Party Talk: A Guide to Contemporary Art

The installation space at Gurr Johns.
The installation space at Gurr Johns.

It’s hard to think of a trendier conversation topic right now than the contemporary art market.  “Contemporary art is what red wine used to be,” Wednesday Martin, author of “Primates of Park Avenue” told DuJour in June, “It’s a thing that people collect for cultural capital to show not just what they have, but what they know.”  Still, hopping into the art world is immensely complicated and collecting knowledge about it isn’t exactly easy.  To get a better idea of what the contemporary art market looks like right now and how you can get involved in it, we spoke to Jennifer Vorbach, an art consultant at Gurr Johns and the former International Director of the Post-War and Contemporary Art department at Christie’s. (Check the last installment of our Party Talk series here)

Jennifer Vorbach and MAD board member Jerry Chazen
Jennifer Vorbach and MAD board member Jerry Chazen

1) Why should we care about contemporary art now?

As we’ve seen, the contemporary art market has become the dominant market. So I would say that twenty years ago, the impressionist and modern market was the dominant field but that changed, partially because of a lack of masterpieces that are available and a lack of supply. And also because the contemporary market reflects where we are today in the world, which is really fun. So if you’re successful today, why not have something on your walls that reflects the tone of the twenty-first century?

2) How would you define contemporary art?

The truly contemporary market concerns that artist who graduated from an art school in the last ten years and has a gallery and is showing in that gallery, but who doesn’t have international name recognition yet.

3) Since contemporary art is so…new, how do you know what’s a masterpiece and what’s not? 

Well you don’t. There are certain fundamentals, and we’re taught you should always buy what you love. I think that’s more important than ever today because there are more galleries, more artists, and more opportunities in terms of art fairs to see so many different types of works. And so it depends why you’re doing this. Are you doing this because you believe that it’s an investment or are you doing this because you want to live with a work that speaks to you when you walk past it every day?  With any luck, you’re going to end up with both.

4) Are there any practical steps buyers can take to make sure they’re buying something good? 

Once you’ve identified this wonderful work that really makes you excited when you look at it, then you can start putting some brackets around it. What kind of gallery is this? What is the track record of the gallery? Does the gallery show other artists that you also think are very interesting or is this a one-off?

5) Do you work mainly with established collectors or people who want to start out making a collection? 

All of the above. I mean part of the joy in what I do is that occasionally I have the great fortune to work with people who’ve already assembled an amazing collection and they may be looking for one or two works to complete that collection. And then there are also the collectors who say ‘I’m really jazzed by this, I want to get involved, but I’ve never bought a work of art before.’ So it’s the whole spectrum, and those are really very different kinds of collectors.

6) What do you say to first-time collectors? 

Go out and get your feet wet. Go to Chelsea. Go to the Lower East Side. Don’t go away on the weekends–go to the openings. Get a flavor for what’s going on. Use your eyes and then also use your ears in terms of coming to somebody like me for a little bit of guidance and a little bit of advice.

7) Have you seen any interesting artists lately? 

I was really struck by James Case Leal’s latest work. Not only are his pieces visually really interesting, but they’re made from materials unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. The paintings are very much about light and dark and atmospheric qualities, which I found entrancing.

Some work from James Case Leal.
Work by James Case Leal

8) It’s hard to talk about trends when you talk about art, but have you noticed any?

 There are trends, absolutely. I would say that ten years ago, the dominant trend was a very figurative trend. And you had young artists like Hernan Bas who was painting the figure in a very poetic setting. Or somebody like Dana Schutz, who is a very figurative and personal painter. Right now, I see a real return towards abstraction and geometric abstraction. I see a lot of young artists figuring out how to make interesting, abstract work.

9) I’ve heard from art advisers before that a large part of your job is telling people not to buy things. How do you feel about that? 

That’s true to some extent. That is vital I would say once you’re reaching a more expensive category because then you really have to make certain that the condition is right, that the provenance is right, and if there’s something wrong with any of those aspects of it, you want to advise your collector to stay away.

10) What is the difference between the primary and the secondary art market? 

The primary market is studio to gallery, gallery to you. So it’s more like an IPO in a sense; it’s an initial public offering of art. The secondary market is for more established artists and it is a resale market. So you bought artist A off the primary market and it was on your walls for ten years, you decided that you want to move on to something else, so you’re reselling the work and that’s the secondary market. So that work has already been out in the world a bit, and, as a buyer, you have to be a little bit more cautious about how it’s been treated. Did someone look after it properly? Was it in the apartment of a smoker? Has the surface been compromised in anyway because someone’s kid threw a baseball at it?

11) Do you advise your clients to work with conservators?

Yes, definitely. If you’re spending say $500,000 or more on a work of art, you want to spend that $500-5,000 to have a report made that gives you the security to know that the work is in good shape.

12) What do you think about how trendy contemporary art is?

The distinction between craft and fine art is dissolving and I think it’s high time that it did. And so I’m not surprised that that’s attracting a larger and larger audience because all these sectors (art, music, fashion, design, etc) can feed off of each other in a very positive way. You have to be involved in the other areas as well because otherwise you’re cutting yourself off from a great avenue of creation. The tentacles of one area are engaging with the tentacles of the other.