Collection Management Specialists: Going Beyond the Catalogue

Jul 11, 2018

One of the most vital services for art collectors that is commonly overlooked is collection management. As a collection grows, having a collection management specialist by your side can be incredibly beneficial to save you time and headaches in both the short and long terms.

While more and more larger private collections are being overseen by collection management specialists, this field is still unknown to many newer collectors and industry insiders. We spoke with four experts from the field about why a collector should hire a collection management specialist, what services they offer, how to hire the best specialist, and why your art consultant may not be enough.

Cataloguing & Beyond

A collection management specialists, as the title suggests, oversee and manage private collections. Their primary role is to create a comprehensive catalogue for clients––including detailed information about each artwork and the artwork’s location, photographic records, and regular inspection reports. Says Phillip Schubert, founder of Sydney-based collection management firm Art Squared, “no detail is too small to record.”

But these cataloguing services are just the preliminary services that these specialists offer. In addition, a collection management specialist also facilitates the upkeep of a collection––anticipating any potential risks and taking measures to address them before they happen. Art objects are susceptible to wear and tear, whether it be during transport or simply the effects of aging. “[Our role] is a bit like being a managed care practitioner for an art collection,” says Schubert. “It's a collection manager's job to safeguard the life of the work from injury and calamity.”

A collection management specialist will also oversee any changes that may occur regarding a work, such as purchases and sales, or loan transactions. Eveline Meeuwse, founder of Switzerland-based Sacra Mons Art & Collection Management, tells us that “even if a collector’s focus is not on investment, collections must be continuously monitored and documented in order to prevent losses in both the accounting and physical sense.”

Maura Kehoe Collins, the founder of New York-based independent collection management agency Artiphile, says that “it can be a bitter pill for collectors to swallow to hear that they need to hire someone to manage their collection––but it is so vital––and ultimately beneficial to the collector in the long run.” Says Collins, “it’s not just about documenting inventory. We also conduct condition surveys and put together a maintenance program, as well as managing loans and appraisals. We put it all together in one binder––to make every detail easily accessible to clients.”

A major distinction that art collection managers posit about their trade is the practice of stewardship. Because art objects have such a rich cultural and historical significance, it is important that these objects are overseen, cared for, and documented throughout their life––whether they are privately or publicly owned. Angelica Demetriou, a partner at Kalaman + Demetriou, states “as art stewards, we believe that art collectors should also look to work with arts professionals who are committed to maintaining and improving the provenance of artworks and the legacy of artists. Artworks have a life beyond the collections in which they are housed. It is our job as collection management specialists to ensure that these works are preserved and protected.”

Collins is also firm believer in what she calls “collective cultural patrimony,” and explains that rather than referring to a collector as an “owner,” she prefers the term “steward.” She tells us “as I have aged, so have my clients. So a lot of the work I do deals with succession planning. Many of the pieces we deal with have great historical importance. I work with clients to discern which works they want to bequeath to their loved ones, which ones should be auctioned off, and which should be donated to museums. I like to give my clients the opportunity to establish their legacy––for example, perhaps a collector has a lot of rare works by women artists and thinks that a particular museum is lacking in their representation of women––I will work with the client to gift some works to the public.”

Sometimes in the art market, it’s hard to know who to trust. Collection management specialists prides themselves on having their clients' best interests in mind when facing difficult decisions about one’s collection.

When Software Is Not Enough

“Collection management software is an important tool—but it doesn’t populate or maintain itself” says Demetriou. Properly cataloguing a collection via software can be very time intensive, or may cause procrastination from even the most conscientious of collectors.

“In theory,” says Meeuwse, “the collectors themselves could manage a collection management database. But my experience has shown that the sometimes tedious work of researching and ‘filling’ the database requires great meticulousness, accuracy and concentration. It is difficult to find the time and a calm mindset to accommodate this––in addition to a normal daily workload.”

Schubert sums it up rather concisely, stating “software doesn't have any experience in looking at an artwork to identify condition issues, and cannot recognize or recommend when a piece requires conservation. Software isn't able to advise which packaging materials and methods are best to protect a given artwork. Software can't coordinate between various service providers to ensure smooth transitions during and between events. Software won't offer an opinion on aesthetic placement for exhibition. All of these issues require a trained and experienced human partner to navigate, and that's where a collection manager is invaluable.”

Hiring an Expert Collection Management Specialist

The name of the game is trust. Because a collection management specialist will essentially be acting as your private secretary and dealing with sensitive materials and information, discretion is key. It’s also important to look at a specialist's background and experience in the art industry. Says Schubert, “hands-on, practical experience in managing artworks similar to those you collect, whether in a museum or related organization, is a must. Many collection managers are former museum registrars, quite accustomed to sifting through esoteric information and coordinating specialized activity. A thorough knowledge of conservation packaging materials and their applications would be essential.”

Demetriou tells us that “a collection management specialist must know how to document, handle, display and care for art, and should be able to perform work that meets industry standard. Before hiring a collection management specialist, [one should] always confirm that the collection management specialist is fully insured.”

Scope of Work

Collection Management Specialists work on a case by case basis––as each collection that they work with has its own unique needs. Typically, they will work on a retainer. Hiring a collection management specialist is unique to other art care services, as there is a real bond built between a specialist and the client. Maura Collins describes this intimate relationship she has with her clients, based on years of trust. “I am solely invested in the client and the object” says Collins. In her case, she works hourly at first, as there’s no real way to gage how long it will take to document a collection. After that, she says, she works on a retainer.

Some collectors work just once with a collection management specialist to put together an inventory, but, more often than not, collectors and specialists work together over many years. “I’ve had some of my clients for over 25 years” says Collins.

Schubert similarly describes his intimate relationship with his clients, stating “working on a retainer gives me an opportunity to really familiarize myself with the intricacies of a collection over the long term, and to participate in the life of a collection as it evolves. I also very much enjoy developing a constructive relationship with the collector, and I greatly value the trust he or she puts in me.”

Collection Management Specialists vs. Art Consultants

An art consultant advises a buyer on curating and growing their art collection, while a collection management specialist deals with the works a collector already owns. Says Demetriou, “We see these services as complementary.”

Schubert distinguishes the two fields by explaining that collection management is more “concerned with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the artworks in a collection––the countless details that pertain to the many aspects regarding each work: from basic information like artist, title, media and date; to condition, provenance, insurance, packaging and travel history.”

Schubert explains further that “one of the benefits I see in the way I work (that is, not being involved in purchases or sales), is that I am not in a position to charge commissions. This assures my clients that I am not influenced by anything that isn't in the best interest of their collection. It's quite common that a collector will use the separate services of both an art consultant and a collection manager, as both fields have their individual complexities and expertise requirements. I can see the wisdom of keeping the two roles independent of each other, which would help to eliminate any conflict of interest with advice coming from a single entity.”

“Ultimately,” says Collins, “we all want these objects to survive. I think that preserving an art object is one of the highest forms of philanthropy––and it’s so vital that we take measures to care for these precious objects.”


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