Spotlight: “On Collecting Works of Art- An interview with Yelena Ambartsumian and Miroslav Grajewski”

Yelena Ambartsumian and Miroslav Grajewski at their home with work by Andre Butzer. Image courtesy of collectors and author.

Yelena Ambartsumian and Miroslav Grajewski are two young collectors who are passionate about contemporary art. They both have a sharpened sensibility of the art market. With a keen understanding of the auction prices, one of the things that separates them from other collectors is they firmly believe in going after the work they feel is most important to them. If there is such a thing as destiny their story would define it. Fittingly, they first met at the Museum of Modern Art in 2016. Six months into their relationship they purchased their first work of art together. They got married and continue to actively appreciate art and collect as a couple. I conducted an interview with them this past summer. I narrowed the field of questions to the nature of collecting; what interests them, and; the advice they would provide to other young collectors. The following is a transcribed interview.

RM: What was the first work of art that you remember seeing or that piqued your interest?

Yelena: My family has a great number of art books, which, curiously, are among the few possessions that they were able to get out of Baku.  I flipped through many of those illustrated books as a child, including a catalogue of works by Hieronymous Bosch. I have a vivid memory, from when I was five years old, of opening the Bosch catalogue to a page displaying one of the darker panels from the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych—the one with the bird-like creature sitting on a throne, devouring a naked man.  I was too afraid to even close the book, and so I just ran out of the room screaming. But every few days, I would work up the courage to go back to the Bosch book and look at more works. Not all of the pages were as hostile. It was like playing Russian roulette. A few years ago, the Museo del Prado in Madrid had a wonderful Bosch exhibition. Moving through the galleries, I felt as though I was walking back into my childhood, and instead of feeling scared by something I did not understand, I felt calm and amused—that I had this secret history that I shared with Bosch that no one else was privy to.

I see traces of Bosch in one of the artists we love, Sanam Khatibi.  I was drawn to her work but I was afraid to take the plunge because I was worried about how other people would react to it, as many of her paintings depict women and animals in nature, in scenes with very explicit power dynamics.  Miroslav pushed me to get over my squeamishness. Upon seeing a large painting by Sanam in my dining room, my mother asked me, “How will you explain this to your children?” I thought, “No one explained Bosch to me, but here I am.”  

Sanam Khatibi, To save her I would murder the world, 2016, oil and pencil on canvas, 55 1/8” x 70 7/8”, Image courtesy of Rodolphe Janssen Gallery and author.

Miroslav: The first work that piqued my interest was a work by Miró, which I saw in the Reina Sofia when I was ten years old.  I remember seeing these two giant dots staring back at me, and I was trying to understand why this painting was in a museum—in a room across from Picasso’s Guernica—and not on the wall of my fourth grade classroom.  I viscerally disliked it. But somehow for years I couldn’t get it out of my head. It affected me, and this feeling of disgust evolved into a passionate interest in
Miró’s work and the work of his contemporaries.

RM: What do you see as an obstacle or an advantage for a person looking to begin a collection? What advice would you provide to someone looking to begin a collection?

Miroslav:  Spend at least the first year seeing as much as possible, going to every fair you can afford to go to, going to every gallery show you can get to, every museum exhibition, before you even begin to think about buying.  You need that time to develop your own eye. Get or loan books on artists that seem interesting to you or that you don’t totally understand, to learn more about not just the artist but the progression of their work over time.  

Yelena: I imagine that a perceived obstacle for many people is just taking the plunge. As Miroslav said, I think it is important to see as much art as possible, in person, until you stumble on that piece that you cannot get out of your mind and feel that you need to have with you.  It is important to see work also from the perspective of wanting to potentially buy it, because you will suddenly become much more critical and discerning. 

If it is your first purchase, and you are driven primarily by the thought of making a profit upon resale or showing off to your friends, walk away.  There were a number of times when we walked away, because we realized we wanted the work not because we connected with it but because several of our friends collect that artist or were telling us it was a good purchase. 

Yelena and Miroslav with gallerist Lauren Marinaro and artist Bernhard Buhmann. Image courtesy of collectors and author.

RM: A lot of individuals and companies work with art consultants and advisers when purchasing work. What would you consider to be the most important job working with a consultant or adviser?

Yelena: You must first know and understand what it is that you like and do your own research.  Having that foundation will make everything easier, including figuring out which consultant you would like to work with, if it makes sense to work with one.

RM: For someone who is beginning a collection should they begin with art fairs?

Yelena: Art fairs can be a great way to see a lot of different artists and learn about the programs of various galleries.  I first saw the work of Willa Nasatir at Independent, an art fair in New York. Afterwards, I told Miroslav about it, and we made an appointment at Chapter NY to see more of Willa’s work.  And that is how our joint collection began.

The only thing I would note is that artwork looks very different in the context of a fair than it does in a gallery show or particularly at home.  Everything at a fair looks much smaller than it is, because the ceilings are 20 feet high, and the works are among other equally large works. I remember when art shippers pulled up to my former New York apartment with a painting we had bought at a fair, and as soon as they opened the truck and I saw the shadow box, I told them, “No, no, you brought the wrong work.  This is too big.” It turned out it was the right painting, but at the fair it looked much smaller because it was dwarfed by other massive works. Since then, we have gotten quite a few pieces we saw at fairs, and I still misjudge the size. 

RM: What might be some fairs that should be considered when looking to begin collecting? 

Miroslav:  For people in the U.S., I would recommend Art Basel, Frieze, and NADA.  And then start branching out from there. For 2020, for example, we are excited to check out Felix LA, a contemporary art fair that is hosted in a hotel in Los Angeles. 

RM: How important is it to understand the artist perspective from which a work is created? Should collectors get to know artists they are considering collecting? 

Yelena: I hear mixed opinions on this.  For me, it is important to meet the artist.  I see the work as an extension of who they are as a person.  If the artist and the gallery are comfortable with our meeting or doing a studio visit, I always jump on the opportunity.  But I can understand that for some artists, it can create pressure to be “on” or to speak about their work in a commercially-viable way.  Other people say that the work should stand on its own, without the backstory from the artist. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer.  I love supporting emerging artists, and getting to know the artists gives me the context I need to more fully appreciate their work. 

RM: Should an individual who is considering building a collection be concerned with a style and having work be similar conceptually or aesthetically?

Yelena:  If you understand what you like and learn to train and trust your eye, the collection you build will naturally have some type of shared thread. 

RM: What does the term “emerging artist” mean?  Are there risks involved with collecting emerging artists?

Yelena:  All established artists were “emerging” at some point.  If you enjoy the work that you are getting, then I do not think that the financial “risk” matters.  Then again, the more risk, the potentially higher returns. We approach it as X amount of money that we pay for this piece is X amount that we will never see again; we have no expectation or hope to later resell the work for profit.  If a work appreciates, that’s an added bonus, but it doesn’t make a difference to us.  

Yelena with work by Andre Butzer at Max Hetzler Gallery, London. Image courtesy of collector and author.

RM: What do you see as an issue in the art market today in relationship to auction prices?  Should auction prices distract young collectors from purchasing work?

Miroslav:  As a young collector, your best bet is to focus on emerging, contemporary artists, whose work is not sold at auction houses.  You can acquire their work from primary dealers, build meaningful relationships, and grow together with these artists and galleries over time. 

Yelena:  I don’t see why auction results should discourage new collectors.  If you think auction sales are illustrative of most contemporary art transactions, you will have a skewed perspective because you are only focusing on the top 1% of transactions.  An artist’s work on the primary market (meaning, first sales, directly from the gallery) is often priced lower than the auction result; a “good” result at auction means that the primary market prices will increase, but they will almost always be lower than the auction prices.  Because of the relative lack of transparency with respect to prices in primary sales, I can understand how public auction results—the only information most people see—could lead people to think that they cannot afford to meaningfully collect. We haven’t found that to be the case. 

RM: What does it mean to live with a work of art?

Miroslav:  Waking up every day and seeing pieces in a new light. 

Yelena:  I agree with Miroslav that living with art is growing with art.  Creating art is a truly human act, both instinctual and spiritual.  And enjoying and experiencing art is similar for me; I love learning as much as possible but ultimately giving in to and accepting the mystery. 

Yelena Ambartsumian recently left her law practice to launch Origen, a private online marketplace for secondary sales of contemporary artwork (OrigenArt.com).  Miroslav Grajewski is the owner of Zuvic, Carr & Associates (Zuvic.com), a civil and environmental engineering firm. They are based in Milford, Connecticut.

Riad Miah was born in Trinidad and Tobago and is an artist who lives and works in New York City. His work has been exhibited at the LMAK Gallery, Sperone Westwater, Wave Hill- Sunroon Project, Baltimore Museum of Contemporary Art, White Box Gallery, deluxe projects, Rooster Contemporary Art, Simon Gallery, Lesley Heller Workshop, and more. He has participated in the Vermont Studio Center, Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture, HISK, Belgium.  He’s received fellowships and awards with New York Foundation for the Arts in painting and Germination Europe and has also been nominated for the following: Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, Rema Hort-Mann Award, and the Basil H. Alkazzi Award for Excellence in Painting. He has taught at Pratt, New York Arts Program, Parsons School of Design, and Montclair State University. He is a contributing author to Two Coats of Paint, Art Savvy, and Vasari 21. Riad Miah holds an M.F.A from Ohio State University and a B.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts.

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