Why do we collect? What compels us to gather together collections of things – sometimes valuable, sometimes not – that subsequent generations may treasure as reminders of someone near, or re-categorise into their own collection, or possibly just throw away? What for some is a treasure-trove of opportunity is for others the stuff of nightmares, and abhorrent clutter.

The motivations of patrons and art collectors of all eras to collect have been studied extensively. Whatever the motivation, the value of collections lies in the way once inanimate objects enable us to reconsider and rethink history through our own contemporary lens. This is the background to a new show at the Shepparton Art Museum, Collector/Collected, which focuses on the motivations for collecting and how we value ‘things’. For the collector, the motivations may be many, consciously articulated or intuitively felt. And for the viewer, it creates another space for conversations that bring us together, teach us new things, or challenge our understandings of the past and the present.

In 1988, the American dealer Irving Blum pointed to the social advantages to be gained from becoming a collector.  A collector, Blum observed, became part of a network of lively people – artists, curators, writers, and other collectors.  “One constantly receives requests for visits from people interested in one’s collection,” he said. “When a collector travels, he plugs into the art network, wherever he goes … It’s a fascinating and highly civilized kind of existence.  Art can become the reason for living one’s life.” And, of course, there is also a creative impulse to collecting that cannot be satisfied through other means.  Whatever the motivation, all collections reflect a curiosity with the world. Of course, true collecting requires a degree of science. Ordering, systems and categories demonstrate that the pastime is serious. The way it is displayed often differentiates the artist or institution from the non-professional.

Many artists blur the boundary between hobby and professional collecting, with compulsive online purchasing or trawling through car boot sales and charity shops.
What differentiates the amateur hobbyist from the artist as collector is the artist’s ability to find orders and categories hiding in plain sight, creating artforms from junk.

Rebecca Coates is the director of the Shepparton Art Museum, where a new exhibition, Collector/Collected, runs until March.