How to Start an Art Collection with Z-Series Curator Francesca Gavin

Francesca Gavin is a real jack of all trades in the arts. She co-curated The Historical Exhibition in Manifesta11 and has curated international exhibitions at institutions like Palais de Tokyo, Somerset House and MU. She hosts her own monthly radio show Rough Version on NTS Radio and is a prolific writer who has penned six books on art. Her career as an art writer and editor spans decades, with a seemingly endless list of publications, including The Financial Times, 032c, AnOther Magazine, Dazed, Artsy and Nowness.

As Soho House Group’s curator, she has built an art collection valued at $6 million that is on permanent display at the membership clubs around the world. We talked to Francesca about how to build a collection and her favorites at vc_on’s exclusive online selection Z-Series.

As a curator, you also have experience in building and advising art collections. What is the best way for someone who is new to contemporary art to start a collection?

Trust your intuition. Find an artwork that you connect to on an emotional level, something that makes you think, that you find aesthetically interesting, or makes you feel you want to learn more. Collecting art is a story that evolves over time. You will end up seeing new things in the artworks you’ve purchased while you’re living with them. That’s why you want to have work that has a complexity in it that makes you feel like there’s more to discover.

If I want to start a collection, should I follow a specific systemic approach?

No. Some people do have a systematic thought behind their collection. They only collect female artists or artists from a particular country or a particular period. But I don’t think you really need to put this limitation on yourself at the beginning. It’s more important that you learn through the process and ask yourself why you find something interesting. Then try to find out what that why is and what more there is to discover around it. And if the world becomes more interesting and more beautiful to you through that process, that’s a really good start. I think that the direction in your collection comes with time, when you realize what catches you the most.

Nevertheless, there are many collections that seem to have a regional focus.

In many so-called emerging economies, there’s an increasing number of art collectors who only collect local artists. That’s a really good way to engage and connect to a scene. There’s a great opportunity to collect art in certain places specifically at this moment of time because of the social and political developments that artworks can reflect upon and that can be really interesting. I think we’re going to see a shift from that wider international outlook towards something more intimate and local.

Drawing by Assunta Abdel Azim Mohame, Courtesy of Galerie Ernst Hilger

If I’m new to the art world, what’s the best way to educate myself?

It’s important to trust your intuition but at the same time, it’s important to follow with education. Do online research and read about art in publications and on websites of institutions, galleries and artists. Very likely you’ll find interviews with artists online where they discuss their work. Seeing exhibitions is also a really good starting point for anything. That’s how you discover what’s out there. Go to biennales, museums and galleries. Don’t be afraid of going into a gallery even if they seem daunting and elitist. In fact, they’re not. Galleries will often have a lot of information about their artists because they deal with them most directly. They are happy to talk and explain details. The more exhibitions you see, the more you will educate your eye and begin to understand the possibilities of art. Any interest that you may have will be reflected upon in contemporary art, anything you read in the newspaper and the internet, about your body, beauty, feminism, philosophy or politics – all these things are emerging in contemporary art as well. Whatever your interests are in the widest sense, you’re going to find that reflected in artwork.

Are there specific things I need to look out for if I decide to buy art?

I personally always look for originality first. I find it very appealing if someone is doing something differently. If you’re interested in an artist, look at their CV and where they are showing. If you find an artist who does more shows at a particular moment in time, that’s usually a good moment to connect to what they’re doing. And then you follow their careers. Watching someone grow is part of the joy of collecting. I’m also a believer in finding work that’s really typical of an artist’s style. Look at a certain work and see if that’s very typical of the work they’re making as opposed to something that’s a little bit off. It’s always good to connect to the main body of an artist’s oeuvre. In the long run, that’s always the better choice. Then, pay attention to whether it’s an original or an edition. If you look at larger artists, it would be more affordable to buy an edition because there are more of them. But if you can, it’s always more sensible to buy an original, whether it’s an original drawing or painting or sculpture. They are one-offs, and they are rarer. That’s what eventually makes them a better investment. Finally, think about what you want to do with the artwork, whether it needs space or maintenance.

From the series "Artificial Gods" by Dennis Rudolph
© Dennis Rudolph & Jette Rudolph

You are the curator of vc_on’s Z-Series. What is your curatorial approach to it and what makes Z-series stand out?

I looked for works that are engaging and current whilst also balancing aesthetics and conceptual inventiveness; art that provides an approachable gateway into an artist’s practice. I went to every single one of the 45 participating galleries’ programs to find work that I felt was interesting, innovative and that touched on some of the wider concerns in contemporary art today. It’s also work that you can see and understand online, so people who are used to purchasing other things online won’t feel alienated by the gallery or even the art fair. The works on Z-series allow people to access and learn about art in an accessible and much more familiar way. It’s a place for both people who are already collecting to discover emerging names and people who are making their first foray into collecting. It’s a chance to find work to experiment with and things that are worth having a look at, and definitely the best of a younger generation and the more recent work from across viennacontemporary. Plus, all the works cost less than 3,000 euros.

You mentioned that a lot of collectors are looking into collecting local artists. viennacontemporary has a regional focus and looks at Austria, Central and Eastern European art. What do you find most interesting about these regions?

Galleries from Central and Eastern Europe are increasingly gaining attention from the rest of the art world. There seems to be a strong relationship to materials and pushing how art can use and misuse media. There is also an awareness of the political in work from these regions, which is understandable at this moment of international upheaval, though interestingly this presence is subtle and complex. Every single country or region has its own texture and history. Over recent years, I have become very aware that Austria has a particular tradition of Abstraction, coming out of Modernism. I think there are some really interesting artists in Z-Series who are looking at new interpretations of Abstract painting or who reduce information in graphic textures in their work. That is really fascinating. I think in the widest sense, a lot of the work that comes out of this region really reflects broader ideas about the representation of the body, ideas around identity and reflections on the figurative. There’s a real return to painting. Paintings are having a moment, and that is reflected in the works on Z-Series too.

Yelena Popova's "Townlets Diagrams", Courtesy of the artist and l'étrangère gallery

Which artists in Z-Series struck you the most?

It’s always hard to choose but my three recent discoveries from Z-Series are as follows. Assunta Abdel Azim Mohamed is a great Austrian figurative artist. Her drawings explore a lot of wider interests in contemporary art today, in particular ideas around identity and otherness. Apart from her great approach to style, I’m very interested in how her figures look at each other and the viewer in a very refreshing way. Russian artist Yelena Popova has a really broad and interesting practice that overlaps between painting and sculpture. There is something very beautiful and fluid about her take on modernism and abstraction, emerging from the heritage of constructivism in a very modern way. Dennis Rudolph is another very interesting artist who expands on painting with the integrated use of technology. His pieces work as paintings in their own right but have augmented reality elements that can be viewed from your phone and transform the work into something 3D.

Z-Series is part of vc_on, viennacontemporary’s digital expansion. The special online exclusive selection is curated by Francesca Gavin and is available for purchase from 17 September to 27 October 2020 here.

Quynh Tran is editor-in-chief of central east magazine. She previously worked in the mediation departments of art instiutions like Boros Foundation and Schering Foundation. Her writing has been published in publications like Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Arte Magazin, Die Dame, Vogue, artnet, artinfo, Arts of the Working class and others. She is one of eight contributing authors of the book “Kein schöner Land – Angriff auf die deutsche Gegenwart”, published at C.H. Beck.