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 1)

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 the ethics surrounding art collection. 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

The founding team invite everyone to comment on the Code. We have outlined the main points and highlighted a couple under each theme, split across two posts. Let’s dive in to the first three themes.

Interacting with artists

“Collectors interact with artists with integrity and transparency, respecting their views, honouring their independence, recognising and compensating their work. Collectors never use their power or influence to obtain any undue advantage from the artists, for financial or personal interests.”

Artists form the foundation of the art world, and collectors must engage with them ethically and transparently. As art advisor Allan Schwartzman lamented recently on a podcast, “Too often in recent years, the art market has become focused more on artworks than the works of artists, and that can kill the cycle of creativity. So it’s important as a member of this community in some way to [support] artists, period.” 

Artwork of pandas surrounded by three sticks of green bamboo made of a fabric or paper which are illuminated

The first principle in this theme is a touchy one with many collectors. It is common for collectors to see an artwork in a gallery and try to contact the artist directly to get a similar work but at a discount. Instead, collectors should pay a fair market price and ensure that artists receive the due proceeds of the transactions without delay.

The second principle is compelling regarding using the relative privilege collectors often are in to advocate for artists. An example of how collectors can put into practice includes including clauses in loan contracts with institutions to fairly compensate artists for the artwork shown, for any working time or services the institutions may request (e.g. presentations, texts, help with installation, performances) and reimburse any associated expenses based on the honoraria standards existing in the sector.

From fair compensation to advocating for artists’ rights, this section underscores the importance of integrity in collector-artist interactions.

Building, maintaining and showing the collection

“Collectors acquire artworks and build their collection responsibly, exercising care when storing, preserving, and displaying artworks. Collectors strive to make artworks in their collection accessible when the adequate conditions are met.”

Whether one likes it or not, being intentional about having a collection does come with responsibilities related to looking after it. 

The Code clearly states that collectors must comply with all applicable laws and regulations and avoid insider trading (for example, using knowledge, which is not yet public, of an artist being awarded a prize to buy their artworks on the assumption that their value will increase after the announcement), corruption, tax avoidance, fraud, anti-competitive practices, and any other behaviour sanctioned by applicable laws, regulations, and codes.

Sadly, the perception that some purchasers of this collectable / asset class use it for money laundering taints the badge of being an art collector. This perception is apparent with the extension of anti-money-laundering legislation to art dealers, like galleries, in the UK. The most recent Deloitte and ArtTactic Art & Finance Report also mentioned this legislative trend.

Code of Conduct for Art Collectors for the benefit of generations to come

To assure the integrity and longevity of the collection, collectors should show, store, catalogue, and preserve their collection in the best possible conditions. We underscore that it does not have to be intimidating, especially using a collection management platform like Capital Art. 

 Responsible art collection also includes accurately referencing, crediting, and quoting the artists and artworks. 

Three artworks with three light accents above each artwork

Making collections available for exhibitions enables more people to enjoy the artworks than just those within the collector’s circle. This principle advocates that collectors should aim to make artworks in their collection available to artists, institutions, and professionals to loan and show them in exhibitions when the transportation, preservation, and display conditions are adequate. The collector should consult or inform the artist(s) when a curator or museum asks to borrow an artwork from the collector.

Collectors should also consider the implications for themselves and the artists of acquiring and selling artworks for speculation purposes and, associated with that, the ethical and reputational impact of storing artworks in freeports and other long-term storage facilities. Storing collectables in freeports to avoid any damage and the collector can maximise the value when they invariably sell them is a trend seen in the collection of vintage cars. It has now crept into the art ecosystem as well.

For collectors who see their role as a patron as well in that they care deeply about supporting the economic sustainability of the artist, collectors should advocate for a purchase contract with the artist even if they have acquired the work through a dealer and also that the artist, their estate receive a fair share of any gain generated by the resale of the artwork regardless of the channel used to sell the artwork.

How the ethical considerations of collecting are affected by technology

The Code of Conduct for art collectors also covers digital art trends and using non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and blockchains to transact art. NFTs have been seen as a panacea to the provenance challenge in art and have become popular recently, particularly when cryptocurrency prices surge in value. The Code recommends that collectors carefully consider which platforms they use to transact in NFTs. Platforms that “promote the transparency of users and verify their identity, allow for robust audit trail, do not engage in tax evasion or money-laundering, do not actively undermine the role of other art professionals (e.g., art workers, curators, dealers and galleries, writers), limit their impact on the environment (e.g., carbon neutrality), and ensure that the creators of digital work receive a fair share of the relevant proceeds” are preferred.

Commissioning or supporting the production of artworks

“Collectors commission or support the production of artworks responsibly and fairly, never abusing their position of power to interfere with the artistic content or to obtain any undue advantage.”

In a prior blog post, we have covered artwork commissions and whether they make sense for a collector. Suppose one commissions artwork, which can happen for a personal collection or on a larger scale, like a biennale. In that case, a collector should be mindful of the delicate balance between supporting artists’ vision and respecting their creative autonomy.

The Code recommends that when a collector supports a production or commission, the parties should set out the arrangement in a written agreement or contract. The Code is more generic in describing what the contract should outline. Thankfully, the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (SA) is one organisation that provides more specific guidance.

VANSA’s 2016 guide outlines that the contract should include the following details: 

  • A description of the artwork, including preliminary sketches; 
  • A cost breakdown, including a schedule of how and when payments are to be made during the process;
  • The stages of inspections and approvals and an interim payment breakdown; 
  • How either party can terminate the agreement and what the outcome will be; 
  • Who owns the copyright to the work; 
  • How the work will be transported and delivered; 
  • Who will install the work

Support should be honoured, so a collector shouldn’t abandon the project or blue-tick the artist when they finish the artwork. Neither should a collector unduly try to influence the creative process beyond what was initially agreed upon when concluding the commission contract with the artist. 

Halfway through the Code of Conduct for Art Collectors

We are about halfway through the Code of Conduct for Art Collectors. Look out for our next post which will cover part two. Hint: sign up for our newsletter to be notified via email as soon as it is published.