The New Connoisseur
For many, the latest status symbol is not what they own, but what they know.
|Photography by Frans Lemmens/Getty Images
Luxury cars, vacation homes, yachts. Anyone with money or good credit can buy these long-standing symbols of status. But for a growing number of affluent individuals, what’s in greater demand these days is more difficult to acquire: expertise, knowledge and unique experiences.
“Inconspicuous consumption is a rising trend, which has replaced the visible materialism that typified the 1980s and early 1990s,” according to the Future Foundation, a London-based think tank, in a report on changes in luxury travel. For many high-end consumers, knowledge and self-development are replacing traditional luxury trappings as more desirable pursuits.
But if what you know is more impressive than what you own these days, how do you acquire this intangible asset?
Do your research. In many instances, the world’s top experts are willing to share their secrets with amateurs, so search for the best teachers, practitioners and mentors available.
|Photography by Bigshots/Getty Images
For example, Michelin-starred chefs David Bouley, owner of Bouley and Danube in New York, and Raymond Blanc, owner of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire, England, both offer demonstrations in their kitchens for a few hundred dollars per session, with no cooking experience necessary.
And studying with a recognized master gives you more than just bragging rights. “It’s a much richer experience than simply learning techniques,” says Lynn Cutter, senior vice president for travel and business development at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. “You benefit from the wisdom of people who are at the top of their field.”
Point and Shoot
Imagine spending the day with a renowned National Geographic photographer shooting portraits at an open-air market in Mexico, then returning to your hotel to discuss camera techniques while you upload and edit your photos together. In the evenings, you grab a seat at the bar and drink in the photographer’s war stories of perching in trees and running from rebels in search of the perfect picture.
That’s what happens on National Geographic Expedition’s week-long photography workshops in locales like Santa Fe and Provence, where National Geographic photojournalists work with students on daily assignments or take travelers on longer expeditions and advise them about
“The primary thing we do is teach the guests how to use a camera to tell a real story, which
is how National Geographic is put together,” explains Jim Bullard, director of programming
for National Geographic Expeditions, the Society’s travel tour program. And out in the field with the pros, he says, students “see these special sites through [the experts’] eyes. They’re getting a professional to tell them, ‘If I was going to shoot that cathedral from across this town square, this is what I’d do about lighting, this is the angle I’d shoot from. Maybe I’d wait for a person to walk by to bring some humanity into the picture,’” Bullard says.
Darius Panahpour, a Denver-based photography enthusiast who works in the aerospace industry, says his shooting skills improved after taking workshops with National Geographic photographers in New Mexico, Italy and Mexico. “I do slide shows of my photography for friends at dinner parties,” he says. “After I had taken one or two of the workshops, a friend said she could see that what I’m shooting now is at an entirely different level. My photos are edgier.”
Panahpour says he signed up for the workshops because “the photographers were world famous, and I wanted to learn from the best.”
The photographers also gave plenty of individual attention to each student. “One of the best things about the workshops is having your work reviewed by the instructors,” he says. “They’re positive and upbeat, and they’ll take you where you are [with your skills] and work with you.”
Monet or Manet?
If you love art, you could simply gaze at ancient statues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Or, you can learn their origins and historical relevance directly from the museum’s experts. Through its Travel With the Met program, the museum offers approximately 24 trips a year to view tombs in Egypt, the terra cotta warriors in China and Hermitage Museum treasures in Russia, with its researchers and curators giving tours and lectures along the way.
In the evenings, you grab a seat at the bar and drink in the photographer’s war stories
of perching in trees and running from rebels
in search of the perfect picture.
For art, jewelry and memorabilia collectors, New York-based Christie’s auction house organizes master classes in connection with upcoming sales. Besides learning about the value of the work from curators and art historians, participants often view objects before the general public sees them. Art enthusiasts who enroll in Christie’s one-year certificate in modern art, connoisseurship and the history of the art market visit the studios of artists like Dana Schutz and Fred Tomaselli and meet curators, art critics and museum staff.
After completing the certificate, “students can expect to leave with a set of skills that allows them to evaluate the quality of a work of art,” says Veronique Chagnon-Burke, director of studies at Christie’s education division. “Why is that Monet a museum-quality Monet versus a weaker work of art? They also can expect to understand how the art world functions. What are the relationships between the various institutions — the collectors, the galleries, the primary market, the secondary market? How does the auction house play into that?
“Our students include lawyers who want to specialize in art law, Wall Street executives who want to open their own galleries, and entrepreneurs who’ve recently sold their companies and want to spend more time collecting, as well as people in their 20s who want to get a job in the art world,” Chagnon-Burke says.
|Photography by Panoramic Images/Getty Images
Dongju Lee Dollard, a New York City-based art and philanthropy consultant and art collector, took a five-session course on Indian art at Christie’s to expand her personal knowledge of the subject before an Indian art sale this spring.
“It was just the right combination of art history and studying the objects in the auction,” she says. “I really enjoyed the textile part, which is an up and coming field, so I was glad they incorporated that into our course.”
Prominent art historians like Joan Cummins, curator of Asian art at the Brooklyn Museum, and John Seyller, a University of Vermont professor considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on miniature painting, gave lectures and imparted some insider information, too.
“I have a lot of books on Indian art,” says Dollard, “but the speakers told us which books to read on the subject.” Dollard says the course also improved her eye for Indian art. “The course gave me a better idea of what patina means in Indian sculpture and the different weaving techniques in Indian textiles. I’m able to identify the style more [often].”
For Dollard, like many other knowledge-seeking connoisseurs, this shift away from traditional status symbols yielded the ultimate intangible reward: “I loved it,” she says.