A view of the 2018 arteBA contemporary art fair, in Buenos Aires. Photo courtesy of arteBA Fundación

‘Collectors have a unique opportunity to preserve art for the future’

Artist, author, curator and consultant, Patricia Ellis has worked extensively with the Saatchi Gallery and now heads the MA Fine Art course at the Chelsea College of Arts. Here, she discusses market trends, and the right — and wrong — reasons to buy

You must be a popular dinner party guest. Do people always ask you which artists to invest in?

Patricia Ellis​: ‘They do — and my answer is always the same: invest in what you love! I’m not a huge believer in trends; art is much larger than that. In the last couple of decades the art market has exploded. In the 1950s and 1960s you were primarily looking at American and European art, whereas today the market is truly global. There’s something for everybody.

‘The market has also gone digital. Personally, I love painting and think there is nothing better than appreciating the physicality of the labour that has gone into it. But I have younger friends who find just as much joy in virtual media. They are investing in artists whose entire practices are online.’

Which artists have caught your attention recently?

PE: ‘The video artist Yuan Goang-Ming, digital artist James Howard, installation artist Joey Holder and Ant Hamlyn, an artist in residence at the Koppel Project.’

What is the best reason to invest in art?

PE: ‘Collectors have a unique opportunity to preserve art for the future, as well as to shape and inform. For a young artist to succeed they need a collector who will buy their work, record it, and look after it. That is how the history of art is written. 

‘Artists have an uncanny ability to articulate what it is like to live in the present moment, to express things that the rest of us haven’t fully registered yet. By investing in that, a collector has an opportunity to participate in a lasting cultural debate.’

You mentioned that in the 1950s and 1960s, the art market was predominantly focused in America and Europe. Where are the collectors coming from today?

PE: ‘South America and Asia, and more recently the Middle East and Africa. Today there is a real interest in exploring new regions and hearing new voices, and viewing new types of practices involving different cultural histories. We recognise now that there is more than just one narrative, and there is a real imperative to open things up. As a result, many major museums and big collectors are investing in art from further afield than they ever have before.’

They say that when the financial markets are in flux, the art market does well because people like to invest in art. What do you make of this?

PE: ‘People will always invest in art because they are passionate about it. Global politics or finance has little to do with it. Particularly at the younger end of the market these things have no impact. People are investing in an artist and in their development and their potential future.’

‘There will be cultural explosions in the future. Our job as collectors and curators is to recognise that moment when it happens’

Work by female artists still sells for much less than work by male artists. Is this ever likely to change?

PE: ‘Things are better, but it is still early days. The change will come with the next generation as female artists have more sustainable careers. Expanded practices also help. It’s not easy to have children crawling around the floor of a studio covered in smelly oil paint. But artists are very good at adapting, and I do think that the gap will close itself.’

Do you enjoy going to auctions?

PE: ‘I love the exhibitions at auction houses, and I go regularly. Some of the best curators in the world are at auction houses. Especially when people are buying art with historical value, auction houses have a responsibility to showcase the work in the most innovative way, but also to put it in historical context. I’m always curious to see which artists have been selected for sale, and how their work has been presented.’

Can you give me a specific example?

PE: ‘A few years ago I saw a large group show featuring art from the 1960s to the 1980s. In it there was a tiny drawing by the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti, and something about how it was placed in the exhibition just amazed me. Everything around it was large and minimalist, and here was this tiny plane that spoke loudly about the modern world. It raised ideas about the future of aerodynamics, technology and metaphysics.’

Do you collect art yourself?

PE: ‘I do. I’ve just moved house so most of it is in storage at the moment! But I’ve just put up a photograph by the South Korean artist Yeondoo Jung, a David Shrigley drawing, and a beautiful painting by Russian duo Vladimir Dubossarsky & Alexander Vinogradov. I’ve also just unwrapped a Bob and Roberta Smith painting.’

Do you have to be rich to profit from collecting art?

PE: ‘It is possible, but as with anything there is huge risk involved. Buying art purely to make a profit is probably the wrong reason to collect. If it pays off, great, but there is a good chance it won’t. I have things in my collection that are worth quite a bit now, and others that were worth a lot and are not now. But I would never dream of parting with them because I love them.’

What makes a good collector?

PE: ‘Some of the most knowledgeable people in the art world are collectors. They come at art from an entirely different perspective because they don’t make it or sell it. They come to it because they love it. The sheer vivacity of a collector like Charles Saatchi can be fascinating. He is so adventurous with his taste.’

With Charles Saatchi in mind, will we ever see anything like the excitement generated by the Young British Artists again?

PE: ‘I’d like to think there is always room for the new and the exciting, and of course there will be cultural explosions in the future. Our job as collectors and curators is to recognise that moment when it happens.’

What advice do you give to young collectors starting out?

PE: ‘You can get all the advice in the world, but at the end of the day, anything you’re thinking of adding to your collection has to have a resonance for you. Follow your heart, and allow yourself to fall in love with it. Also, go and see absolutely everything. Go everywhere.’

Where has that advice taken you?

PE: ‘To some very unexpected places! Probably the least expected was Benin, where I helped [Dutch video artist] Saskia Olde Wolbers research Voodoo practices. I met so many amazing artists there. No matter how far off the beaten path you go, you always run into an artist.’