For Many Art Dealers, 'Selling' Is A Dirty Word (But Not For Young Collectors) Older collectors often want to keep their art forever, which is good for an artist's long-term career. Younger collectors are more commercially driven, and that can have ripple effects.

For Many Art Dealers, 'Selling' Is A Dirty Word (But Not For Young Collectors)

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It's the first day of Art Basel. That's a contemporary art fair in Switzerland and a market that has changed a lot in the last decade or so. Many of the collectors at the fair are younger people who think of collecting differently than their older peers do. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has been asking if that changing market will change art.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: We have to start this conversation where a lot of art begins - in a studio.

LINN MEYERS: So I've been here since 2002.

BLAIR: Linn Meyers' studio in D.C. is about the size of a three-car garage covered with ivy, tucked in the backyard of an old house.

MEYERS: It used to be a carriage house.

BLAIR: Inside, five of her ink drawings are pinned to the walls. Swirling lines curve and spiral together almost like the tiny lines on your fingertips. She has a large-scale installation in this style at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Gallery. To an artist like Myers, collectors can be just as important as curators and critics.

MEYERS: I'm still in touch with some of the very first people that collected my work. In fact, I showed a picture at the talk at the Hirshhorn of a piece that I did in 1990, and the collector was in the audience.

BLAIR: But collecting is changing. Evan Beard is an art specialist with U.S. Trust. He oversaw a recent survey of about 700 wealthy people, including art collectors.

EVAN BEARD: The older generation still seems to view their art for aesthetic reasons. They collect as a lifestyle, as an extension of their autobiography, whereas younger collectors tend to be much more commercially driven.

BLAIR: Thirty-five-year-old art collector Nilani Trent is in that group. She says it's just smart investing.

NILANI TRENT: I think any time you are spending the amount of money that collectors are spending nowadays, it's very important to be aware of the market for individual artists.

BLAIR: Trent is also an art adviser based in New York. She says she used to take clients on tours of galleries, hoping they'd fall in love with an artist's work. Now she's more likely to meet them at events like Art Basel, where buzz matters. And she says that's changing the conversation she's having with young collectors.

TRENT: I think instead of talking about the aesthetics of a specific work, we really talk about the market. And I think for someone that doesn't have a high level of connoisseurship but is probably pretty savvy on finance and wealth, talking about the market is a very obvious go-to.

BLAIR: Evan Beard says there's another way young collectors differ from their older peers.

BEARD: They're far more interested in selling portions of their collection as they're building their own collection.

BLAIR: Selling - believe it or not, to a lot of dealers, that's a dirty word.

KURT MUELLER: Yeah, that's generally frowned upon.

BLAIR: Kurt Mueller is director of the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles.

MUELLER: We often talk about not selling an artwork but placing an artwork with a home - with a collector, in terms of finding a lasting relationship there.

BLAIR: These lasting relationships are good for an artist's long-term career. Too much selling has ripple effects. It can flood the market. For an emerging artist, it can set the bar too high. Nilani Trent says in some cases, artists have just kept doing the same work.

TRENT: It's easy to get stuck creating works that sell for quite a bit of money, especially if you sold the first group for only $2,000 to 12,000, for example, and then they're selling for half a million dollars at auction. You might continue to create the same work over and over because you want to make the half million dollars and not the $12,000.

BLAIR: If collectors start auctioning off of their artists or creating too much hype, it's the artist who can't then grow and create new work. And for older collectors, that's kind of the whole point - to watch an artist evolve. Mera Rubell and her husband Don have been collecting since the 1960s.

MERA RUBELL: What makes collecting contemporary art so profoundly different is the relationship to the artist.

BLAIR: And she says to the community that helps the artist.

M. RUBELL: Which is the galleries, which is the museum, which is the curators. Once you get involved inside of that universe, it's endlessly enriching and life-sustaining. And suddenly, you wake up and say - this is what I really needed in my life.

BLAIR: The Rubells are old-school. Rarely did they consider selling a work. Their private collection is open to the public and they loan works to other museums. The Miami couple isn't worried about young collectors who start out thinking of art as a commodity. The art world is so seductive, says Don Rubell, eventually they'll want to live with the art forever.

DON RUBELL: And that they would frequently share their wife or children before they would share the art.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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