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Mat Gleason

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The Art Collector Youth Fixation Factor

Posted: 06/26/2012 8:09 am

The art world discriminates based on age. I would advise every artist reading this to immediately remove your birth year from your website, from your Facebook page, from your CV/Resume. Oh sure, you strident few might squeal, "but I'm proud of my age." Well, power to you, Gramps. Art collectors have the vampire gene and one reason they are even collecting art in the first place is to suck up the energy of young blood. So be proud of being a boomer and never get your art shown or sold.

Is it wrong of a collector to want to know the age of the artist when they buy an artwork? Let's wish to see the day when there is a simple answer to that question. If you had asked me before I opened an art gallery, I might have said "of course." But after encountering this query a number of times, it just isn't so simple. Now I realize the depths of this ugly streak. Once an art collector is old enough to be a grandparent, he or she just will not buy the work of artists who would not make good breeding partners. It is a psychological compensation issue and it rules what artists galleries select. The Getty organized the whole Pacific Standard Time exhibit as a way to help California collectors, galleries and institutions clear out their closets of art they forgot to flip before each artist hit forty. If you weren't part of Pacific Standard Time and weren't born in the 1980s, you are too old for most trendy collectors, most of whom are the über-vain remnants of American youth culture's heyday circa 1959.

Of course it is a delusion on the part of collectors that the age of the artist is of consequence. One out of a hundred artists uses culturally specific references to a degree that the context of the artist's age informs the viewer. A collage with a picture of Johnny Rotten made in the year 2012 can mean very different things if the artist who constructed it is 51 years old or 21 years old. This is the exception. The age of the artist hardly ever matters relative to the subject matter of the work, and usually it would be the work of historians decades later to determine such contexts.

But that doesn't stop insipid picture-hoarders from inquiring about the age of the artist as they stroll through the gallery. And they don't ask for the artist's age in a tactful manner. Oh no; today's collectors examine an artwork and, mildly interested, the look on their faces changes into a look of lust as they ask something like "Is he young?" or "Is she fresh out of school?" In response to this question from a collector recently, I meant to say that an artist was 31 but it just slipped out, "Oh, he's 21, just out of art school," and the collector had a spontaneous orgasm right in front of me. Art galleries are a lot like internet dating -- people prefer to hook up with hot young single catches and collectors prefer to buy hot young artists. Most generation gap flings don't turn into serious relationships and most twenty something art purchases don't increase in value. But their lust for young blood coupled with that fear of their own creeping mortality makes collectors reflexively ask the stupid question that only makes them look more desperate, "Do you mostly show young artists?" ...so to close this sale, am I supposed to reply "Oh yeah, I wouldn't dare show any artist who is even half your age."

Once they have had a few young conquests (aka bought some art by artists in their twenties), collectors are a bit more demure, but they are just as desperate for young flesh via canvas. They ask trick questions. Asking whether this is the artist's first solo show can often be a roundabout method for a decaying old collector to not telegraph his youth-obsessed neuroses. If a curator is able to recite a litany of group shows to bolster the pedigree of the artist, the good faith effort has actually killed the potential sale. Most art dealers are behind in learning trendy collector math: Artist With Experience = Past One's Prime.

Savvy collectors try to find out about an artist's education, not because the collectors are impressed with student loan diploma mills and art theory classes taught by has-been art writers, but to unearth the true age of an artist. Knowing the year an artist graduated can have the power of ending your career as if it were engraved on your tombstone. Today's trendy collectors are so caught up in making sure they don't buy the art of a body that has seen thirty years that they miss a pretty glaring problem when they bring up art schools at all: art school MFA programs are run by the fuddy-duddiest old artists in the land of old artists. Impressionable young kids make art that parrots Gramma's Masters Degree kitchen. So instead of buying the art of has-been art school professors, collectors think the hip young imitations of the professors are going to be valuable in a decade or even interesting next year? Maybe someone needs a degree in collecting art before they call themselves a collector.

The desire for young artists is not well thought out. It is emotional. Collectors age at the same one day at a time rate as you and I. They delude themselves, though, that they are staying young by buying young and rationalize it with hilarious justifications. One collector told me she needed to buy young artists because she wants to be able to follow their careers. Honey, you're going to be in diapers if you make it to the 45th birthday of some of these new art school grads, have you thought about that? Nope, you have not, because no rational approach to collecting current art could argue on behalf of considering the artists' youth as a factor.

But nobody confronts collectors, no matter how pathetic their palpable fear of appearing aged and out of touch becomes. Artists grow meek in their presence. Galleries just sell to them. No matter how tragic their incapacity for self-awareness may be, the only antidote for collector's youth fixation is for galleries to have plausible deniability. If the artist is not standing between me and a collector, my recollection of working with them is that the artist is "...oh, about 26, maybe 27. You know Basquiat was 27 when he died and his prices went through the roof." That turns every collector on!

If the artist has no age listed anywhere, no references to any dates, no shows listed with a date more than three years old, no mention of the year they got an art degree or if they studied with some fossil professor who is almost as old as the average art collector -- the artist can actually protect the collector from his or her self. That noxious need to equate hip with young is a product of 1950s and 60s Americana and the old folks who learned it then have carried it to this day. But all of us younger, but not too young, art folk can let the quaint notions of yesteryear warm the hearts of the aging American collector base by flat out lying to them when they ask idiotic questions about artists that have no relevance to the art we are trying to sell to them.

Paul Cezanne: First Solo Show at age 56
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Visitors in front of the "Portrait of Emile Zola" (painted between 1862-1864) by Paul Cezanne. The artist had his first solo show in his fifties, something that would make trendy collectors of contemporary art shriek and run from a gallery.
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