An insider’s guide to buying your very first work of art

By Jenna Price

Young art collectors Beverley Ng and Ash Hopper, Claire Vis-Le, Lindsay Clement-Meehan, Tom Eager and Livoi Wendo at Carriageworks ahead of Sydney Contemporary. Credit:Louise Kennerley

Bare walls. No one in the share house could ever agree on anything, let alone what posters to put up. Somehow Livoi Wendo took charge. She dropped into an art fair, bought two bold bright works, brought them home, and hung them on the walls. Somehow her housemates were content. These days, Wendo, who works in fintech, has an art budget, a burgeoning collection and only herself to please.

Here we are, days before what one old-timer calls Art Christmas, otherwise known as Sydney Contemporary, when nearly 100 galleries representing hundreds of artists converge on Carriageworks in Eveleigh. After being cancelled for two years, both artists and galleries are looking for the boom times experienced early in the pandemic, when show after show had row after row of sold stickers.

Hot tips? “Try and go around the whole fair quickly and see what sticks in the mind. Stop and ask the gallerist to put a reserve on it. I recommend going with the gut instinct and making a quick decision,” Sydney Contemporary director Barry Keldoulis says.

Livoi Wendo says art can seem “unapproachable and unaffordable, but you’d be surprised at the range of artworks that can fit into multiple budgets.”Credit:Louise Kennerley

Any personal purchasing regrets? Not really but Keldoulis did lend an original print commemorating Uluru’s return to its traditional owners to a former sister-in-law. He hasn’t seen it for decades. “She’s a great girl, but possession is nine-tenths of the law,” he sighs. He hopes she hasn’t left it anywhere.

Speaking of regrets. Sometimes the prices (exceeding half a million dollars) might make your eyes pop out of your head but occasionally, if you are canny, you will find an absolute bargain at Sydney Contemporary. It might be a poster from the print section (check out Tense, Damien Minton’s stand with works from $80). Or take whichever lucky duck bought work by Kirtika Kain at Sydney Contemporary in 2018. By the time I bought her work, prices had tripled and she’d gone from National Art School student to being repped by Roslyn Oxley, empress among Sydney gallerists.

Here’s my top tip. Make a beeline for the National Art School stall. Eight brilliant students from among all the graduates were selected by a panel. Their work will never be this inexpensive again. I only wish I’d seen Mechelle Bounpraseuth’s ceramic replicas of what you’d find on an Asian grocery store shelf back then (she’ll be represented by Chalk Horse at the fair. You can buy a meringue swan for about a grand). Director and chief executive of the National Art School Steve Alderton says NAS has 170 graduates every year: “We want to land them in the middle of industry, we want to show people the future of Australian arts practice and we want to promote students. We present unrepresented artists in a space where every other artist is represented.” NAS is also about to launch a “how to collect” series of seminars.

There’s also a section of the fair devoted to newer galleries: N.Smith (barely a year old and already poaching established artists), Saint Cloche, Mangkaja (in there because it represents some emerging artists as well as elders such as Sonia Kurarra) and an extensive print section.

Here, we meet a few older heads of the Australian visual arts world and five young collectors to hear how they buy art and what you should know.

Sydney contemporary director Barry Keldoulis.Credit:Christopher Pearce

Beverly Ng, 32, a lawyer, grew up in a house with scrolls of Chinese calligraphy on the walls, so there was definitely an appreciation of art. As soon as she finished her degree, she bought a Chen Ping work way out of her budget. Best thing she’s ever done. Now she’s collecting with her partner Ash Hopper, early 40s, who works in private equity. Claire Vis-Le, 32, who works in project management at the Powerhouse, bought her first work, a Sarah Contos print, from The Other Art Fair. Tom Eager, 31, manager of the North Annandale pub, bought his first work, a tiny Leonie Napaltjarri painting from the gallery owned by his uncle and aunt (both artists, Chris Hodges and sainted Helen Eager), Utopia Art Sydney. It was $400 in 2010, “a lot for me as a student.” Lindsay Clement-Meehan, 38, a senior public affairs manager, bought her first work when she got her first job, a Patrick Hartigan watercolour from Darren Knight Gallery. Livoi Wendo, 29, who we met first up organising her housemates, works in commercial partnerships for a fintech. Those paintings were by Laura Clay from The Other Art Fair.

Ng and Hopper have a professional interest as well. Ng is the Chair of MCA NEXT, a philanthropic program especially focused on young collectors. Hopper is on the Advisory Council at UNSW Art and Design, where the couple established a scholarship.

Young art collector Tom Eager.Credit:Louise Kennerley

How do you prepare yourself when you want to buy your first work of art?

Eager says: “You never know what you might find when you’re not looking for anything. Visit galleries, whether they are small artist-run initiatives or long-standing commercial galleries because this is where you will find things you can add to your collection.” Sydney Contemporary is the place to scope out the galleries which might have the kinds of work you fancy. Both Annette Larkin of Annette Larkin Fine Art and Mark Hughes of Mark Hughes Art Advisory, who together have nearly 60 years of experience in the art world, agree it’s important to see a lot of work. The fair might be your preparation for buying something later.

What do you do at an art fair?

You get to see a lot of work in a very short time with the vibe of the Royal Easter Show show bag pavilion, a recipe for overindulgence. One insider says it’s ok to put holds on items. In which case, take a bit of a walk up and down, breathe, convince yourself you’ve done the right thing and go back and seal the deal. Eat, drink, and support the visual arts.

Beverley Ng and Ash Hopper.Credit:Louise Kennerley

What should you buy?

Ng says: “Start your collection with a work from an emerging artist, often a great entry point!” The works will usually be inexpensive and you get the fun of seeing their work develop over years. As Clement-Meehan says, some of the artists she bought when she began collecting are now priced out of her comfort zone. Larkin advises avoiding pretty work you can absorb straight away. “Pretty doesn’t last forever . . . buy the work you are constantly having a dialogue with,” she says. Hughes says always buy what you love. “Yes, do the research but love should be the foundation,” he says.

How much should you spend?

Starting small is good. If you don’t imagine this is an investment, you won’t be disappointed. Livoi says buying art can sometimes seem really “unapproachable and unaffordable, but you’d be surprised at the range of artworks that can fit into multiple budgets”. Vis-Le says factor in shipping, transport, crating, insurance, installation and framing costs in your budget. (It’s also possible when negotiating with galleries to see what kind of deal you can strike. Sometimes the frame is already included. If you’ve spent big money, maybe the gallery will negotiate on transport and delivery.) Can you ask for a discount? Not on an opening night – but if work is still on the gallery walls or in the stockroom, certainly ask, so long as you won’t get grumpy if it’s a no. Larkin says spontaneous buying is fine but set a limit, maybe up to $5000 could be a risk you are happy to wear, but otherwise research the artist. She says: “Buy the best version of the artist’s work you can afford if you love it and have done your reading.” Hughes says the budget should be the second thing after love: “The art world is littered with stories of people who regret not having stretched themselves a little further. That said, take a breath before you spend the money. What you love might not be the most sustaining. The work everyone wants is not always the most sustaining.”

How do you pay for it?

I dream of owning a gigantic Naypanyapa Yunupiŋu bark but in my heart, I know it will never happen. Her work is galactically out-of-my-budget. I would have to extend my mortgage and years ago, when we tried that on, the loan manager asked if we were bonkers. Our young collectors also have dream purchases: Ng wants a video work by Yang Yongliang, Clement-Meehan covets Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Eager is probably the most financially ambitious wanting a William Kentridge but would settle for Peter Powditch, Wendo’s ultimate dream would be something from Kehinde Wiley or a piece from Bisa Butler. Vis-Le wants a Noel McKenna but might have to settle for one of McKenna’s tiles.

Collector Claire Vis-Le.Credit:Louise Kennerley

There are now more and better options for buying art. Most galleries will allow time payment, if you leave a decent deposit. It’s interest-free but you may get some slightly spiky emails if you leave it for too long between payments. I say this from experience.

You can also try Art Money, which applies a zero interest instalment model to art works. The gallery forks out 10 per cent fee to Art Money but the artist gets the payment straight up (to me this is a bonus). Art Money chief Paul Becker claims the company does such careful credit checks its default rate is less than 1 per cent. The downside is it has limits (no buying those big William Kentridge works for you either), the upside is it’s a gateway drug to buying works you feel are out of your regular budget. Becker confesses it’s not really about affordability but about psychology.

“You feel less guilty and self-indulgent when you are paying in instalments,” he says.

How much homework do you have to do?

This is where you strike your balance between “I love it” and “I need to know more about it”. Your homework can be having a chat to the artist, the gallerist, friends. It can also be spending time at home looking at everything the artist has ever made and reading all about them. Vis-Le says gallerists are the best source of knowledge in terms of a gallery’s stable of artists and the overall art market. Let Google and Instagram be your muse but ask questions.

Artist-run Initiatives (ARIs)

I first met Sebastian Goldspink in the basement of the Kings Cross car park. It was hot and smelly but he ran the most spectacular ARI (artist-run initiative), Alaska Projects, in the dungeon. It’s where he showed Ramesh Nithiyendran (now at Sullivan and Strumpf), Sarah Contos and Tom Polo (both now at Roslyn Oxley), Reko Rennie (Station Gallery), Jonny Niesche (now at Sarah Cottier), Kylie Banyard (Nicholas Thompson Gallery) and many others.

Now he runs Redleaf in Woollahra, where the ventilation is better. Goldspink is a backer of emerging artists – even when he curated the 2022 Adelaide Biennale, he chose icons such as Julie Rrap and Shaun Gladwell alongside newer artists, such as Min Wong, James Tylor and Rebecca Selleck. Later, he manned the first National Art School stall at Sydney Contemporary.

ARIs are where you’ll find creators right at the beginning of their careers. Their work might have been in a student show before (if you want real bargains, visit annual graduate shows at Sydney College of the Arts, National Art School and UNSW Art & Design).

But pretty often, young artists will have their first serious exhibitions, maybe their first body of work, as opposed to one or two pieces, at an ARI. Penelope Benton, newish executive director of the National Association for the Visual Arts, says ARIs are the incubators of experimental artistic practice, important spaces for artists at all stages of their careers. Don’t get frightened by the word experimental! It might have led you to Sarah Contos’s body parts at the long gone and much lamented MOP.

Sydney has some glorious and surprising ARIs and occasionally young artists (and even older ones) will hang around, answering questions, looking nervous and secretly hoping: “Pick me! Pick me!” You can have your first discussions with the makers, usually pretty nervous. Will they tell you what the work’s about? Sure. You can see whether that fits in with what you think.

The grandparent of all Sydney ARIs is Firstdraft, born in 1986, living in Woollomooloo. Now it’s more mainstream, has employees, gets government grants – but the vibe is still emerging artists. You can’t buy from them directly – JD Reforma, development manager at First Draft, says Firstdraft encourages buying directly from the artist.

“We bring artists their first opportunities and their first audiences,” says Reforma. Every year in November, it holds a magnificent auction to raise funds and the artists are not just beginners but also stars like Tracey Moffatt and Noel McKenna.

Try Airspace, a deceptively large space at 10 Junction Street, Marrickville, which goes high on experimental, including the dramatic felt body part sculptures made by Kirsten Drewes earlier this year. They were affordable and arresting. Think fluffy Louise Bourgeois.

Elevator ARI deserves attention for losing its Lismore premises not once but twice in the floods and surviving. The water breached the second story ceiling, says cofounder Betty Russ. They’ve just reopened “by the skin of our teeth”. Russ says it’s the only creative arts space open in the area. They sell on the spot. New shows starting next week.

Rebecca Gallo is one of 12 directors of Pari, the only ARI in western Sydney, she says. It’s a side hustle for these artist and curators but “we love it and we care about it”. Exhibitions are always group shows, with artists whose work somehow connects. Artists often hang around the shows so you can both talk to them and buy work from them. Pari also holds events and lectures.

Boomalli is a cooperative for First Nations artists from NSW. It shows about 60 artists, a combination of emerging and established and its director is Bronwyn Bancroft (not only a wonderful artist but also the author of Australia’s best baby books). The next show, Umbarra (Black Duck) takes flight! is a collaboration with Umbarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre (Wallaga Lake NSW), representing emerging artists from the NSW south coast.

LÆRK is a bit of a crossover of ARI and new commercial gallery. Its aim is to showcase local, queer, cross- cultural work and its named for its director, Annie Lark. 163 Wilson St Newtown

Other ARIs include:

Our Neon Foe, 411 Parramatta Rd, Leichhardt

Puzzle Gallery, 21 – 23 Wellington St, Chippendale

Tiles at Lewishamd Chris Burton representing the new gallery says it will exhibit artists from the inner-west and from Canberra, a natural extension. Works from $300.

Frontyard is a building, a creative residency program, a library, a garden among other things, mostly located at 228 Illawarra Rd, Marrickville NSW 2204.

Disclaimer: I’ve been hanging around art galleries with my spouse for 40 years We took our kids when they were little enough to be taken – and then later, even when we had to drag them there. They give up complaining after a while. Now I’ve been to most of the places mentioned here, bought from many of them and even had some of those spiky emails and phone calls when the addiction outstripped the lived reality of earning a living. I bought a small Bangala bark painting from Myer (yep, it had a gallery) in 1983. It was about $100. I still love it. Art fairs are the closest you will ever get to a shopping centre for visual arts. Have a go yourself.

How do you know if it’s any good?

What is good? If you like it, that’s good. As Wendo says, “I know people may feel the need to curate art or have specific themes – this isn’t necessary! Buy art you like and can afford; your home doesn’t have to look like an art gallery and you can put up what you like, when you like it.” Larkin says to ask the gallerist to direct you to the artist biography and see what museum exhibitions they have been included in and what literature has been written about them. She adds it’s important to avoid fads (I went all amateur School of London in the ’80s and it’s still in our roof). Hughes says you don’t need to align yourself with one gallery, although it is common to find you like a number of artists from one place.

Art collector Lindsay Clement-Meehan. Credit:Louise Kennerley

What are the important things to remember?

Vis-Le has brilliant advice – measure your wall before you commit. The space in your mind may not reflect reality. Check out how well-made the work is.

And what do the old-timers say? Oliver Watts, senior curator at Artbank (which collects work and rents it out), backs up the idea of buying younger artists when you are a young person yourself. “You feel naturally connected to people in your peer group,” he says.

As a young collector (or a person just starting out buying art), you can also take more risks. Watts has to choose work for Australia: culturally significant, widely, all different mediums.

Watts is taking tours around Sydney Contemporary, but his tip is to consider your “personal vibe”

“Take your time and find out what you like,” he says. But he also makes a good point – visual artists need audiences. He wishes people were more comfortable walking into galleries, “but people feel a bit intimidated by going in to a white cube [shorthand for the commercial galleries that almost always have white walls to make work pop]“.

In the long run, “Choosing an art work is pretty much like choosing a cocktail: every choice is valid,” Watts says.

Sydney Contemporary runs from September 8-11 at Carriageworks.

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