Michael Densen is a contemporary art collector and entrepreneur based in New York City.
How did you first become interested in contemporary art?
I’ve been interested in contemporary art since I was in my teens. I grew up in New York and was lucky enough to be exposed to museums with great contemporary collections, such as the Guggenheim and MOMA from early on. I remember seeing the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns and dreaming of collecting art one day. As I achieved more success in my professional life, I was exposed to remarkable collections that belonged to friends—clients and a partner of mine in a vineyard property. Then it was Cy Twombly, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and, dare I say, Damien Hirst that caught my attention. There was a moment when I realized that if I continued to work hard and excel professionally that what was once just a dream might become a reality, and that I could have a collection one day. In retrospect I wish I had started earlier.
What’s the most exciting art purchase you’ve made?
I remember a morning several years back when a dealer in London called me at 6 a.m. and asked me to fill or kill on a package of four paintings we had been negotiating over for two weeks. It contained three significant works by an artist whose work I was trying very hard to accumulate at the time and remains one that I still collect—Sterling Ruby. The fourth work and the linchpin of the deal was a 1994 Damien Hirst spot painting. The Rubys were relatively inexpensive—as his meteoric ascent was just beginning—but the Hirst (the trade bait) was not inexpensive and did not really work well in the context of my collection. After weighing the options one last time I threw caution to the wind, bought the four paintings and from a collecting standpoint have never looked back.
How do you decide where to hang your artwork? Do you rotate your collection?
Lets just say that when hanging work in one’s home, the easy choices—such as size, color palette, subject matter and lighting—are made more difficult when you include context in the decision making process. When hanging paintings I aspire to create a narrative between the works that speaks louder than decoration. Over the past few years my collection has grown to the point where much of it is in storage, so I try to rotate works frequently and unfortunately I’ve found myself making compromises when a painting arrives to be hung that does not work perfectly in a spot that I have chosen for it. I’ll usually hang it anyway and live with it for a while rather than send it back to a dark storage room. This is one of the main reasons that I am in the process of renovating a large warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn which will be my family’s future home but will also function as a gallery space for works from my own collection.
What emerging artists are you following?
That term “emerging artist” is becoming confusing these days. Social media, particularly Instagram has changed how we process new art. It’s an amazing study on just how powerful social media can be when it comes to achieving critical mass. It used to take years for an artist to “emerge” with quality work, curatorial support, reputable gallery representation, and loyal patronage from important collectors. Today, an Instagram post or two by the “right” people can create such a supply and demand discrepancy that suddenly paintings from virtually unrepresented artists— that should be selling for reasonable prices—are selling for around 100K per canvas. Is an artist whose work is selling at those levels still an emerging artist? I’m following a long list of young artists, but I’m confused as to who is emerging! In any event I’m particularly excited about my friends and neighbors at the Stillhouse Group, Grear Patterson, Gus Thompson. Just about every artist featured in the group show presently up at Venus Over Manhattan, curated by Michael Nevin’s Journal Gallery. Ayan Farah, Brent Wadden, Ross Iannatti, Andra Ursuta, Will Boone. The list goes on and on.
What older artists would you like to see make a comeback?
I’m glad that Sergej Jensen seems to be getting broader recognition for the greatness that so many seem to be imitating. Matthew Barney seems to have been pushed out of the limelight for a moment but seems poised for a comeback. Adam McEwen’s market has been insanely soft for no good reason and he’s one of the most intelligent and funny artists out there.
Advice to young collectors and those just beginning to purchase art for the first time?
The politically correct thing to say here is: Buy what you like, what you want to live with, listen to your inner voice, blah blah blah. Of course, in the real world those edicts will always hold true to a certain extent no matter what, but as a young collector purchasing art for the first time it’s difficult to know what you like; the experience isn’t there and it takes time to develop an eye. It was that way of thinking that made me miss Wade Guyton several years ago. My advice would be to study. Immerse yourself in emerging art. Immerse yourself in the emerging art market. Find galleries that have well respected rosters and start a dialogue with them. Find a great advisor that specializes in emerging art. Talk to other collectors with more experience than you do and gather as much information as possible. And last but not least, exhibit discipline as a collector and search out A+ examples from the artists that you decide to collect.