State of the Art Market

Eight insiders share expert advice for collectors

by Norman Kolpas

Martin Grelle, Dust in the Distance, oil, 48 x 64, Scottsdale Art Auction.

Martin Grelle, Dust in the Distance, oil, 48 x 64, Scottsdale Art Auction.

This story was featured in the October 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  October 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Like so many things in the world today, the art market is changing all the time: new events pop up on the calendar, galleries close while others open, new artists burst onto the scene. What to make of it all? This month we polled eight experts from different sectors of the western art world—gallery owners, curators, auction directors, event organizers—and asked them four big questions. They join voices here to offer a well-rounded point of view that will help you understand the trends and make wise art-buying choices as we forge ahead toward 2018.

How would you describe the current art market?

“The amount of very high-quality artwork for sale right now is astounding,” says Greg Fulton, owner of Astoria Fine Art on the town square in Jackson, WY. “I feel like the American art market is extremely strong in terms of more and better-
talented individuals constantly striving
to produce the best art they can. There’s also an abundance of art shows, museum shows, gallery shows, and auctions.”

That abundance, according to Brad Richardson—one of three partners in the Scottsdale Art Auction and president/owner of Legacy Gallery—means that some shows and auction houses are seeing more modest results than in the past. But that doesn’t mean that less art is being sold overall. “It’s possible there’s as much western art being sold; it’s just that the pie is being cut into smaller pieces. I think we’re in a transition, but I do feel optimistic about the future,” he says.

Rose Fredrick, curator of the annual Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale in Denver, shares a similar sentiment. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” she says. “I see an uptick and hear about higher reported sales in my conversations with others.”

The need for caution, observes Shanan Campbell Wells, owner of Sorrel Sky Gallery in Santa Fe and Durango, might well be attributable to the changing nature of business itself in our electronic age. “Brick-and-mortar galleries will not survive on walk-in traffic alone,” she says. “It’s more critical now than ever to have a strong web presence and social-media channels. We’ve seen [collectors] buying online at midnight on a Saturday.” Still, she shares, ecommerce accounts for only about 10 percent of her business overall. “I really believe that having great service and strong customer relationships is essential for success.”

What success ultimately relies upon, of course, is the enduring appeal and intrigue of collectible fine art. “It’s always changing, always evolving, and there’s always something new happening,” says Elizabeth Harris, director of InSight Gallery in Fredericksburg, TX. “You never run out of amazing art and amazing talent. It’s like a spring coming up from the earth.”

What changes have you noticed in collecting habits?

Many experts, like Diane Waterhouse—co-owner with husband Ralph of Waterhouse Gallery in Santa Barbara—have noticed a rising tide of “younger collectors whose tastes are going a bit more modern,” even when it comes to realist art. She points to the enthusiastic reception she gets for works by 17-year-old wunderkind Kyle Ma, whose oils display kinetic brushwork and color.

From her perspective at the Coors show, Fredrick concurs. “Young collectors are looking for more contemporary art that reflects what’s happening today in the western United States,” she says—adding that, perhaps as a result, “more artists in this region are exploring different styles and techniques, pushing their own boundaries.” Among the many artists she’s dealt with, she offers by way of example Ron Hicks, whose moody figurative paintings “go into abstraction, with wonderfully observational new work touching on human emotion”; and the “really vibrant landscapes, thick with impasto and abstracted elements” by New Mexico-based Jivan Lee.

Fulton attributes a similar demand to the popularity of modern-style homebuilding in Jackson, “so there’s a trend here toward artists who bring a more contemporary edge to western art.” In-demand works in that vein at Astoria include paintings by Mark Eberhard, whose mostly large-scale canvases portray realistic images of birds and animals in unusual compositions against almost abstract backgrounds; and sculptures by Joshua Tobey, who creates lustrously patinaed bronzes that combine sleek, modern styling with touches of whimsy.

Another trend on which many experts agree is the rising popularity of small-scale artworks. “I’ve heard several collectors mention that they’re running out of room,” says Mary Ann Igna, deputy director and curator of the Desert Caballeros Western Museum in Wickenburg, AZ, referring to the popularity of miniatures at Cowgirl Up!, her institution’s annual springtime show and sale dedicated to works by women artists of the West. Harris shares that she’s even heard such small works referred to as tuckers, “meaning small, unexpected treasures you tuck in to create vignettes in your home. Miniatures are a great way to start a collection or to round one out.”

What trends are you seeing in the market?

Whether the works are small or large, most collectors would agree that they want art with staying power, by artists whose popularity and value won’t diminish with time. “Only a handful of artists” are able to sustain such popularity for their entire careers, says Richardson, offering by way of example the phenomenal success of three noted western artists: Howard Terpning, G. Harvey, and Martin Grelle. “They have maintained that momentum throughout their careers.”

Richardson also acknowledges a new generation of people who were trained as fine artists rather than as illustrators—people like established painter John Coleman, along with younger artists including Kyle Polzin, Glenn Dean, Logan Maxwell Hagege, and Jeremy Lipking. “This group is really having some success and creating some momentum,” he says.

The widespread appeal of that rising generation also gives hope to painter Jake Gaedtke, president of the 45-member-strong Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters Association. “They’re still carrying the torch of really great art,” he says, “and I believe it’s just going to get better”—for painters as well as for the people who seek to buy their work. And Wells, from her perspective, considers “the collector base even stronger than ever, especially for established, tried-and-true artists” like the boldly contemporary Native American painter Kevin Red Star or widely collected bronze sculptor Star Liana York.

Meanwhile Igna continues to see, year after year, another significant and heartening market trend. “One important thing that Cowgirl Up! has accomplished,” she says, “is getting collectors to realize that works by women are worth a bigger investment, that they’re of a quality equal to works by men.”

In the end, though, it’s difficult to pin down universal trends in a diverse market. “If you sat here in my gallery and asked 25 people what their favorite piece is,” says Waterhouse, “you’d get 25 different answers. If a painting is beautiful and well done, I think there will always be somebody who will want to buy it.”

What advice do you share with collectors today?

As diverse as the art world may be, our expert observers largely agree on the advice they offer to collectors.

“First of all,” says Richardson, “get out and see a lot of work. You need to be able to hone your own personal tastes. Then, buy what you love and what you’re passionate about. The true value of a great piece of art is when you bring it into your home and it enriches your life.”

“Slow down,” adds Fulton. “Go to the galleries. Go to the shows. See the works in person. Stare at a painting for 10 minutes as opposed to giving it a glance as you walk by it.”

Don’t be averse to seeking expert advice, either. “I always tell collectors to work with an art advisor or a gallerist you know and trust,” says Fredrick. That doesn’t mean you have to hire one, either, as gallery owners and other art-world pros are usually more than happy to help. “If you’re coming to the Coors show,” Fredrick adds, “I want to talk with you, and I’ll introduce you to the artists.” Indeed, artists themselves can be a great source of education. “A lot of artists are happy to have people visit their studios,” adds Igna.

Only thus informed can collectors make sound decisions. Even then, don’t buy hastily. “If you see something you love, walk away,” advises Fredrick. “And then, if you still can’t stop thinking about it, go back and buy it.”

Most importantly, say all the experts, it’s unwise to buy art as an investment. “Nobody knows what’s going to appreciate in value,” sums up Waterhouse. “You should only buy an artwork because you can’t live without it.” Follow that advice, and you’ll find that collecting fine art enriches your world in a way that few other pursuits can match.

This story was featured in the October 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  October 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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