This piece was written for the prototype magazine Alethia, which was created for our final project. Images of local artists’ work accompanied the article, but cannot be reproduced here.
Once we’ve shaped our lives into something resembling the future we want, it’s natural to start thinking about the extras – to begin considering the wants, now that the needs are fulfilled. Our “List of Wants” can contain any number of boxes to check off: saving for that dream vacation to the white sand beaches of the Caribbean, finally replacing that old junker with a vehicle that wasn’t built before you were born, hosting dinner parties where people actually come and you actually cook.
Recent studies have shown purchasing an experience like that trip to Greece provides longer lasting happiness than purchasing, say, the new Honda Civic – it’s something to do with being able to repeatedly find joy in the memories of that experience. Essentially, your memories appreciate in value over time, where the car can only depreciate.
But what about art? One could argue that while a painting or sculpture is a “thing,” purchasing a piece of art about which you feel passionate will provide pleasant experiences each time you look at it – much like fondly remembering that family trip to the Bahamas. And from a purely practical perspective, art can increase in monetary value over time.
Long considered an indicator of wealth and taste, art is displayed in private homes to invoke pleasure and, perhaps, envy in its viewers. We often view personal art collections as a luxury middle-income folks will never be able to afford. But owning an array of original art isn’t solely the territory of heiresses and world leaders. In addition to the fact that privately owned art is usually seen adorning the gold-gilt walls of celebrities featured on MTV Cribs, this misconception probably also stems from news coverage of items like the Picasso painting that sold for nearly $45 million USD last year, or the diamond-encrusted skull created by conceptual artist Damien Hirst, worth almost $93 million (CDN).
Granted, a new graduate hunting for a career while juggling student loans probably won’t end up with a currently famous artist’s work. But there is affordable art out there – you just have to look for it. And really, isn’t it more rewarding to discover a great find – even an inexpensive one – than to walk into the first gallery recommended on Google search and buy that painting the dour curator inexplicably dubs a thousand dollar “must have”?
Collecting art on a shoestring budget isn’t a novel concept. Take Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, an American couple who made a modest living as a postal worker and a librarian, and collected over 4,000 pieces of art throughout their lives. They decided art was their passion, what they wanted to spend their money on – so they did.
Divulging this reality is all well and good, but unless our parents were avid collectors, we likely don’t have a clue where to begin building our own collection. So how do you go about starting your personal envy-inducing art display? Armed with my art history degree, growing dusty from disuse, and a list of local galleries, I set out to discover the details of starting an art collection.
Know yourself.First of all, figure out what you want. Decide if you’re going for an eclectic approach or if you intend your collection to encompass one specific theme or medium (painting, pencil drawings, sculpture, etc.). Chances are, limiting yourself to watercolours of tiger lilies will, at this point in your life, result in just one piece, at most. If you’re ok with that, great! Otherwise, consider expanding your parameters.
Zehava Power, the senior gallery assistant at Halifax’s Art Sales & Rental Gallery, says people sometimes bring in photographs of the carpet or a piece of furniture in the room for which they are buying, but she personally doesn’t feel that’s necessary. For passionate collectors, she says, as long as they feel the pieces go together, they don’t tend to care if they perfectly match.
Be choosy. There’s no point in putting money – even if it’s only $25 – on a piece you wouldn’t even display in your basement bathroom. It doesn’t matter what the curator tells you is beautiful or significant. Even if you don’t know a thing about art, you can still listen to your own tastes. “If something speaks to you and you love it,” Power says, that is all you need to determine its worth.
If you’re someone who tends to be easily swayed by salespeople (evidenced by that overflowing drawer of new clothes you’ll never actually wear), consider taking along a friend with a firm stance. Don’t be afraid to leave and think about a piece before buying – a lot of galleries let you take pictures, so you can make your decision from afar. One nice thing about gallery works is they’re less likely to be gone in a couple hours, unlike that single pair of size 10 Aldo riding boots on sale in the store window. And honestly, curators at the kind of galleries that will carry what you can afford are probably more likely to encourage you to pick what you like than to push something on you just for a sale.
Find what’s affordable. Obviously.Speaking of gallery choice, look for those with a good price range. If you’re seriously looking to buy, not simply admire, call ahead to ask about their prices. If they don’t carry anything under $600, why chance tempting yourself with something you know you can’t afford?
A search of any decent-sized city will no doubt turn up a number of galleries, but don’t overlook those that display only local artists. Sometimes these are co-ops – meaning the artists own shares of the company. Such places often have very reasonable prices. Art 1274 Hollis in Halifax offers some small, original paintings by well-known local artists for around $75. Such galleries often have a lower commission rate (high-end galleries pocket as much as 50 per cent of the price), which means they can charge less and the artist can still make money.
Farmer’s markets are another great place to find affordable art. Usually less traditional mediums like photography, screen printing, and metalworking are features among the stalls. A screen print (not an original, because the template can be used over and over) can cost about $15. Photographs can range from $20 to $100.
Consider beyond traditional. If you’re seeking paintings or sculpted works because they’re the only art you think of, consider looking further afield. These days, art comes in all shapes and styles. Handcrafted glass or metal jewelry, practical or decorative pottery, screen prints, and photography are all equally valid manifestations of art, and while extremely pricey pieces certainly exist, very affordable options are out there as well.
Have reasonable expectations. Don’t expect to pay next to nothing – remember the piece is probably the artist’s pride and joy, regardless of how well-known they are. If the piece is too expensive, pass it by, but don’t assume just because art history students don’t study that person’s work, it isn’t worth it. If you’re concerned with the future value of the pieces you’re buying, think of the people who might have begrudgingly bought Picasso or Dali’s first work – they’re not regretting it now. But please, don’t let potential worth overshadow choosing what you like.
Don’t disregard the diminutive. Most likely, your price limit will mean that what you can afford will be small – in the case of paintings often a foot square or less. Many of us are at a transient period in our lives where we will be relocating a few times yet, before we settle into a permanent home. Smaller pieces are easier to pack (and you can move them yourself, instead of relying on expensive art movers), and easier to find a place for in a new home. You don’t know what the lighting or colour scheme of your next apartment will be. If you really love the original, but it’s beyond your budget, many galleries offer greeting card recreations of their showcased artists’ best works for five dollars or less. Larger (but still not full scale) reproductions can often be purchased as well. They’re usually pre-matted and the quality is superior to the greeting cards. For a local artist, these reproductions can average about 20 per cent of the original’s cost.
If it’s perfect but pricey, you still have options. Maybe you come across a piece you absolutely have to own, and even the startlingly high price tag can’t deter you. Some galleries offer a layaway plan or rental option. For the former, the gallery will take your information and you will work out a payment schedule to purchase the work over a number of months, while the gallery holds it for you. Art Sales & Rental Gallery, as the name implies, offers the latter. Renting allows you to try the piece in your home, without being permanently tied to it. If you decide after a few months that it doesn’t work in the space, the gallery will take it back and you will only have paid for the time you had it. If you do love it, you can reconsider the cost, and with certain agreements, the rent you paid for the past months will come off the price.
Once you’ve decided to start a collection, keep that goal in the back of your mind at all times. When you see a piece you like in a private home or other building, ask about it – people always love to talk (a.k.a. brag) about their art. Power suggests visiting exhibits whenever possible. The art they showcase will often be out of your price range, but the experience will further your recognition of styles and options. Curators can tell you what style the artist worked in, so you know what it is you’re appreciating. And keep a lookout everywhere: garage sales, flea markets, online and print classifieds.
Just remember: whether the piece is tagged at $3 or $3,500, if you love it, it’s priceless.