Art collectors observing an art exhibition in a darkened room to highlight the artworks

Code of Conduct for Art Collectors: Navigating the Art Ecosystem Responsibly (Part 2)

As the art world evolves, so do the responsibilities of collectors. Transitioning from mere enthusiasts to conscientious stewards of culture requires a keen understanding of ethical collecting. At the forefront of this movement is the Code of Conduct for Contemporary Art Collectors, a comprehensive guide developed through collaboration with various stakeholders in the art community, namely art collectors, artists, media professionals, curators and dealers. 

As the art collector base expands, there is a need to formalise ethical engagement with artists and institutions. Such a Code is an excellent guide for navigating collecting art in a manner that respects the art ecosystem and all the professions and relationships one invariably builds in the process. 

The Code of Conduct for Art Collectors comprises 47 principles and standards grouped into seven distinct themes:

1) Interacting with artists
2) Building, maintaining and showing the collection
3) Commissioning or supporting the production of artworks
4) Supporting institutions 
5) Serving as a member of governing bodies
6) Interacting with dealers
7) Interacting with other professionals

We have outlined the main points and highlighted a couple under each theme, split across two blog posts. In case you missed it, here is Part 1. Let’s conclude by covering the last four themes. The founding team invite everyone to comment on the Code.

Supporting institutions

“Collectors may provide Support to Institutions. They provide such support in the interest of the institution, as defined by the institution itself, respecting its autonomy, acquisition and curatorial choices, without expecting any direct counterpart for themselves or their collection.”

A counter example of what the Code advocates for the recent news regarding Palais de Tokyo, a Paris-based museum for contemporary art, where a patron quit the patron’s group and withdrew their financial support after 15 years because of perceptions that the work of the museum was contra to their personal views.

Many nations face the challenge of adequately funding cultural institutions, particularly those facing many other social challenges that are more critical, such as poverty, crime, and inequality. COVID-19 also devastated cultural and creative industries, so private individuals and institutions have stepped in to fill the gap.

The principles under this theme emphasise transparency and protect the independence of cultural institutions when collectors offer and conclude any support. Collectors should also be transparent about the source of the wealth (or the resources if the support is in-kind) being used to provide support.

Ethical collecting and sustainable sponsorship relations

Related to greenwashing and pinkwashing, artwashing critiques any corporate sponsorship of the arts in which large companies with problematic images establish a relationship with a cultural venue to improve their reputation. 

As has been a consistent thread in the Code, it recommends documenting the support in a document and that both the collector and the institution disclose the support unless such disclosure will create the risk of physical harm, such as putting the collector at risk of kidnapping due the disclosure of the extent of their financial resources.

Collectors play a vital role in supporting institutions as custodians of cultural heritage. Whether through financial contributions or collaborative partnerships, collectors must uphold the autonomy and integrity of cultural institutions.

Serving as a member of governing bodies

“Collectors may be appointed as members of Governance Bodies of Institutions based on their expertise, experience, knowledge, competence, ability to advocate for the institution, and other substantive art-related skills. They accept the appointment and perform the related activities in the interest of the institution, without expecting any direct counterpart for themselves or their collection.”

The principles grouped under this theme are similar to those required of governing bodies of institutions listed on stock exchanges and other institutions where there is a public interest. Since cultural institutions occupy the same domain, it makes sense for them to follow the same. 

Membership in governing bodies requires a commitment to ethical conduct and transparency. From avoiding conflicts of interest to advocating for institutional integrity, collectors must prioritise the interests of the institutions they serve.

Self-regulation guidance like the above helps eliminate conflicts of interest and abuse of privileged access, such as members of governing bodies buying two editions of a multiple from an artist, donating one to their institution, and keeping one for their collection. That’s an absolute no-no! Read about these and other ethical lapses in Bianca Bosker’s book Get the Picture, as reviewed by Financial Times journalist Melanie Gerlis.

Interacting with dealers

“Collectors interact with Dealers responsibly and transparently, avoiding any secretive, collusive, abusive, or exploitative behaviour.”

The principles related to this theme regulate interactions with dealers in the primary market or those representing artists. Notable principles relate to requesting full transparency between the dealer and the artist concerning the transactions concluded by the collector and not requesting artworks below fair market price. If the dealer proposes a discount, the dealer does not take the discount from the artist’s share of the proceeds from the sale.

While we know it is common practice among many collectors, especially those who are very commercial (or chintzy), another principle is not to proactively request to purchase artworks directly from the artist when a dealer represents them.

Collectors who are also dealers (or have a financial interest in a dealer) should be aware of and disclose any potential, apparent, or actual conflict of interest that may arise. Collectors selected to be on an art fair committee should adhere to the same standards and principles outlined in the Code’s section on serving as members of a governing body.

Interactions with dealers demand transparency and accountability. From fair pricing to disclosure of relationships, collectors must uphold ethical standards in their dealings with art dealers.

Three artworks with three light accents above each artwork

Interacting with other professionals

“Collectors interact with curators, art historians, critics, other art workers, media professionals, and with the public (collectively: other professionals) transparently, responsibly, and fairly, never abusing their position of power to manipulate such professionals or to obtain undue advantage. Collectors communicate a positive image of collecting and advocate for the fair regulation of the art sector.”

This section emphasises respectful communication, fair contracting practices, and proper crediting of contributions.

Collectors should compensate professionals, such as curators, art historians, art advisors, and other art professionals, fairly and reimburse them for any associated expenses based on honoraria standards in the sector when engaging with them. 

As collectors comply with the Code by making their collections more accessible through publications and catalogues, they should always credit all professionals involved in such projects, including but not limited to the artists, photographers, curators, installation crew, funders, web designers and the like.

Ethical engagement with art professionals, media, and the public is essential for maintaining trust and credibility within the art community. 

A gallery of cameras and journalists recording a newsworthy event.

Embracing Ethical Collecting: A Call to Action

Overall, the Code provides an excellent guideline for those unfamiliar with standard practices around ethics. By adhering to its principles, collectors can contribute to a more sustainable and equitable art ecosystem for future generations, and art collectors can also extend them to other parts of their lives.

You can read the full text of the Code of Conduct for Contemporary Art Collectors here. Evaluate your adherence to the Code’s principles on a scale of one to ten, and share your insights in the comments section.  

1 to 3: “I think I need to reread this Code; I don’t recognise any of these principles in what I do.”
4 to 7: “I can’t wait to apply some of these to how I collect in the future.”
8 to 10: “I am a PRO at ethical and principled collecting.” 

Together, we can strive for ethical excellence in art collecting.