1 Contemporary Art Technically, "contemporary art" is recent work by living artistsor by their peers who died tragically young. Beyond that, though, contemporary art can mean just about anything: a shark suspended in formaldehyde, a photograph, a video, a ceramic bowl, a mound of elephant dung, or even a painting. That's why collecting contemporary art is so excitingbecause it offers a chance to discover something new and unexpected. Unfortunately, it's easy for new collectors to find contemporary art intimidating or merely baffling. When you're looking at something completely new, how do you tell whether it's good or not? Even more mysterious is how to tell which artistsout of the thousands now workingare the ones destined for museums and which are destined for yard sales. Don't worry if you feel lost at first. Everyone does. Plunge in by going to galleries, museums, and art shows. You may not feel ready to buy yet, but that's okay. Most artists and dealers are very welcoming to people who are getting started. All you need is willingness to learn. Learning About Contemporary Art First, here's how not to learn about contemporary art: When I was an art history student in New York, my friends and I would dutifully go downtown to contemporary galleries (a prerequisite, we thought, to becoming "intellectuals"). Our courses on Caravaggio hadn't prepared us for anything we saw there. We had no idea which pieces were good and which were junk, but we were too mortified to admit it. Instead of asking questions, we'd walk around the galleries with a knowing air and murmur, "Very interesting." This is a dumbnot to mention boringway to go to galleries. You wouldn't expect to learn about any other topic without reading or asking questions. Why should contemporary art be any different? You probably had a teacher once who told you that if you looked at a work of art long enough, you'd understand it. Not true. You could look at a pile of bricks in a gallery all day without realizing that it's a witty refutation of another artist's work, if you didn't get the reference. Ask questions! Once you understand what the artist was thinking, that pile of bricks may actually be fascinating, amusing, even moving. A hushed gallery isn't always the most comfortable place to ask questions, especially when you're not ready to buy. If you're shy, ask to see press clippings or background materials. Many exhibitions include an "Artist's Statement," in which the artist attempts to describe what he or she was trying to do. (Artists hate writing these, but they're very helpful to new collectors.) You could also read reviews of the exhibit before you go, to get a general sense of what you're looking at. Even better, start by going to art fairs, art shows, and open studio tours. These are more casual than galleries; they're more amenable places to ask questions and strike up conversations. So are art school exhibitions. Students love to give their opinions about what's good and bad in contemporary art. Start with basic questions such as "Can you tell me about the artist?" or "Is this work part of a particular tradition?" Admit what you don't know. As long as you don't try to pretend you're a buyer when you're not, dealers and artists are usually gracious and willing to answer questions. If you keep asking questions and engaging yourself in the work, you'll find that contemporary art is endleHunter, Lisa is the author of 'Intrepid Art Collector The Beginner's Guide to Finding, Buying, And Appreciating Art on a Budget', published 2006 under ISBN 9780307237132 and ISBN 0307237133.