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Jake Biddington's Art Collecting Series

What qualifies a contemporary artwork as investment grade?

Editors Note: Jake Biddington's 2005 series provides the novice art investor specific tools and general artworld information useful in forming a contemporary art collection.

The contemporary art world has its own structures and systems. Forget the 19th century myth of the artistic genius slaving unknown in delirious isolation. Like you and me, 21st century artists are professionals who have been channeled into their particular field. Artists are impelled not only by profound desire but also by the encouragement of teachers, friends and--reluctantly--by family who have noted their special talent.

So, an investment grade contemporary artwork is nearly always made by an artist who is educated in art and who has a professional resume.

How to Read an Artist's Resume

After college, many aspiring artists continue onward to get an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree. In earning an advanced degree, students make artwork under the tutelage of working artists who teach both skills and ideas. While mastering technical tools was not so fashionable in the mid-20th century, obtaining such knowledge is very much a focus in the current art scene.

Art school classes typically use a critique system that includes teacher, peer and visiting artist review. The student presents a work then endures the comments of his audience. Exposure in these crits--an experience ranging from nurturing to savaging--begins the private creation/public judgment cycle that continues throughout an artist's life.

As in "B" school or law school, in MFA programs allegiances are made and networks are formed. These relationships will help the artist to be included in exhibitions and represented in galleries. Since Josef Albers taught there in the 50's, the Yale network has been especially strong in painting, producing artists such as Alex Katz, Chuck Close, Janet Fish and Lisa Yuskavage. Under the direction of Graham Nickson, The New York Studio School has revived and rebuilt its significant network of painters. Arizona State is important in printmaking circles, and Virginia Commonwealth University is recognized as a hotbed for sculpture. Though not an art school, MIT's media laboratory aesthetics + computation group is a force in the digital art scene.

To be investment grade, an artist needn't have graduated from a top school, but it does give a career an extra boost. For the collector, a familiarity with the artist's educational background gives clues to particular strengths, possible contacts and overall aesthetic.

Exhibition History:
Rarely does a student sprint out of art school and into the limelight as a recognized artist. (There are exceptions such as Pop artist John Clem Clarke or provocative painter Cicely Brown.) More often, an artistic career develops over time. An extensive exhibition history chronicles the process. Inclusion in group shows typically marks the first step. Then, as the artist hits his stride, two-person and solo shows come along. To be of interest, a history must record exhibitions where a gallery owner or curator--someone risking money or reputation--has supported the artist. (Showing at the annual crafts fair on the town green won't cut it.) A resume that references solo gallery shows every two years plus appearances in museum exhibitions is optimum.

Reading through exhibition histories, a collector grows familiar with curators and dealers who have a knack for spotting talent. In the late 20th century, art historian and curator Henry Geldzahler was identified with quality new art across the spectrum of styles. Most good dealers focus on one genre: Seeing an Allan Stone exhibition on a resume means the artist knows how to handle gestural abstraction, a Perlow show suggests the artist has strong realist technique, and a Gracie Mansion one implies inventiveness in a Neo-pop aesthetic. Such a reference doesn't necessarily translate into artistic greatness, but it does mean that the artist has jacks-or-better in specific skills. To be a successful art investor doesn't require a great eye, but it does pay to know whose eyes to borrow when selecting an artwork.

Museum Placements:
Upping the ante, a resume that includes representation in museum collections is better still. Time was when an artist could simply give works to museums prompting an old painter to quip: "I'm in the basements of all the best museums in the world". Now major museums lack the space to accept gifts of artworks that they don't truly want. So, in this century, a placement of an artwork with a museum--even if donated by the artist--is considered a significant achievement.

Placements in major museums are helpful, but so is representation in university collections and regional museums. Smaller museums hire young curators who are more attuned to discovering new trends and presenting fresh talent than are their blockbuster museum colleagues.

How to Obtain an Artist's Resume:
In a gallery, the artist's resume can be found in the catalogue or at the reception desk along with the press release and price information. Most online galleries post abbreviated exhibition and placement information, and some provide a full resume to interested clients upon request. A visitor to an artist's studio need simply ask the artist for a copy. Unfortunately, auctions make available very little resume information. The big houses tend to assume that the contemporary art collector has prior knowledge; the small auctioneers usually have little specific information to impart. So, independent research or a competent art advisor is needed to unearth the pertinent data.

Does it make the cut?

If the artist's resume meets these criteria, the piece is visually interesting, and the asking price is reasonable, then the artwork makes the first cut for investment grade. Like all tangible investments, artworks represent both intrinsic value and expected return. If a resume is the only substantive information available on an artist, then the work falls toward the more speculative end of the spectrum. Score this type of art acquisition as part entertainment, part décor and part investment. If made intelligently and with some frequency, these investments will make your children happy that you indulged your interest in art.

MORE Jake on Investing:
PPP Test: Judging Quality in Contemporary Art
Art, Time and Technology
American vs. European Paintings
Jake Biddington's Art as Entertainment
Jake Biddington's Vetted Antiques & Art Shows
Jake Biddington's Patent Numbers as a Dating Tool
Jake Biddington's Hard Assets as Portfolio Diversification
Jake Biddington's Buying Fine Jewelry at Auction
Jake Biddington's Long Term Investing
Jake Biddington's Short-Term Investing
Jake Biddington's The Craft of Art

Jake Biddington's BENTLEY Art & Travel Series:
Buenos Aires ARGENTINA
Art Museums and Restaurants 2004
Amalfi Coast ITALY
Arts and Archeology 2004
Art Museums and Restaurants 2003
Costa del Sol SPAIN
Cultural Touring 2003
I-80 Park City to New York City
Art and Antiques 2003
New York City
Art and Tourism in Summer 2003
Major Museum Shows Autumn 2002
Hartford and Wilton CONNECTICUT
Art Touring 2003 Update
Art Museum & Wines 2002
Baltimore MARYLAND
Art Museums & Restaurants 2002
Art Touring 2002 Update
Southwestern Art AZ & NM
Art Touring in the High Desert 2002
New York City
Museums and Art in Winter 2002
Art, Fado & Food 2002
Museums, Antiques and Dining 2001
Antwerp BELGIUM 2001
Art and Dining
Barcelona SPAIN
Art and Restaurants 2000
Morris County NEW JERSEY
Antiques Touring 2000
Hudson (Columbia County) NY
Art and Antiques 2000
San Francisco CALIFORNIA
Jackson Square Art and Antiques 1999
New Hampshire Route1A
Touring 1999

Contact Jake


Jake Biddington works on The Street and is responsible for the opinions & information in INVESTING. Young Jake, as he is known within the virtual BIDDINGTON clan, views art, antiques and collectibles as stores of value similar to stocks or foreign currencies. He sees these items as another type of asset in which to place one's money. To that end he keeps price histories and charting information on various categories of objects. He views some items as long term investments, others as items for a quick trade--and he even sees some as short sales.

Frankly, Jake's views incite considerable controversy within the family: His mother, Claire Biddington Rosetti, the curator of CREATIVE PROCESS, sees Jake's approach as part of the damaging "commodification" of art wherein the buyers of art comprehend only its financial value and are blind to its aesthetic and social significance. Cousin Randolph, (writer of EXPERT CONSULTANCY), sees the silver lining: For him, the informed expert wins because he can use his knowledge and judgment to buy superbly interesting-- what Jake would call "off-the-run"-- pieces at relatively cheap prices, because such items don't fit the narrow criteria for quick resale.

Once the Bentley is safely garaged and he lounges sipping his second martini, Uncle Frederick Fieldhouse Biddington waxes inclusive: "Whatever gives collectors pleasure," he says. "Whatever amuses."

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PEDIGREE & PROVENANCE--art words & terms defined.   CREATIVE PROCESS--artists' studio visits
BIDDINGTON'S BENTLEY--travel for the art connoisseur.  MY ART--Art for kids.