Investing in Cayman art

Not long ago Caymanian art would not have been considered in an investment context. But times have changed and the Cayman art scene has evolved and grown considerably over the past 10 years. In 1996, when the National Gallery opened, there were serious doubts whether Caymanian art had the necessary depth and quality to stand out.

It was also the year that saw the creation of the Native Sons, a Caymanian art collective. The group of young Caymanian artists today recognised as among the most respected and prolific in the Cayman Islands, was also formed in response to how Cayman art was regarded at the time. “It was our response to whether there was a group of Caymanian artists practising art; why we would warrant a National Gallery,” says Wray Banker, one of the founding members of the group.

“The National Gallery and the Native Sons changed the way art was viewed and people started to take art a lot more seriously,” says Natalie Coleman, the director of the National Gallery.

More commercial galleries opened up and pseudo-galleries, such as cafes or jewellery stores, started to exhibit art. As a result there was an increasing number of different venues, where artists could showcase their work.

“Nowadays it is not unusual to have two or three art openings a week, which is astounding. Ten years or even five years ago you would not have seen that,” says Ms Coleman.

There is also a wider variety of art available. For a long time Caymanian artwork was driven by commercial aspects, producing pieces that were attractive to visitors to the Islands. It is still not unusual for artists to develop two separate bodies of work, one aimed at the commercial market, representing pieces that depict island life, and another that develops the identity of the artists through more abstract or thematically different work.

Cayman painter Nickola McCoy-Snell says that in order to be commercially successful, it is important for an artist to be able to move between the market for what she calls “islands art” and a “niche market” that is more limited in terms of collectors. “This niche market is where signature styles are sought and bought at a much higher price. It is where an artist is allowed creative license and carte blanche,” she says.

Jeremy Walton, a local private collector of Cayman, Caribbean and other international artwork explains that he is mainly interested in abstract expressionism, a genre quite well represented in Cayman. “There is an interesting range of artists born in Cayman and artists that have settled here. There is a real vibrancy in the art scene in Cayman and a collegiate atmosphere among the artists,” says Mr. Walton.

Anyone who contemplates investing in art has two basic options. On the one hand there is the purely investment return-driven approach of investing into an art fund, which functions very much like a hedge fund. On the other hand a private collector may want to build a collection by identifying and selecting individual artists, styles and artworks according to personal preference. 

“Collecting art is incredibly personal, driven by subjective interests and perspectives,” says Mr Walton. Like many collectors he suggests that buyers should primarily buy work they enjoy and would want to see in their home, with investment returns coming only as a secondary motivation. 

Ms Coleman agrees: “There are opportunities for investment purposes, but it is a very high risk area of investment. Unless you do have a lot of money and you are willing to wait for your return on investment, I would not go into the art market with that in mind. I would purchase something that I like, if it develops in value over a several year period that is a bonus.”

Whether one invests in established or emerging artists, it is important to invest at the right time of the artist’s development. Ms Coleman recommends collectors look for emerging artists at local art exhibitions such as the annual Visual Arts Society show or [email protected], an annual National Gallery-run event, where typically more than 100 artists are showing their work. “These are good places to get a feel for the art scene and for a collector to see a total variety in terms of styles, medium and level of artwork,” she says.

Another approach is to try to find unusual pieces from an established artist to benefit from the rarity value, says Mr. Walton.

The savviest way to buy is often directly from the artists and studios, to save the 30 or 40 per cent commission that would be charged by a commercial gallery. It is estimated that between 70 and 80 per cent of all art transactions are private and one of the benefits of Cayman is that it is very easy to contact artists directly and get to know them personally.

“Caymanian art is generally very reasonable, as prices are not inflated by aggressive gallery promotion,” says Mr. Walton. Prices for paintings start at under CI$500 for emerging artists, but the work of a recognised, established artists will generally not be available for less than CI$3,000.

The closing of the Morgan Gallery, which featured a lot of work from Caymanian artists, in particular members of the Native Sons, and the economic crisis had some effect on the art scene in Cayman. Still, at an art panel discussion about the art market in the current economic environment, hosted by the National Gallery in July, the general consensus was that known artists like Randy Chollette or Avril Ward were still selling their work by selling abroad or by diversifying their repertoire like Al Ebanks.

Cayman’s commercially most successful painter on an international level Bendel Hydes has made New York his base some time ago and no longer relies on local sales. For local artists the internet has helped. Online sales have opened up the art market and are steadily growing. Mrs. McCoy-Snell sells her work through her online website, the Arteccentrix Gallery, as well as through direct personal contact. She is also in the process of setting up a commercial gallery, which will come in addition to the long-standing Pure Art and Kennedy galleries.

Art should be seen as a long-term investment, but “Caymanian art can become incredibly expensive very quickly,” says Ms Coleman referring to the relatively young and developing art scene. Although the National Gallery is not commercial, but has an educational mandate, she says: “We have a lot of information about local artists at the National Gallery. It is not our role to sell art, but we are more than happy to direct people to certain styles or genres or artists.”