A law student in the Netherlands moved to New York to ‘look at art’, and there he developed an eye that collectors blindly trust in
Michiel Van Der Wal is a Dutch art curator who helps collectors acquire art. Originally from Netherlands, he has been a part of the New York art industry for more than 25 years. Having worked with several prominent collectors and galleries, Van Der Wal is a professional who has deep insights into the art market and the role of a curator. He deciphers current market trends and identifies art that is worth investing in. His background in Law has given him a massive appetite for research and factual accuracies. He has developed an eye for art through years of experience and now curates collections for several private collectors. He is outspoken, humble, and in this interview with Prerna SM Jain, he talks about his work and passion.
How did your journey into the field of art begin?
I studied to be a lawyer, in the Netherlands. But I couldn’t pass by any gallery’s window without wondering who works there? Who made that? What does that cost? Those types of questions. It wasn’t until after I finished my law studies and ended up in New York city that I realised that there was a whole big business behind this picture in the window. So, I started looking around and spoke to people. I met an artist in a bar. I liked his work and started bringing people who I met to his studio, to see if I could help him find buyers or collectors for his work. I quickly realised that this doesn’t work; you need a whole institution around both of you to validate what’s going on. Then, I started working for a gallery, where initially I was taught how to sell art quite commercially – just sell art. After having done that for a number of years, I realised that there was high art and low art, or good art and not such good art, and I spent time at the library teaching myself. At a certain point I decided to strike out on my own and started helping people get collections of their own. That is how that started. It took 10-15 years to get to a point where I felt comfortable enough to tell people what they should consider looking at.
Switching from law to art, that must have been interesting?
Yes, that was quite an adventure. I had just finished my studies in law but hadn’t practised as a lawyer. I did a number of internships for law firms. In hindsight I wonder whether I should have worked to become a successful lawyer and collected the art by myself, instead of telling other people what to collect. The business sounds more romantic than it really is. I was really in it because of the romantic notion about enjoying the experience that one can have with art, a painting, a sculpture, or an entire exhibition. The truth, of course, is that this business isn’t just about money. But over the years it has become just about that. It has become a commodity. Art has become extremely expensive. When I started 25 years ago, the prices were very different. Even 20 years ago at a very high end, you still could buy really great things for an amount that I thought at the time were astounding but looking back were a sneeze compared to what they are selling for now. Things have become a lot more serious. There is a huge consolidation between very big galleries and auction houses, and they are pulling lots of artists and estates to them. It has become a very big business. Sometimes this makes it hard to navigate, for a person like me who is one-man shop, and who is in it for romantic and sometimes naïve notions.
How would you define your role as a curator of collections?
My answer pertains to what I do than what it should be. But in the end, when you help private clients find things, it’s very much geared towards finding them work that they love and that they would be able to live with for a very long time – work that has validity, at least today, and also in the long term. Once the collection increases, it has to have coherence amongst itself. There is a variety to what I do, as the collection differs from client to client. Sometimes there are people who want a certain collection where they want particular names, while others are more focused on young and emerging artists. For a while, women and African-Americans were underrepresented. There were people aware of this being interesting to look at because as much as there is a lack, there is also an opportunity, as these things tend to change and, all of a sudden, everybody is looking. Then things will become more desirable and more expensive. If you are able to get your clients in on it before that happens, they are happy with you. Your business now fulfils you more than it did. If I were to work for a not-for-profit organisation or a museum, I wouldn’t look at the markets; I would look at entirely different things. I think I look at all of them and see if all of it can be ticked off. Of course, the most important thing is that the client buys something that he loves, and I try to inject things that I think are worthwhile. It’s very educational sometimes. Most of them probably don’t know what they want in the beginning or that what they like is really not that great, because it is a journey that teaches you to look and think differently over time. So, this is about the collector. Then the other aspect, of course, is the artist. It is their studio practice, what are they trying to do and what are they responding to. That is the thing about contemporary art. In this time that there is so much turmoil, you will see that artists are going to react to that in hopefully interesting ways. Let’s see how the artist community will respond to this momentous time in history.
As a collector, how do you balance between art as business and art as passion?
It is a difficult balance. I found that a lot of people have a threshold, a number or amount of money in mind where they say that if it is more than this, it better be a worthwhile investment. It doesn’t mean that they are buying it as an investment, but it is more that they would like to get their money back, because it is a significant amount. I think it is more than fair to hope for it. Of course it doesn’t always happen as you cannot predict the market. It has nothing to do with that. But you can keep an eye on the market and artistic practices to make them coincide. Sometimes people meet people who make art, they like what they make, and they want to get involved. People collect for so many different reasons.
What are your biggest obstacles?
The fact that you know more than your client, or that sometimes you know too much! Sometimes you know that an artist will do well, and if the client doesn’t get it, then that’s an obstacle. But you have to try to convince them and sometimes try to sell your own idea. But, then again, it’s a challenge, but it’s fun, too. It is very difficult for us to try to find the work we are dealing in in the secondary market. It’s very hard to find the right work for the right price. It has become extremely competitive. If you go to an art fair you will find many people vying for the same work. It is all part of the game. I have met colleagues who get extremely stressed out. One of the things that I found hard was that on the one hand you need to have interest in the people who make the arts and in their ideas of art. It’s a lot of looking, theorising, comparing notes with other collectors and colleagues, reading art books, literature and art magazines. But that is the fun part – the research. On the other hand, you need to have some people whom you can tell that they should buy the work. This means that you need to move in certain circles. I have never found that interesting, as the people who tend to be the most successful at this are people who have roll decks with names of people who they can call. People sometimes say that it is the collectors who make the art – they decide to collect something and pay the artist to make more of it. I don’t believe that is true, but in a more pragmatic way, it is. It all comes together but it’s a part of the game.
There is always a lot of travel involved, with the art fairs and auctions, but now you cannot meet people or see the work physically as everything is online. Nothing compares to being able to stand in a studio or a gallery and look at the work firsthand, and feel how it resonates with you.
How is the art scene different between New York and the Netherlands?
For me, New York is the center of the art world. Most artists all over the world would love to be represented by a gallery in New York. They would love to live there, have a studio there. A tremendous amount of collectors live in New York. Auction houses, not-for-profits, and fabulous museums are there. The roads are paved with gold, in terms of art, any which way you look at it. So, that is wonderful. In the Netherlands, it is very different, especially when it comes to contemporary art. It is a lot more smaller, there is much less interest, it is harder to work at. For example, many Dutch collectors of note will come to New York to look at art.
Who is your favourite artist and why?
That is usually the artist that I last or most lately had something to do with, or got excited by their work, their prospects in the market. Instead of wildly flailing around at all sorts of things, I usually end up zeroing down on a small group of artists. The artist who I dealt with recently in that way was an American painter, who unfortunately died recently at the age of 90. He spent about 50 years in painting in the same format, which already is a tip to somebody who is so driven that he can focus on such a narrow way of working and was able to keep that going for such a long time. When you see those paintings, they make you stop in your tracks. His name is Ron Gorchov. He was a wonderful painter, he liked to paint, he liked colours. He was probing the boundaries. It was the 60s, painting apparently was dead, minimalism came into the picture, and he said that painting isn’t dead and there isn’t much to minimalism! He started playing with the shape of the canvas, and he came up with the idea of painting as an object or a three-dimensional thing, as sculpture is. I saw his works two-three years ago.