The Journey of a Collector I of III: Strategy is Choice

This semester has been an intense one as I had a 5 courses workload. Combined with the effort required for an art exhibition at SMU that I am also trying to pull off has meant no time for writing any weekend read. One of my teaching assignments was a DBA program in Shanghai that SMU offers in partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The 15-20 students of this program are very interesting, usually having been successful in their career, they are now seeking a DBA. My mandate was to teach introduction to strategy. However, they had researched me and wanted to know more about how to collect art. This led me to combine the two topics and over the next three weeks, I will share the lessons that I learnt about collecting art.

The Accidental Collector

I never set out to have an art collection.  Initially, not even knowing what I liked, it was only after almost a decade of acquiring art that one could observe a definite pattern.  This revelation of the unconscious preferences in historical purchases combined with educating myself on the history of Indian modern art, directed my collection over the subsequent two decades. I still acquired what I liked, but it was increasingly in pursuit of a relatively specific, yet evolving vision.  Now, I am privileged to be living with the artists, Hemen Mazumdar, Jamini Roy, and Rabindranath Tagore, each of whom haunts one of my apartments: Singapore, London, and Calcutta respectively.

Buying Art versus Assembling a Collection

As a management professor, I teach “strategy is choice”. One can make these choices randomly, opportunistically, instinctively, or consistent with a plan that is driven by a vision.  Only the last can be called a strategy, because then the choices are premeditated, discriminating, and consistent with the destination one is attempting to reach. Great companies are built on the back of a strategy that combines a bold audacious vision, a dream, with an excellent plan that is well executed. Of course, any strategy must allow for flexibility, both in the vision and the plan, as the environment changes and new opportunities arise.

Unlike companies, people acquiring art usually do not have a strategy. They buy randomly and instinctively whatever strikes their fancy. But, buying each work of art is a “choice”.  There is a big difference between buying art and assembling a collection. The former is a random collection of works, each perhaps interesting in its individual right, but unconnected to the others. The latter is a purpose driven effort. It is conscious, deliberate, as well as knowledge intensive and directed. As a result, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The big idea in collecting is to “limit yourself” because only then can the collection become something. Acquiring each work of art requires both falling in love and deep reflection. Does this piece add to make the collection a more meaningful grouping? How does it fit with the plan of buying multiple works over time? What is missing in the collection? It is this injection of intelligence combined with an “eye” that helps make each piece more valuable because of its provenance and the company it keeps with the other art in the collection. It is against the background of these questions that one falls in love or “allows” oneself to fall in love with a work of art being considered for potential acquisition.

Hemen Mazumdar: The Last Romantic

De Suantio Gallery, Singapore Management University,

School of Economics & Social Sciences, 90 Stamford Road, Singapore 178903

23 January 2019 to 17 February 2019 (closed 5 & 6 February)

Tuesdays to Sundays: 12:00 – 8:00 pm

The first international exhibition of Hemendranath Mazumdar (1894-1948), popularly referred to as Hemen Mazumdar, will be curated by Caterina Corni from Milan, Italy. It will showcase thirty-five works drawn from various private collections. A book on Hemen Mazumdar with essays from leading Indian art academics will also be published. 

Hemendranath Mazumdar was one of the major 20th century artists of India. While Orientalism (championed by Abanindranath Tagore) and the “Indian style” of art (pioneered by Jamini Roy) claimed central focus in the first decades of the 20th century, Hemen unremittingly opposed this. Instead, he chose to negotiate in his own unique manner the supposed contradictions between Western and Eastern art.

Bengali women fascinated him and this obsession eventually culminated onto the canvas in a large variety of images that ultimately became his trademark. The sole presence of the solitary woman in his art is descriptive of the innate isolation of a woman. Each painting captures a small fraction of time in her life when she had those moments exclusively to herself. His works venture into uncharted territory: the heart of a woman.



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