we set our daughter on the floor in the carrier and the gallerist, who's very well known and whose name I will not mention, came up to my wife and said, get that out of here.

CAVANAUGH: Get 'that' out of here.

POTEET: Get 'that' out of here. Needless to say, we have never been back to that gallery.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, my. Oh, my, my, my. Well, that is the exception rather than the rule, as you say.

POTEET: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Ann, let's get back to the idea of collecting. How did you begin your art collection?

BERCHTOLD: You know, mine began, I would say, relationship and barter based. I started an art website called Sandiegoartists.com probably about nine years ago now. And I had a talent for creating websites. I had a lot of friends who were artists; artists needed websites. So a lot of my early collection was based on barter. I would do a website, they would give me a piece of work. And the more I collected, the more interested I got and then, you know, I took different career paths. You know, my net worth started to grow a little bit, I was able to start spending a little bit more, and so my collection grew in that way. Now, because I can afford a little bit more, I seek things out that really move me. A piece might resonate with me because of some personal reason or because I have, you know, maybe a relationship with the artist and I'm drawn to the esthetic in the way that they – their body of works create and I want a particular work of theirs. So it grows in a lot of different ways but I'd say for me, personally, it's relationship based and esthetic based.

CAVANAUGH: And, Larry, for you. When you started collecting art, did you have a lot of money to spend?

POTEET: Oh, absolutely not. We lived in a small condominium, I think it was a $100,000 condominium in Hacienda Heights and we – Our oldest daughter, at the time she was about two or three years old, had been diagnosed with autism. And we were able to get her on a Saturday program that freed up every Saturday between nine and five. And my wife and I were looking for something that we could do together to get away from, really, the stress and trauma of having this difficult child. And we started going to art galleries and museums in Southern California, Orange County, and then in up Los Angeles. And it became an absolute passion. It became our every Saturday day activity and over the years we met a number of gallery owners, and through them we met the artists. We became active in some of the museums and some of the support groups and it just evolved into a way of life for us.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of art do you collect, Larry?

POTEET: Well, it's changed over the years. Obviously, when we started, like Ann, we didn't have a whole lot of money and we would walk into some of these galleries and it would be very intimidating. We couldn't afford anything. We started off with works on paper and then over the years we've developed where now we try to find artists that we really like where we can get the best piece affordable for us of their work. And recently, the last two or three years, we’ve been focusing on a lot of the San Diego and Tijuana contemporary artists that were featured in the "Strange New World" show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. But we had an experience when we first started collecting. We went to a gallery on La Cienega, the Meckler Gallery, couldn't afford a thing. I mean, the wall was full of Matisses and Milton Averys and everything that was far beyond our price range. The back wall, he had these little Salvador Dali prints for $250.00 each. And he was showing them for the Los Angeles Free Clinic. He wasn't getting any money from those. And Adam spent an hour with my wife and me looking at those prints. And we ended up buying one, went to leave and he said, why don't you come back in two weeks? I'll frame it for you. He spent more on the frame than the piece was worth. He didn't make any money on it. But from that, we became dear friends with him. We would join him for lunch, and ended up spending quite a bit of money with him over the years.

CAVANAUGH: So there's no point in stereotyping galleries or gallery owners as being a hostile in any way. But, Ann, I'm wondering, you know, for the person who's just starting out, who just wants to learn a little bit about art and get familiar with artists' work, galleries can be intimidating and, you know, a lot of them don't have prices on the wall. And I wonder why that aura exists in so many places.

BERCHTOLD: You know, you're absolutely right. I think the gallery experience sometimes can be intimidating and sometimes it's because galleries are situated in a walkway and you have to walk in and it's the experience of, you know, the dealer or the gallery assistant being at the desk, sitting there, and it's just you and the assistant and you're looking at the walls and you don't know what the prices are, and they're really not paying you any attention. It's a cat-mouse game. It's really interesting and I don't know why it has evolved that way. It's certainly not the norm. But I think it is an experience that does happen. It's happened to me, personally, and I'm a gallery dealer.

CAVANAUGH: Is it – I'm sorry, but your answer is making me think. Is it wise then for someone to learn about art in some other way, I mean to get familiar with the art and artists perhaps through magazines or research instead of trying to learn from the gallery experience?

BERCHTOLD: Well, it's whatever you feel comfortable with. My personal experience, and really my impetus for bringing this fair here, was the experience that I had the first time I went to Art Basel Miami Beach. I was just blown away and I was just so excited at the opportunity to see the amazing – the whole of art here that was in a setting where the dealers want, you know, were needy. You know, they needed the collectors and they needed – they were so open and it's like a trade show for art. I call it kind of speed dating for the art world. You get to walk around, you get to meet dealers very quickly, they're very open. A lot of times the artists are there. And then you walk on to the next show. If you make a particular connection with a dealer, you come back and then you spend more time but you – it's not a huge investment of time. You get to walk through a fair really quickly, see a lot of great work, meet a lot of great dealers, and then, following the fair, kind of reengage with a dealer maybe that you were interested – or an artist that you were interested in.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Ann Berchtold and Larry Poteet, and we're talking about becoming art collectors, how one goes about doing that, and also about the art fair that is coming to San Diego, the "Beyond the Border International Contemporary Art Fair." Larry, I'm wondering, how did you learn about art? What resources did you use in order to become familiar with the different artists and the things that you liked and you didn't like?

POTEET: We were very lucky when we started collecting that several of the gallery owners became mentors to us and would spend literally hours of their time teaching us about the art, about the artists, taking us into the back room, the hidden back room, and pulling things off the shelf, teaching us the various techniques in works on paper, etching and aquatint. And through that, we developed a basic knowledge and then we subscribed to all of the art magazines. The local museums are a wonderful source. They have lecture series, they have artists talk. There are any number of vehicles out there for you to educate yourself if you're willing to spend the time. And the nice thing is, it's all free.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh, yes.

POTEET: None of this costs any money.

CAVANAUGH: How about when you're actually going to purchase a work of art though. What role does negotiation play in that? And what is the etiquette around settling on a price?

POTEET: Well, it depends on the gallery. If you are a repeat customer, most galleries will give you a so-called trade discount. Ten to fifteen percent is not uncommon. My experience has been if it's the first time at a gallery, they will typically not extend that to you but sometimes they will and it depends on how desperate they are. It is negotiable. You can always ask the gallery if they can do something better than the quoted price and more often than not they will, particularly if they've had a show up and the show is about to come down and they haven't sold anything and they have to make their rent. In the art market, there's typically about a 100% markup so if a piece is selling for $5000.00, typically the artist gets half of that and the gallery owner gets half of that, so you have some play there. You have $2500.00 that you can actually play around with.

CAVANAUGH: That's interesting to know. And at an art fair like the one that's coming here, is there also room for negotiation?

BERCHTOLD: Certainly. I think, you know, as Larry mentioned, there always is. Larry and I actually participated in Aqua Art Fair at Miami Beach last year and we took a collection of artists. We felt first that we should ask the artists how they felt about us reducing the price if the situation should occur. And I think that's the right thing to do. I think with some artists it's a matter of a precedence that they set, that they just do not discount their work. With other artists, they're more agreeable. And so we took it on a per case basis and I think most dealers would work that way. But, yes, I'd say at an art fair there's just as much opportunity to deal. And I think as a dealer and a collector both, if I'm passionate about a work, I want to have it or I want someone else to have it. And if I really see that they love this work, I'm going to try to work with them to let them have it.

CAVANAUGH: Now as I said at the beginning when I was introducing this segment, I was saying that the "Beyond the Borders Art Fair" hoping to get more people involved and perhaps thinking about collecting art and so forth. And the idea is that it's accessible to everyone but it is being held at a rather exclusive place, the Grand Del Mar with Maserati and makers of luxury goods for sponsors. So I'm wondering, is this really the right place to begin? Or should perhaps you, you know, begin collecting art at an ArtWalk, you know, something like that? How accessible is this going to be, Ann?

BERCHTOLD: Oh, it's very accessible. In fact, I was interviewed the other day and someone had asked me if this was an elitist fair.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

BERCHTOLD: And I said, by no means. I said, for $15.00, you can come, you know, see an incredible selection of art from all over the world, test drive a Maserati if you want, see some collectible watches. You can taste wines from Baja to Napa Valley. You can stop in and listen to Dave Hickey, American art critic. You can stop into a symposium and listen about art and money. And you can get a full education for $15.00. It's – And the price ranges of the art at the fair range from $80.00 to one million dollars. There's something for everybody. And the setting, we were just very lucky to be able to have such a beautiful venue to stage this. But it really kind of came down to what venue in town was big enough because we are taking over 20,000 square feet of the Grand Del Mar. You really need a massive ballroom to stage what we're staging. And it's nothing like an ArtWalk in the sense that, you know, they're ten foot by ten foot booths. You're going to go into the ballroom and you're going to see many gallery spaces, you're going to see 43 of those. So it really requires a massive setting. We just lucked out that it also happens to be at a beautiful venue.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, Larry, how would you characterize San Diego's art community? Do you think that an art fair like this is going to take off in San Diego?

POTEET: Well, the economy is bad right now so I don't know that art fairs anywhere are doing well financially. But I think that Ann has put together such a wonderful program that the attendance should be there and, hopefully, this will open a lot of people's eyes to what the possibilities are here in San Diego. Since I've moved here—we've been in San Diego for about 12 years—the gallery scene has continued to grow. When we first got here, there wasn't a very strong gallery scene. There are a number of good galleries here in town now. There's a number of wonderful collectors here in town. Matthew and Iris Strauss were just listed in the top 200 collectors in the world. So it's a community that's ripe for development in art and I think Ann and her supporters are doing a fabulous job with this art fair.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me thank you both for coming in and speaking with us today. I've been speaking with Ann Berchtold, who's executive director for the "Beyond the Border International Contemporary Art Fair." Larry Poteet, who is an avid art collector himself. And let me thank you first, both of you, for speaking with us today.

BERCHTOLD: Thank you.

POTEET: Our pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that the "Beyond the Border International Contemporary Art Fair" takes place from September 2nd through the 4th at the Grand Del Mar. If you'd like more information, you can find it out, KPBS.org/TheseDays. And coming up, one of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art's most popular events, the Alt. Picture Shows. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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