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New York
Opinion

What is the Ethics of Collecting?

Written by Yu Shen. Artwork: Odeh Ifeyinwa Nkem / Incognito, 2021.

What do you imagine when you think of a sale? Maybe you envision a wealthy individual in a shiny outfit within a fancy gallery space sipping a glass of champagne and speaking with the dealers about an artist and their works. The artist is not present to represent their work. The reality might differ in various ways, yet in most situations, art collecting does involve two unequal parties: those who purchase it have many more resources and privilege than those who produce it.

How come purchasing art doesn’t involve regulations and integrity as well if purchasing an apple necessitates compliance with relevant laws and an ethical understanding of fair trade?

Ethics and Power Relations

Museums promise benefits for their patrons and need to offer something in return, leading to the image of an impenetrable elite at the top: collectors who sit on a museum board and have a lot of "insider news" about upcoming exhibitions, who rush to purchase artworks at a low price knowing that it will jump once the exhibition is revealed, and who buy artworks from emerging artists and promise them extensive exposure, only to sell the works for a much higher profit after displaying them in the museum they govern. Artists, on the other hand, are inevitably subject to powerful institutions and galleries that are connected tightly to those who have powerful economic positions, i.e., the collectors. Such unequal relationships, nevertheless, are seldom discussed and questioned. From the viewpoint of commodity consumption, art collecting is “buying something,” which is nothing different from buying an apple in the market. How come purchasing art doesn’t involve regulations and integrity as well if purchasing an apple necessitates compliance with relevant laws and an ethical understanding of fair trade?

The Ethics of Collecting was created for this reason. The Code is addressed to contemporary art collectors—any individual, entity, or collective that acquires contemporary artworks or art-related materials other than for commercial resale.1 It advocates the role of collectors as one that fairly and transparently supports the artistic and creative process while interacting with artists and art workers. Some might wonder, in what situations, would collectors refer to the Code? Aren’t there legal measures to protect artists’ rights? In reality, the law cannot adequately address all possible scenarios.

WTF Is the Code?

The Code is a voluntary set of standards and principles that should serve as a model for contemporary art collectors and act as a behavioral guide.2 It comprises seven sections on navigating good collecting behaviors including interacting with artists, managing collections, commissioning artworks, supporting institutions, serving as board members, and interacting with dealers or other professionals. Integrity, transparency, and accountability are required when interacting with artists and preserving collections; abuse of power, interference with a museum’s autonomy, and overuse of undue advantage are misconducts that should be repudiated.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Collectors thus have a crucial role in establishing and maintaining a healthy ecosystem in the art industry. However, in the absence of comprehensive instructions on executing fair and transparent collecting practices, artists on the weak side face greater risk due to chaos and opacity, potentially disrupting the market. Opposed to those unethical deeds, The Code offers guidance on performing fair and transparent collecting behaviors. It would be a valuable resource for collectors who have good intentions but do not know the appropriate ways to interact with artists and institutions.

Unlike a law, the Code is entirely voluntary. It respects varied ways of collecting and does not seek to either instruct or moralize anyone on how to collect. Nothing is enforced, but it serves as a call to start a public discussion on these topics from now on.

The Code is meant to be a collaborative effort that would be constantly updated in light of any improvement that arises.

Who Wrote the Code?

The Code was developed over the course of more than a year by a worldwide group of collectors. Input and feedback were gathered from the greater art community. This collective of collectors is based in Europe, South America, and North America, with approximately half identifying as female and half as male.3 During the writing process, the draft was reviewed and revised by professionals of various occupations, including collectors and artists, as well as media professionals, curators, and dealers. The diverse writing team caters to the diverse readers of this code and reflects a wide range of opinions on these issues.

The Code is meant to be a collaborative effort that would be constantly updated in light of any improvement that arises. It is a live document, welcoming everyone to share their vision and help it advance and optimize. Any suggestions can be submitted on the website.

Why is the Code Necessary?

Suppose you encounter the following scenario: You are a collector who will join a studio visit organized by your “Friends of ARMO Museum” at artist Ileana’s studio. You like Ileana’s works, and over a glass of wine, you tell Ileana that she should look at stepping up the scale of her work, think bigger, and be more ambitious. As a big collector having over 300 works, you say that you know everyone at ARMO Museum and could introduce them to her in case she needs anything.4

Is it appropriate for you to showcase the resources you have in front of Ileana?

The answer might not be found in any laws. However, the Code tells us that a collector should not exploit their power and wealth to brag in front of artists. The unequal status and resources possessed by the buyers and the artists will easily lead to micro-aggression and harassment, even unintentionally. The statement “know everyone at ARMO Museum” is overpromising and pretentious, which might put pressure on artists.5

“Even though art should be considered of public interest, the art market is far from being artist-centric. It suffices to ask the artists about it, and the absence of effective and enforced standards for the other stakeholders, museums, foundations, donors, collectors, galleries, etc., is staggering."

The scenario above is actually a question from the self-assessment test of the Code. The assessment includes various cases of interacting with artists, dealers, other professionals, commissioning works, supporting institutions, etc. These hypothetical situations weren't just made up. One of the founders of Ethics of Collecting stated in an interview, “In the art world, even though art should be considered of public interest, the art market is far from being artist-centric. It suffices to ask the artists about it, and the absence of effective and enforced standards for the other stakeholders, museums, foundations, donors, collectors, galleries, etc., is staggering. This became clearer to us when we started participating in ‘friends of museums’ associations, where the financial power of private individuals often leads to interference in the museum's curatorial practice, or in acquisition committees, where again the absence of regulations for declaring conflicts of interest often resulted in practices accepted or even celebrated in the art sector but that would be perceived as seriously problematic in other industries.”

Many nuanced situations are not possible to address through laws or codes. That’s why we need a Code for contemporary art collectors:

“While there is good progress on the implementation of money-laundering regulations and on resale rights in the art market, many other areas of the sector are still unregulated and there are no significant legislative efforts in sight for addressing key issues, especially those arising from the increasing digitalization of art. And when these laws exist, they do not go far enough. The role of codes of conduct is to go further than the law to address not necessarily what is illegal, but what does not promote an artist-centric, fair and responsible art ecosystem. In a nutshell, what the Code does is switch the focus from laws and formalities to actual beliefs and behaviors. In the Code’s paradigm, enacting real change needs to stem from the inner realization of the unfairness of certain practices and from the awareness about the systemic power imbalances that allow those unhealthy practices to strive.

"Real change needs to start from within the art world in a cultural exercise that puts the art and the artist first. A change in the culture of the art world is needed as a starting point and should not wait for future laws to come."

In our view, real change needs to start from within the art world in a cultural exercise that puts the art and the artist first. A change in the culture of the art world is needed as a starting point and should not wait for future laws to come. This is the basis of self-regulation, of which the Code is a direct expression. You can have the best laws and contracts in place but if the various stakeholders, especially the powerful ones, are not intrinsically convinced of the need to conduct healthy practices, then not much will change. Even with the best contract in place, it would be difficult for artists to challenge these practices in courts, with the risk of long and unaffordable proceedings. The imbalance of power would continue to play against the most vulnerable individuals.”

The Code outlines crucial advice on the economic advantages of self-regulating collectors. There are still a lot of improvements to be made, this is merely the beginning. What role does the artist play in this Code, for instance? Would inexperienced collectors encounter unfairness when dealing with renowned artists? Additionally, acquiring art involves more than just the artists and collections. There are several organizations that write ethical codes for Museums such as CIMAM - but these are under constant revision and expansion and also far from finalized. How should one resolve the potential conflict between upholding collecting ethics and safeguarding the financial interests of the organizations they represent? These are important questions to ask and ponder, no matter what role one plays in art collecting, and the Code is waiting for these answers to make it perfectly tailored to the contemporary art-collecting context.

Yes, collectors, do you hear the sound of a call to action?

Yu Shen is a master's candidate in Visual Art Administration (VAA) at New York University, focusing on the non-profit sector. She has sufficient working experience in museums and art organizations and has held jobs in Hong Kong and Mainland China, where she specialized in digital technology, social media operations, and curatorial practices.

In 2020, Shen graduated with honors in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. While at VAA, she acquired an insightful understanding of the art scene in New York and the United States, as well as polished abilities in writing, communicating, and art management. She is particularly interested in the intercultural exchange between countries and regions, the digitalization of art historical context in curatorial practices, and the structural issues within museums, such as sexism, inequality, and unethical art acquisition.

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