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A guide to buying art

October 15, 2010

Can anyone become a collector? As Frieze art fair returns, Charlotte Higgins takes a course on how to buy contemporary art

charlotte higgins learn to buy artTaking note … Charlotte Higgins with artist Bob and Roberta Smith Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

In a wood-floored studio above the Whitechapel Gallery’s public spaces, looking out over the darkened roofscape of the City of London, 10 new students are taking furtive glances at each other over long-stemmed glasses of white wine. And I am one of them – here to attend the first session of the Whitechapel’s collecting contemporary art course, a five-part syllabus that culminates in a tour of Frieze. It is a course that ends not with a certificate so much as a licence to shop at Britain’s most prestigious contemporary art fair.

Taking a course – costing £595, for which you could buy a decent artist’s print with framing – may seem rather a pompous idea in the face of an activity that, reduced to its essentials, involves the mere signing of a cheque. But buying contemporary art, even for those few with the means to do so in these straitened times, can be daunting. Galleries can be intimidating and works on sale baffling; starting from scratch, how would you know what to buy? Course student Tom Symes, who works for an asset management company, puts it more baldly: “You know it’s going to be a lot of money, and the contemporary art world is a very cliquey place. You could be taken for a patsy at any one of these places, with all those cliquey people laughing at you as you spend your money on rubbish.”

Our first session is like being back at university: we are given an art history lecture by the director of the Whitechapel art gallery, Iwona Blazwick. She has a sweep of long blond hair and a deep sexy voice. “Contemporary practice is part of a big, complex, rich history,” she tells us, and takes us on a canter through art from the 1960s to the present day. “Warhol is all about sex and death. Eros and Thanatos,” she declares dramatically. I think I’ve got a schoolgirl crush on the teacher.

The subtext of the lecture is that to enjoy owning contemporary art, it is a good idea to have an understanding of its history and significance; in fact, the delicate question of buying stuff is only discreetly raised. Can you own a piece of performance art? (The answer is yes, sometimes.) Can you own a piece of work by artists such as Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, who create room-size installations (yes again – they also produce small-scale works). I’m struck afresh by the oddness of art compared to other means of artistic expression. You can’t buy a dance, or a play, or a piece of music, but you can own a work of visual art.

Read more at: A beginner’s guide to buying art

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