Careers in Focus

Art collecting – what, where and how to begin


Milani Gallery - Peter Kennedy

Peter Kennedy Fugue 1971-2015 installation view, Milani Gallery. Courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

“There are many things in life that will catch your eye, but only a few will catch your heart…pursue those.”
— unknown

Since graduating from Law and Art History at UQ, Josh Milani has forged an impressive career in the arts. As Director of Milani Gallery in Woolloongabba, Brisbane, Josh specialises in contemporary art, representing many leading Australian artists. This month, we talked to him about where to begin when establishing an art collection, particularly with a limited budget, and asked him for some strategies on how to manage a collection wisely.

Q: You studied Law, then Art History at UQ before moving into the commercial gallery sector. What drew you to art and, subsequently, to this aspect of the industry?
A: I was very lucky to grow up around art: my father collected it and my mother made it. Despite that, I was past my teens before I became seriously curious about it. In particular, I became fascinated with how art transcends a certain time and place precisely by being of a certain time and place. Think of Goya in Spain or Emily Kame Kngwarreye in Utopia. Their work will continue to speak to vast audiences for centuries to come. It’s nice to think you might support an artist whose work will nourish the future – whether that support is offered as a collector, dealer or patron.

Q: What are the skills you acquired at university that have been most useful to you as an art dealer?
A: It’s difficult to say because you can’t teach someone to be an art dealer, there’s just no course for it. But clearly my Art History degree has been invaluable. Knowledge of the past helps you understand the present. All my judgements around art have been formed through this philosophy.

Q: Where requested, you offer advice to people seeking to build a collection. What kind of artwork would you recommend to a client with a limited budget?
A: Firstly, educate yourself. Read, think and, above all, look at art in the flesh. Look at a lot of it. Then buy something you like by a committed artist you admire. Find out what drives them. Think about how their ideas might challenge your own. If they do, it’s quite possible they’re good. It could be someone emerging, or an affordable work by someone more established.

Q: The heart versus the mind: should you buy what you love, or what’s likely to grow in value over time?
A: My advice is to support committed artists whose work you appreciate. If they are making a serious cultural contribution there’s a fair chance the value will follow. If it doesn’t, who cares? You’ve had the pleasure of the artwork.

Q: Is it advisable to collect with a certain theme or genre in mind?
A: That depends on your intentions. It’s not a bad idea, but it’s not essential. I’ve seen plenty of good people amass wonderful collections over a lifetime with no specific intent in mind other than to satisfy their curiosity and experience joy. But there are those who do both, such as James Sourris OAM. Alongside his personal collection, which continues to grow, from 2000 to 2010 James built a collection of Australian art with a strong Queensland focus, then gave it to the Queensland Art Gallery|Gallery of Modern Art. He had a goal with clear parameters, and he’s left something great for the public to enjoy. What’s important is to put something of yourself into the collection. Be passionate.

Q: What are the pros and cons of buying online, direct from the artist, or through a gallery or dealer?
A: The benefit of buying from a dealer, assuming they are reputable, is that you get ongoing advice and access to artists and their best work, as it is made. It’s advisable to find a dealer who is nurturing a group of artists that you respect, and learn as much from them as you can. You don’t need to agree with them on everything, but forming a robust relationship where you can contest ideas openly will help you develop your knowledge and hence your collection. The whole process should be an enjoyable one.

Buying direct from the artist is something you would consider if they’re not represented, but I tend to find artists are less likely to filter their work as they’re too close to it.

As for buying online, I think that’s arguably fine if you understand the materiality of a particular artist’s work already. However, because the materiality of art – including scale, texture etc. – can only be judged in the flesh, I’d always advise seeing things in person. That’s my advice whether it’s painting, video, sculpture, drawing, installation or whatever. Art exists in its own visual economy. It’s physical, and it inhabits real spaces. It demands your physical presence in order to do its job. That’s part of its power in an increasingly digital world. You just cannot replicate the experience fully online. Go out and look.

Q: Do you advise people to document their art collection?
A: If it suits them. It depends on their intentions. I’d say most people tend to do so anyway for insurance purposes. I am always happy to help with that.

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