Former Christie’s Executive Gives Sage Advice on Art Collecting A Q&A with Doug Woodham in conjunction with his new book.
Tomorrow, former Christie’s executive Doug Woodham releases his new book Art Collecting Today: Market Insights for Everyone Passionate about Art. Doug, a member of Twyla’s Board, is an expert in business, finance, and art, so when he talks about art collecting, we definitely listen. Doug held positions in financial services at McKinsey & Company, Moody’s, and UBS before he joined Christie’s in 2012 as President of the Americas. At Christie’s, he oversaw all aspects of the business in North and South America and led the team working with the Emergency Manager of the City of Detroit to help the Detroit Institute of Arts extract itself from the city’s bankruptcy. In light of tomorrow’s book launch, Doug answered a few of our burning questions, including how to look at art and how to collect smartly.
Q: What sparked the idea of writing this book?
A: The art market is often opaque and confusing to even the most experienced collectors. I want my readers — whether a seasoned collector, an uninitiated newcomer, or an art-world insider — to learn how the art marketplace works in practice and how to navigate it smartly. My hope is that those who may have been put off by art-world practices will finally feel they have the knowledge needed to participate freely and fully, and collectors will be able to pursue their passion with more confidence.
Q: How did you become interested in art?
A: I grew up in a middle-class family in Toledo, Ohio that had little interest in art. When I was in high school, however, my girlfriend’s father opened an art gallery in town for prints. He explained to me the different techniques artists use to create prints and showed me my first Picasso. The experience was fascinating and made me start questioning further. Since this was pre-Internet days, I soon found myself spending time in the Toledo Museum of Art looking at art and trying to make sense of it. A lucky break occurred when I heard about a local group of collectors who met to talk about the goings-on in the world of contemporary art. I joined the group and became their youngest member when I was fifteen years old.
Q: What are some of the most valuable things you’ve learned about art collecting through your experiences?
A: The most important collectors in Toledo [when I was younger] were Joseph and Mildred Gosman, who had a terrific collection of postwar and contemporary art that included work by Robert Rauschenberg, Georgia O’Keeffe, Willem de Kooning, and Joseph Cornell. They taught me the importance of constantly looking at art to see what resonates, confuses, and pushes the envelope. Their advice has informed my approach to art ever since—to stand in front of as much art as possible to constantly challenge my eye. To critically assess what makes an artist important relative to his or her peers. For historical work, to understand the socio-economic zeitgeist when the work was created because it shapes in some way what you are looking at.
Q: What was the first piece of art you purchased?
A: A print by the Dutch artist Karel Appel when I was 15 years old. I made some money that summer painting houses in Toledo. There were no galleries to speak of there, so I bought the print from a gallery in Detroit called the London Arts Gallery. It cost $150, which at the time was a princely sum for me. I will never let it go.
Q: Tell us about some of the highlights of your art collection.
A: My wife and I focus on drawings by artists associated with important art movements from the 1960s and 1970s referred to as minimalism, conceptualism, and land art. One drawing I look at constantly is by Robert Smithson, the artist best known for a huge sculpture called Spiral Jetty. It is an audacious art work of over six thousand tons of black basalt rocks and earth that Smithson formed into a spiral 1,500 feet long and 15 feet wide that juts into the Great Salt Lake. I was fortunate to be able to acquire a drawing of Spiral Jetty that he made in 1970, right before he created the actual work, to show to his friends and supporters what it would look like when completed.
Q: What would your first piece of advice about buying art be to the uninitiated.
A: Aim to develop visual acuity. Spend as much time as possible looking at art in museums, art fairs, galleries, and auction-preview exhibitions. Time spent flipping through books and looking at images online counts too. The art version of the old joke “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice” is “Look, Look, Look.” By acquiring visual acuity, collectors will understand the artists that really tickle their brain, enable them to distinguish between a good and great work by an artist, and gain an appreciation for the relative importance of an artist to the movement or time period in which they were active.