How to Curate a Contemporary Art Collection: with James Makin

We Dropped Them Off Via the Only Sun 2016
oil on board 94 x 75cm
Sold for $8,125

James Makin is a Melbourne based art advisor, art dealer, curator, consultant, artist manager, and owner of Collingwood’s James Makin Gallery. Here, he shares his advice on collecting contemporary works of art. 

There are so many talented contemporary artists working in Australia and around the world. How would you suggest a collector refines their options to choose the artists and works that will suit them best? Should this process of refinement be one of continuous revision?

When going beyond simple decoration of your home with a few ‘hero’ pieces, I would say that on most occasions, collecting art is quite personal. A collection is usually best developed around taste and personal style. When consulting with budding collectors, I will meet with them to discuss their interests, for example sculpture, photography, or painting, abstract or figurative, and on from there. Usually, collectors already have a few pieces that they own that we can use as a starting point to branch out.

We can also decide to have boundaries to the collection. A theme, if you will, makes for a better and more interesting collection than a scatter gun approach or simply buying ‘signatures’ (popular artists of the time). I would also advise to collect fewer artists in depth, instead going for many artists with one or two pieces by each. And yes, curating a collection is a constant ongoing process of review, acquisition, and deaccession.

As an advisor, you work with both corporate as well as private collectors. Do you find that your advice on curating a contemporary collection, and the criteria of those collectors, can differ between the two?

Yes, very much so. In advising corporate collecting, one must be mindful of public perception. Will the art be considered offensive to anyone? Where will it be installed? And so on. In corporate collecting advice we look closer at overall diversity. This can be less important in a private collection.

Your gallery space in Melbourne’s inner-city suburb of Collingwood hosts numerous exhibitions and art events for collectors annually. How important do you think it is for a collector to experience contemporary art in a physical space, as opposed to online?

Online is excellent and we’re all used to viewing things digitally these days, but I’d say always get in front of the physical piece whenever possible. Scale especially can be misconstrued online. Once you’re well versed with a particular artist, then by all means buy online, sight unseen. This will usually be necessary to secure the best piece prior to the opening. But art is tangible, go and soak it up in person. 

Who are the top contemporary Australian artists you are watching in 2023?

Of course, having a gallery of amazing artists whom I represent, I’ll say all of them. But, for a broader answer, I have recently signed these artists who will be having their first show with my gallery soon: Emma Coulter (VIC), Zoe Grey (TAS), and Braddon Snape (NSW).  As far as contemporary artists who I don’t represent and really like; John Price Siddon, Vernon Ah Kee, Louise Haselton, Jedda Daisy Culley, Guido Maestri, and James Drinkwater.

Thank you, James!

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March 2023