Gary Yeh is currently a junior at Duke University and a young collector of emerging art. He regularly travels to NYC to see shows, visit artist’s studios, and attend fairs. I sat down with him during Armory Week to learn his unique story of how he became a Millennial collector.
Let’s start with some basic context. You were born in Washington D.C. and aren’t from a collecting family, correct? You mentioned one of your first forays in art was organizing a virtual gallery for your fellow high school students to sell their art. What inspired you to do that?
That’s right—not from a collecting family. I founded the virtual gallery first and foremost as a way to engage more directly with art. I had taken an art history course my junior year and fell in love right away but I wanted to be more hands-on. It also seemed like a lot of my peers were disinterested in art because it had this notion of being elitist. The gallery’s mission was thus to increase access to art for students.
Now you are studying Economics and Art History at Duke University . . . do I detect a budding dealer in the works?
I get that question a lot. After running the virtual gallery, I dreamed of becoming an art dealer—what a rush it would be to own a space or two, curate shows, and sell art for a living. But it’s a tough business. The end goal, however, is to collect. Some gallerists have phenomenal collections, but that seems more the exception than the rule. Who knows, I also love Robert Mnuchin’s story of working in finance and then “retiring” as a dealer.
When did you buy your first work? What was it? What led you to it? How do you finally know to pull the trigger?
I would say I had two “first” purchases. When I was 17, I bought a small watercolor by Adam Lister—a local D.C. artist at the time. I ended up buying five more watercolors but still didn’t consider myself a collector. My second “first” came when I made the conscious decision and said, “I want to collect art.” That led to my first painting by Peter Mohall. I first saw Peter’s work on Instagram and jumped on it. No real tangible reason—purely a gut feeling. I think in general that speaks a lot to how I collect. Even if you give me a month to decide between several works, I’ll end up picking the piece that drew me in initially.
Does your collection have a particular theme or focus?
I have always loved post-Internet art. Fortunately there are many artists that can be considered a part of that movement—my wish list certainly reflects that. What I realized, though, was that I was limiting myself and missing out on a lot of other great artists. Good quality work can always find the right context in the scope of a larger collection. Overall, I focus on work that I believe is a snapshot of today’s society or where it might go.
You mentioned that you’re on the board at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke. How did you get involved? What is your favorite piece in the collection?
I am serving my third year on the Nasher’s student advisory board and have been able to sit on a couple Board of Advisors meetings. While it has been fun getting a behind-the-scenes look at how a museum is run, my greatest takeaway has been meeting prominent members of the art world. Jason Rubell and Paula Cooper sit on the board, for example. Blake Byrne has also been particularly passionate and open in sharing his collecting insights. My favorite piece at the Nasher is a work on paper by Robert Motherwell. I used to work at the Nasher and I would walk by the Motherwell nearly every day—it grew on me.
How do you see your role as a young collector within the larger art world?
I am still trying to figure out where I fit in the larger art world. Long-term, I would love to look back and be recognized as a young collector who had vision in picking the right artists.
As the infamous ArtDrunk on Instagram you have developed quite the following for such a young collector. How did that evolve? How do you use social media as an art collector?
[Laughs] “Infamous” is too kind, but thank you. I actually started ArtDrunk strictly as a means to keep track of all the art that I saw and liked. I still wake up every day surprised that so many people follow me—they probably don’t even know I’m a student! Instagram has been useful for reaching out to artists for studio visits; once an artist gets picked up by a gallery their contact info is usually impossible to find. Nowadays, it seems like every artist is on Instagram, so it is easier to reach out that way, especially when they are generally responsive and open to having me visit.
Gary Yeh’s Instagram feed (@ArtDrunk).
Where do you collect—a combination of fairs, galleries, and auction houses?
I collect mainly through galleries and studios after I’ve made a personal connection with the artist. As a collector, a painting has much greater meaning when I can put a face and story to it. I will definitely start looking at auction houses now as well, since you mentioned some opportunities to pick up good work at great prices.
What are some of your favorite galleries or fairs?
Zieher Smith & Horton is one of my favorites. While I have yet to acquire anything through them, Andrea Zieher happens to be a Duke alum and has been incredibly generous with her time, showing me work and talking to me about the art world. Hauser & Wirth is also up there—I just love their massive Chelsea space, which always has top-notch exhibitions. Their one guard, Andrew, is also so knowledgeable and friendly. As for art fairs, I really enjoyed last year’s edition of Frieze Masters. The quality of art across the board was exceptional. A little crazy that there was a small Bruegel painting that was in better condition than any Bruegel I had ever seen in a museum. I also saw Eddie Redmayne from afar—that was pretty cool.
You mentioned that visiting an artist’s studio is important to you. Why is that? What studio has been most memorable to you so far?
Studio visits are the greatest reason why I love collecting and staying engaged in the contemporary art scene. They offer a more intimate and relaxed pace, as opposed to the rush of art fairs and gallery hopping. They are also a great way to learn about emerging artists when there is minimal literature on them. The most memorable studio visit was also my first. Back in 2014, I had the opportunity to accompany a friend who was visiting Ai Weiwei’s studio. My only interaction with Ai Weiwei was when he asked if I wanted a stroopwafel, so maybe that doesn’t really count as a studio visit but it was damn memorable.
We’ve experienced a lot of speculation in the emerging market. All that aside, which three artists have you most excited right now?
Sofia Leiby, Brent Wadden, and Mary Weatherford.
Realistic or not, what’s the top work on your wish list?
Tough question: that changes almost daily. Richter’s Betty (1988) has consistently been one of my favorite works of art, even though I have never seen it in person. Lately, I have been thinking of Kon Trubkovich’s Sunrise friend (2016)—it’s on display at Boesky East right now. I am really into abstract painting, but these two works have an aura that draws you right in.
Any advice for emerging collectors? Mistakes you’ve made?
Buy with your heart and your eyes, not with your ears. While there is tremendous value in educating yourself by talking to advisors and gallerists, collecting decisions should come down to your own gut. Even if a collector has “bad taste,” does it really matter if they love what they are living with? The one mistake I have made so far is going against that advice and buying a painting because the dealer strongly pushed that it was a hot artist. At the end of the day, every dealer believes he or she has the best artists, so it is up to the collector to sift through the noise.
What’s next for you after graduation?
The million dollar question. I am interested in investments, consulting, and tech startups—as you can see, it is a bit up in the air right now. But if anyone out there wants to hire me, I am happy to send over my resume!