(Collecting? Buying? Acquiring?) Art

“A subject matter that I am contemplating nowadays and that I am personally concerned with is the nature of a collection and the status of a collector. When talking about collections, we have to distinguish the differences between building a collection and owning a collection. While when we talk about collectors, we have to distinguish being a collector and becoming a collector. So, here we have four keywords: to build, to own, to be and to become. In the case of collectors, of which I am not one (and it annoys me all the time), we have: to build and to be. Someone who is a collector and wants to build a collection has an idea from the very beginning. Once he sets off his adventure, he has no other ambition than to make the collection as complete, complex and exemplary as possible. Is this a vice or a virtue? I don’t know.”
- Brussels collector Herman Daled, interview with Selina Ting, InitiArt Magazine, Paris, 6 October 2011

Hamidi Hadi - Embryo (2005)

Why does one collect art? Is it to make a profit? Is it for home decoration? Is it for fun, i.e. an enjoyable addiction? Is it to achieve social distinction/prestige? Is it to support a moral/political cause? Is it as payment to artists for personal enrichment? Is it to recover lost memories? Is it to (re-)construct history? Collecting artefacts has historically been a demonstration of power, and as one that occasionally buys art, I struggle mightily to continue procuring art in a meaningful manner. The idea of accumulating man-made objects run afoul of my personal beliefs – that the less objects one has, the less attachments one will have – and subscribes to a capitalist way of life that I wish to withdraw from, as hypocritically futile that ideal is. Having a focus is the buzzword in art collecting, the phrase sounding more like consultant speak to fast-track prestige via manufactured novelty.

Kim Ng - Untitled (89) (2014)

Anyone who has researched the opaque art market knows that investing in it is foolish, notwithstanding its damaging impact to 99% of the artists not in the blue chip category. Why spend thousands on a single piece of art, when there are many beautiful products and objects available to decorate one’s place? Display and maintenance of artworks are well-known issues. Should paintings and drawings be hung salon-style? Where to keep installations and sculptures that do not match the colour scheme of a corner space? If art is an enjoyable pursuit, and one paid monies to take ownership of an object, why bother about its preservation? Time and place naturally react with artworks, but am I doing artists a disservice by hanging paintings without frames, or storing photographs without wrapping it in acid-free paper?

Linda Chin - Rubber Rubber #8 (2013)

A useful trope for introspection is to translate ‘collect’ into one’s mother tongue – 收集 (gather/harvest), 珍藏 (hoard valuables) in Mandarin; Kumpul (gather/assemble), kutip (pick/extract) in Bahasa Melayu. Assembling disparate objects into a single place becomes a physical manifestation of one’s values – or is it? How does appreciation of an artwork, transcend individual taste and personal aesthetic upon its purchase? Does re-looking an acquisition generate new insight into one’s self? Turning motivations inside out, is building a collection just a show of power to create history? Collectors utilise their holdings to re-interpret legacies by opening private museums and publishing thick catalogues, such self-aggrandising gestures dwelling upon obsolete notions of connoisseurship.

Lim Keh Soon - Dilarang Merokok (2013)

“…public institutions must form the public memory as their core “, says Swiss diplomat Uli Sigg. I agree with this statement, yet the role of custodian is too noble to bear. Since the National Visual Arts Development Board was established, it is unclear if trustees still play a role in donations or acquisitions, notwithstanding the lack of publicised precedents about publicly donated artworks into the national collection. Patronage is my objective in buying local art, yet how does one buy art without forcing a capitalist exchange, which may manifest an implicit power play? Do collectors ask for an artist’s permission to display an acquisition outside his/her home, considering that the artist may not agree with the motive/intent of the exhibition? If art ownership is not an agreeable form of patronage, is critical praise sufficient to boost the confidence of budding artists?

Video of Okui Lala - 十年树木,百年树人 (translated as "It takes a decade to grow a tree, a century to shape mankind") (2015)

Miami collectors Donald and Mera Rubell are known to support artists by providing regular stipends, but which local artist would accept monthly allowances without feeling patronised? Crowdfunding websites for creative making like Patreon is not useful, for one who prefers to experience art real-life and real-time. Should monies be instead channelled to encourage continuous development of an art community? But if good artworks are being made and sold to fund social initiatives, what is wrong with a material transaction? Hamburg collector Harald Falckenberg remarks, “I give myself over to art. It gives me the ability to live in a parallel world (…) art is a means with which I can compensate for my complexes.” Selfish propositions underlie my purchases – a realisation difficult to acknowledge – as I look out for alternative approaches to support Malaysian visual art.

Snapshot from Minstrel Kuik - Song to Durga - Volume 2 (2014)

“For me, purchasing works of art provides the possibility to live with them, to contemplate them whenever I wish, to enjoy their intellectual and emotional challenge in direct contact (…) For the private collector, close to the pulse of creative production, it is most exciting to fall in love, to decide on his or her own, to spend his or her own money on something just discovered.”
- Berlin fashion designer Erika Hoffmann-Koenige, interview with Selina Ting, InitiArt Magazine

“While it is being constituted, it is better for a collection to remain discreet, even hidden. The attention mustn’t be distracted by the social aspect. The collector risks, unintentionally and even against his or her own convictions, being drawn into an ill-suited, false social role.”
- Ghent collector Anton Herbert, quoted in a 1999 interview with Jan Debbaut, Subjectivity, Partiality, Independence, Quality, Flexibility, 2000

Close-up snapshot of Tiong Chai Heing - The Nightmare of Materialism (2014)

P.S.  Artworks pictured in this blog post do not represent those purchased by the author.


  1. Please keep up with your excellent reviews/critiques and I must say they do come across as very well thought of and critical essays.

    Art buyers normally start off "owning" a collection and some, not many will pursue "building" a collection. Anyone who wants "to become" a collector will never get there as I reckon a true art collector will become one naturally.


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