The Art Assassin

a nonfiction novel by Albert Wang

Chapter 25: ASSASSINATION: Lisa Hunter, Author of ‘The Intrepid Art Collector’ and Art Collector

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Photograph of Lisa Hunter. Courtesy of Facebook.
Photograph of “The Intrepid Art Collector” book. Courtesy of Barnes & Noble.

The book “The Intrepid Art Collector: The Beginner’s Guide to Finding, Buying, and Appreciating Art on a Budget” has provided new collectors with guideposts on how to find high-quality artworks on a budget. Considering the advent of the recession, many people who are trying to get into art collecting may not be familiar with how the gallery system works without spending blue chip prices. Ms. Lisa Hunter provides a systematic handbook for navigating this often confusing route to getting the piece that you desire.

Hunter is also a scriptwriter and collects art. She particularly enjoys fine art photography. The focus on contemporary art has become a delight with her observations about what catches her eye.

If you have any questions about Lisa Hunter’s book or advice, feel free to contact the author at

And now to the feature presentation you all been waiting for by THE ART ASSASSIN’s account of the “assassination”:

qi peng: How does the gallery system in the Montreal area differ from that of the New York City area where you used to live at? How are they similar? Do both areas achieve a dialogue between each other in terms of having a feisty, almost rebellious attitude towards the commercialized art world?

Lisa Hunter: Montreal is quite different! In Quebec, the government strongly supports the arts through grants and public commissions, and Canadian museums are committed to buying the work of young Canadian artists. That means dealers are much less powerful than in New York. Montreal has some wonderful galleries, but it’s possible for artists to have a successful career without kowtowing to collectors or dealers. Some are downright dismissive of the art market.

On the plus side, art costs much less here than in New York. $5,000 is considered expensive. The quality of the art is amazing, but that doesn’t register with U.S. collectors, who tend to think a high price has something to do with quality. Montreal is a great undiscovered secret.

qi peng: What is the origin of the title of your book “The Intrepid Art Collector?” Considering that some consider contemporary art as a form of religion, what advice do you offer to beginning collectors who are trying to navigate a world in the pages where artists, students, art dealers, art fair directors, magazine editors, etc. all intersect? Where did you get the original concept for writing this book?

Lisa Hunter: The title was suggested by my editor at Crown, but I think it fits perfectly. A lot of people are intimidated by the art market, and this book is a “field guide” to help aspiring collectors find their way through galleries and auctions.

I had the initial idea many years ago, when I was working as an editor at the Museum of Natural History. The anthropology department had a glass cabinet full of pottery with a sign that said “Mexican fakes.” They used it as a study collection, so scholars could compare real artifacts with fakes. That intrigued me, and I started compiling information about fakes and forgeries – that was originally the focus of my research. But since I was also collecting contemporary art at the same time, the scope of the book became much broader.

And I’m glad it did, since the bulk of my readers seem primarily interested in contemporary art.

qi peng: The subtitle of your book is “The Beginner’s Guide to Finding, Buying, and Appreciating Art on a Budget.” What does finding art on a budget entail? How can one reconcile the tension between commercialism and the freedom of what artists want to execute without financial intents? In what ways is art considered as a form of investment that differs from a portfolio of mutual funds? How is a particular art collection tailored to a certain place’s interior design? Also what is your underlying design philosophy?

Lisa Hunter: A budget is more important than people realize. When you consider buying a work of art, the question isn’t simply, “Do I like it?” It’s “Do I like it more than anything else I could possibly buy?” When I started collecting, I only bought one thing a year – I had a very limited amount to spend, and I wanted to get the best piece I possibly could.

I still try to plan on an annual basis. I have a wish list of specific images I want, and something has to be really spectacular to make me buy “off list.”

That said, I do try to support emerging photographers, and I budget a certain amount for small, inexpensive prints from non-profits (ACRIA, Light Work, Aperture, Humble Arts), 20×200, or directly from photographers. This is the area where I indulge myself in impulse purchases.

I do care about value, and keep an eye on what comparable artwork costs, but I’m not in this for investment per se. I never flip art.

As for décor: I don’t think an art collection should ever be tailored to the décor. Art is more than “a pop of color.”

qi peng: With the recent downturn in the American and worldwide economy, have you seen any changes in how the commercial, both small and blue-chip, galleries been able to interact with their audience? Based on your research, can galleries afford to take a risk in curating riskier exhibitions during this period? Are you seeing collectors’ habits change within the major American art markets such as New York or Los Angeles where the banking and other financial sectors are suffering from various problems such as foreclosures and the credit crunch? Is this situation any different up there in Canada?

Lisa Hunter: Galleries are going to have a rough few years, and not all will survive. I feel bad for the dealers and artists. That said, there are some silver linings: we’ll probably see less “big, shiny, red” art designed to sell, and more deeply felt art. It’s also a good time for collectors to get work they might have been shut out on before. Blue-chip dealers are already starting to be more friendly at art fairs, or so I’m told.

I suspect that a lot of long-time collectors — like me — were on the sidelines during the boom and are now ready to get back in. So hopefully, that will help stabilize the situation.

qi peng: What is your opinion on art fairs and its seemingly more commercial and less conceptual presentation of artwork as compared to that of more traditional exhibitions? Is it possible to present artwork in a challenging way within the Miami and New York warehouse spaces without compromising the artist’s vision? What elements of playfulness can enter into the Miami or New York or Toronto art fairs? Do you think that dynamics of art fairs will change as the recession is underway?

Lisa Hunter: [no answer]

qi peng: What is your opinion on juried competitions such as New American Paintings and curated artists registries such as The Drawing Center‘s Viewing Program or White Columns in the development of a young artist’s career? Do you feel that being judged by “officials” or “art referees” help to create a strong reputation for the starting artist’s work? What elements do you think are necessary to make a particular artwork strong and communicative? With the rise of online curated galleries such as Collegeartonline (CAO) or Ugallery where you curate for their monthly newsletter or NYAXE, do you think that those type of galleries are a good stepping stone into the larger art network?

Lisa Hunter: The most important thing artists need to succeed (besides talent, of course) is an influential advocate. Galleries, curators and collectors all rely on personal recommendations from people whose judgment they trust. So anything that puts your art in front of powerful art world people is a good thing.

It’s not about the credential, it’s about eyeballs.

qi peng: How has social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace, and myartspace helped to get contemporary art out to a broader public? How has these websites helped to change the dynamics among the art dealer and the artist and the collector? Have these networking tools helped to make the contemporary art world more transparent and less “corrupt” than that of the banking industry, etc.? Is this the new model for an art community?

Lisa Hunter: A web presence is important for artists. I’ve found a number of emerging photographers through my blog, and have bought work directly from photographers who don’t have dealers.  But I hate being “friended” by people who just got my name off a list. I quit MySpace because of that, and I’m trying to limit my Facebook network to people I’ve actually met or corresponded with.

The web certainly makes the art world more transparent, since you can see auction results and get price information fairly easily. But I’m not sure I’d call the established art world “corrupt.” I’m a big believer in working with trusted dealers.

qi peng: What is your opinion of art world journalism and art critics such as Jerry Saltz? Do you have any favorite art blogs or websites that you enjoy looking at on a regular basis? Do you feel that smaller, regional art markets like Chicago or Salt Lake City or Dallas will have a chance to expand their horizons into becoming essential and vibrant art hot spots just like Los Angeles or New York City or Montreal or Toronto during the recession? What do you think is the current state of contemporary art within New York City and other hot spots where sales have been strong during the past decade?

Lisa Hunter: I read a LOT of art blogs because they let me know what’s happening outside of the NY-LA art world. For instance, Portland seems to have an incredible art scene, and I wouldn’t have known about it if I didn’t read blogs.  So certainly the internet levels the playing field a bit for regional markets.

That said, I think there’s still an important role for traditional magazines and newspapers, and for professional critics like Jerry Saltz (whom I admire hugely.) Everyone says print is dead, but many of the best critics and journalists still work for “dead tree media.”

qi peng: What are some of your hobbies outside of writing and curating? How do these things relate to your professional work? What are some of the practical challenges that art writers and curators have to face inside or outside the world that is being researched?

Lisa Hunter: Writing is actually my day job, not a hobby. My husband and I are both screenwriters, and we co-write many of our projects, so we tend to work all the time. On Valentine’s Day, we went to a romantic dinner and ended up taking out our notebooks and plotting a TV episode. We’re that obsessive.

I make time to write exhibition reviews, and I write a regular art news column for the Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal. But screenwriting comes first — both because it pays the bills and because it’s “primary.” I get antsy if I spend too much time writing about other people’s art without doing anything creative myself.

I don’t consider myself a curator, even though I’ve dabbled. I still have the old-fashioned idea that a curator is a serious scholar. That’s probably one of the biggest challenges facing both curators and critics — the idea that anyone can do it, and that anyone’s opinion is just as valuable as anyone else’s.

qi peng: What trends do you see are forthcoming within the contemporary art world during the next few years? What other art-related projects are you pursuing at the moment? Do you see any upcoming changes in the way that galleries, art fair organizations, non-profits, etc. rebrand their identity during the downturn?

Lisa Hunter: I think we’ll be seeing a lot more early-80s-style, do-it-yourself art shows and galleries. The art market became so hyper-professional in the past decade that it was sometimes hard to tell an MFA from an MBA, with the emphasis on Ivy League degrees and credentials. I’d love to see art be fun again.

qi peng: How do you think that the new media, ranging from video art to Internet-based projects, will impact people’s appreciation of painting and photography and sculpture, more traditional and established media, which are interacting with each other in terms of visual motifs and archetypes? Do you feel that as people interact with new media, they will be able to critique the cliches of mainstream media and have a profound understanding of what humanity is and will become?

Lisa Hunter: Well, a screenwriter is probably the wrong person to ask! I think of film as an extension of the literary tradition. You can draw a straight line from The Illiad to popcorn movies. And while Hollywood studio movies do have predictable clichés (I can’t even watch sometimes, because I know exactly where the script is going to go), I don’t think humans will ever abandon their need for narrative, or their love of archetypes.

Video art comes out of the visual tradition, and it’s interesting to see the difference that makes. I especially enjoy video art that tweaks the idea of narrative and story telling. But to be fair, “commercial” movies have been experimenting with the same ideas for a long time. My very favorite movie – Annie Hall – was made 30 years ago. It jumps all over the place, mixing past and present, breaking the fourth wall, and even veering into animation; it defied the romantic comedy “rule” that the couple should end up together. And yet it made a lot money and won the Oscar. So I think audiences have always been more sophisticated than people gave them credit for. Even television has become more experimental.

It’s hard to know who influences whom. There’s a lot of cross-pollination going on right now between visual and literary traditions. I think what we’re seeing is comparable to the birth of opera, when several different art forms merged to create something new. It’s very exciting.

qi peng: Apart from contemporary art, are there any other types of art from earlier movements that you enjoy? What are some highlighted pieces from your personal collection of artwork that you wish to share with your readers? How does your experience and wide-ranging knowledge of art history enhance your ability to find new pieces or artists that will have an impact in defining the arc of the future of artistic directions?

Lisa Hunter: One of my big passions is archaeology, but I don’t buy antiquities because there are too many ethical and legal issues. I’ve traveled to some out-of-the-way places — and had more than one machine gun pointed at me — to see obscure archaeological sites. Chelsea is definitely easier!

But I’m always surprised by people who “only” like contemporary art, and don’t care about past artists who influenced it. While my collection is limited to a few genres and periods, I’m interested in everything – Indian miniatures, decorative arts, medieval stained glass, whatever.

qi peng: What do you think are the dominant issues and subjects within contemporary art at the moment? How do these subjects and themes differ from the focus of artists ten years ago? Do you envision any new subjects that may pop up within the next ten years? If so, what would those be?

Lisa Hunter: This is too big a question to answer easily.

qi peng: What are going to be some of the most important trends amongst collectors during the next few years? What is your assessment of the growing art market in non-American and non-European markets such as China, Russia, and even India where contemporary art is becoming a larger part of their culture and national economy?

Lisa Hunter: I think what we’re seeing in emerging markets is comparable to the Robber Baron era in the U.S. Where people suddenly have huge wealth, an art market springs up. But all those countries you mentioned have important, long-standing artistic traditions. It’s only the market that’s new.

qi peng: On a lighter note, would you like to share your favorite music, movie, objects, artists, recent exhibitions, galleries, televisions shows, sports, or other cultural artifacts with fans of your work? What things do you enjoy about the things that you have chosen as your favorites? Are there any restaurants or hangouts around New York or Montreal or other places that you have been to and wish to recommend us?

Lisa Hunter: Everyone should visit Montreal!

qi peng: What is the story of your involvement with the prominent online gallery for students called Ugallery? When you curate for their monthly newsletter, what are the things that you look for within the artwork that you view online? What are the challenging of having to judge the merit of a particular artwork through its image rather than the original version?

Lisa Hunter: I don’t have a professional interest in Ugallery. Alex Farkas, who started site, simply asked me if I’d pick some favorites every month, and I’m happy to do that (though I’ve been very bad about doing it on a regular basis).

You’re right that JPGs aren’t always a good way to look at art. I’ve sometimes bought photographs having only seen the image on-line, and then been surprised by how dark they are compared to what I saw on my illuminated computer screen. But the internet gives me so many more chances to see art that I’ll happily take the risk. On any given day, I look at more artwork on-line than I could see in a full day of gallery hopping.

qi peng: Before we embark on the last question, thanks very much for your time answering these questions. Is there anything else that you wish to share with your readers and fans of your book? Any last minutes tips for art collectors?

Lisa Hunter: In the past decade, a lot of people started to think of art as a commodity, a product. But great art always has passion behind it, and a collector should share that passion. Otherwise, collect postage stamps. If you don’t really love the art, what’s the point?

For more gossip or dishing me the art scoop: E-mail me at

Written by qi peng

May 12, 2009 at 1:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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