Thea Westreich Wagner on who to buy at Art Basel
'The artists of moment are the ones engaged in expanding our understanding of our time on this planet' she says
Spare a minute to consider the continent-crossing life of the world weary art advisor – (come on now, it's only a minute). Yes, the financial rewards can be substantial but a serious amount of brain not to mention leg-work goes into keeping on top of the art world's fast-moving and fickle roll call of hot or not.
Nevertheless, it’s a world Thea Westreich Wagner and her partner Ethan Wagner have proven particularly adept at surfing successfully over the years. As Thea told us last week: "I’ve been going to art fairs longer than most people have been on the planet!"
For her and Ethan, Art Basel in particular, which opens today, has changed beyond all recognition since they've been going. Long gone are the days when they’d turn up with the promise of being genuinely surprised by what a dealer might have pulled from his or her vault. Instead, these days the lists of works and accompanying images are with Thea's assistants weeks before the shed doors open; and she knows exactly “what needs to be seen and who needs to be talked to,” as she puts it, long before the plane ticket's purchased. So what's she looking forward to at Art Basel in terms of collecting for clients and as an art-interested visitor this week?
“Statements, Unlimited and Liste are a big part of the experience now," she says, "and offer great opportunities to see and learn. These venues are especially enlivening and likely to provide new perspectives for curious collectors. Enlivening in the sense that you can watch an artist try to command a space and you can see if that artist is up to the challenge. That’s what’s fun for me! That’s what I like to see!" We asked Thea if there was one artist in particular she was always interested to see new work by.
"Well, we’ve been following the work of James Beckett and at Venice, in the Belgium Pavilion, we saw a whole new installation and body of work from him and he knocked it out of the ballpark. Even though we were interested and collected the work previously, it confirmed our interest - by orders of magnitude. And that can happen in Basel where you will see an artist put on a one person show and you say, ‘My Goodness this artist is better than I thought - or, occasionally, isn’t as good as I thought!’"
As much as a place to buy, of course, Basel is as much a place to confirm new trends, check the vital signs of artists you've previously collected and fall under the spell of the new. Moving image is one area of art that most still find hard to commit to collecting, yet for Thea it's where some of the most interesting art is being made.
"There’s an ongoing body of work being made by artists in moving image and while I acknowledge that the medium is more difficult to collect it is one that is being used by many important minds. Someone like Hito Steyerl, for example, is a majorly important artist, maybe one of the most important of our time, and her work is largely moving image and performative, and always provocative and compelling. Really, this is a very complex world and I think that the artists of moment are the ones who are engaged in expanding our understanding of our time on this planet.”
And if you’re in Basel this week Thea’s sage advice is use the fair to get an overview – not an overhead. "Any art fair is a great place to begin to get an overview of what’s going on and to meet people who can help you make head or tail of what’s happening in art production and art making practices," she says. "But I would not if I were an unseasoned collector, go there and start shopping!" Be sure to check out Thea's book Collecting Art for Love, Money and More.