How to begin collecting art

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“Reclining nude” an old drawing I’m framing for the Capital Artist’s Studio Tour, Sept. 8 & 9

Pop quiz, art lovers! Answer these three questions as fast as you can:
1. What’s the first piece of art you see when you walk into your home?
2. Who is your favorite local artist?
3. When’s the last time you saw affordable art in person?

If you don’t have answers to any of the above, don’t worry- you’re in a large boat with lots of other people who love art, but don’t have as much of a personal connection / collection as they’d like. The good news is that it’s remarkably easy to start collecting art. I’ve been asked a few times about the best ways to go about it, so I decided to put together this how-to article.

First, let’s dispel some commonly-held myths.

Art myth #1: Art is too expensive
To be fair, there’s A LOT of expensive art in the world. I’ve seen life-size taxidermy-style rabbit creatures with exposed nipples selling for $12K each (seriously, I have a witness that can verify that wackadoodle art moment). A Picasso scribble on a napkin can go for a few grand. But there are oodles of artists selling work for a couple hundred dollars or less, and chances are they’re right in your backyard. Many people think they can only afford prints or posters. But original art that you like is out there! And it’s not hard to find… if you know where to look. We’ll get to that later.

Art myth #2: Art is only sold in galleries
Cue your mental buzzers, folks! That myth is WRONG! Art is sold in galleries, of course- usually at 2-3 times the price of buying it directly from an artist to cover their commission and overhead, too. It’s great to support galleries when you can. These venues are essentially on the endangered species list right now. If you like having places to regularly view work, patronize your local galleries during affordable art group shows, or better yet, find a co-op!

Cooperative galleries like City Art Gallery in San Francisco’s Mission District are completely owned and operated by local artists who usually put together some pretty rockin’ shows and give more back to their members. Besides galleries, you can buy art at events like Art Fairs, Art Walks and Open Studios.

My Open Studios setup last year

Art myth #3: Affordable art isn’t quality art or it would cost more
Most of us want art because of how it makes us feel, not because of its investment properties. Art prices can be wildly different from artist to artist, and often they are based on the artist’s gut as opposed to market research. Bad art can be overpriced, good art can be underpriced. What makes art “good” or “quality” anyway? Technique affects quality- such as an artist using archival pigments and papers- but what makes it good is whether or not YOU have a connection with it.

Alright, now let’s get to the “how-to”s of starting your very own art collection:

1. Consider what type of art you like…. and don’t like!
Sometimes it’s easier to think of what you don’t enjoy than to identify what your aesthetic is, especially when you are beginning to collect art. I happen to like a lot of art that is different from the style of work I create. A little bit of casual research in this area will help you quickly narrow it down. Perhaps you’re into folk art or street art or color fields or collage. Visit a museum or a few galleries. Take notes in like/don’t like categories on your phone. Ask the gallery attendants or museum curators what style of art a piece is if you aren’t sure. Why do this? The Internet is really awesome for finding art, but there’s so much of it out there that keywords are, well key to helping you find it- whether you’re looking for local work or scouring the globe virtually.

2. Find local venues that showcase local artists
Most semi-urban areas have local arts organizations. For example, here in Sacramento we have SMAC,the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. They offer a newsletter that gives me details on resources and calls for art as well as local exhibitions. We also have an events website called Sacramento365.com that features local artists of the month and arts events. Free newspapers or zines on display around town, like the Sacramento News & Review out here are also a convenient way to discover art happenings.

Terms to search online include “cooperative art gallery in (name of your city)”, “art walk in _____”, “art openings in _____”, and “open studios in _____”. Most cities now have regular art-related events, such as “Second Saturday” or “First Friday”, on recurring dates used to coordinate city-wide art exhibitions. Usually you can just park downtown and walk around on these nights to see artwork set up on the street, in bars and restaurants and in galleries with extended hours in addition to places you’d never expect.

Open Studios are generally annual or semi-annual art events in a geographic location designed to give the art-loving public direct access to artists in their working spaces. Some artists offer demonstrations of specific techniques, such as those indicated with an asterisk in this year’s CAST Guide for the Capital Artists Studio Tour. CAST, the Open Studios event in Sacramento, is expanding so much each year that they had to split it into 2 weekends this time. This puts us in the footsteps of neighbor-by-the-bay San Francisco, who boasts the nation’s largest and oldest-running Open Studios– a bi-annual, month-long, kick-ass adventure featuring different neighborhoods each weekend and accompanied by a luxurious guide. Oh yeah, and there’s usually an app/ QR-code linked virtual map too. [It’s Silicon Valley, after all.]

“Embassy of Cake”, a nightscape of San Francisco I painted in 2011. Original available as well as prints.

3. Stay in touch with local artists you like
When you find artists you like, keep them on your radar. You can sign up for e-newsletters- many artists put out sign-up sheets during openings- or follow them on Twitter or Facebook or read their blog. Artists are essentially small-business owners, and it’s up to us to keep our fans engaged. I personally post new art on my blog, Facebook fan page and Twitter, and lots of my favorite fellow artists do too. It’s a great way to see what they’ve been up to, call dibs on a piece if it’s love at first sight [or barter-dibs, if you’re into trading art for art like I am], or evaluate their work over time as you secretly admire it.

This could also keep you in the loop for sales, discounts and openings. There’s nothing like seeing art in person, which is why I recommend you begin locally. Not every artist offers sales, but many try to reward clients that stick with them through discounts or occasional gifts.

Besides that, artists can be pretty interesting. You may learn something about yourself by following stories from artists who make artwork you enjoy. And you’ll have a stronger connection to the pieces you eventually purchase from them, because you’ll have learned about what inspired the piece, or stories surrounding their process. When you are connected to an artist, their art will have more worth to you, and you’ll feel better about supporting him/her while giving the gift of art to yourself.

Visitors checking out some of my mixed media pieces at the Sacramento Gay & Lesbian Center, from their blog REVEL

4. Start small and buy one piece you love
If you’ve never bought a piece of original art, start small- either in size or price. You can set yourself a budget- maybe your first piece will be $50 or less. If that’s hard for you, try negotiating a simple swap with yourself- say “I’ll skip 5 days at Starbucks to spend $25 on this mini-painting”.

And don’t buy it unless you LOVE it- really. I might spend 30 seconds looking at a throw pillow in Ross and pay $10 for it, then use it on my couch for a couple months until I get tired of it, and I might do that a few times a year. Do I LOVE the pillow? Meh. Do I NEED the pillow? No. So instead, couldn’t I live with whatever pillows I have for awhile and use that furnishing-whim-money on a rad wall sculpture from a local ceramicist that I can enjoy in my boudoir every damn day? Yes! And so can you!

How do you know if you LOVE a piece of art? Sometimes it’s a gut feeling, an impact you notice right away. You walk into the crowded, white-walled gallery opening and head for the free wine and cheese table when suddenly a piece of art jumps off the wall and straight into your visual cortex and doesn’t let go. Other times, it’s more subtle.

If it is a subtle courting and you’re not sure if you want to go for it, my biggest tip when it comes to figuring out whether or not you should buy a piece you like is to sleep on it. If you see a piece of art you like, and days, weeks or months later you still find yourself thinking about it, chances are you’ll enjoy it for years to come. The only caveat is that original art is usually one of a kind, and while you’re thinking about it, the piece could be sold to someone else.

At a City Art Gallery opening in 2010

Part of my personal commitment to my collectors is to always have affordable art available, and by that I mean original work under $100.  Growing up, I remember visiting art galleries as a teenager and getting the brush-off. I dislike the assumption that art is only for rich people. Art is for everyone. That being said, I could never charge $100 for the pieces that take me 50+ hours to complete, which leads me to my next tip..

5. Ask the artist for a payment plan or layaway option on a large purchase
Some of us fall into the “Whole Foods taste, Trader Joe’s budget” category, and that’s understandable. I’ve heard artists say that they could not afford to purchase their own work in a gallery, which is upsetting. Choosing art can be a lot like dating- you can’t always control who you fall for. And sometimes you fall for the tall, dark, expensive painting. Every artist handles sales differently, but most of us are reasonable.

An artist doesn’t have to put up a note on his/her website saying “ask me about layaway!” to be open to it. If you find a piece of art that you LOVE so bad it hurts your wallet, see if he/she would be willing to let you make payments. I arrange commissions and mural projects into installments. It works for me, because I get SOME money right away, and it works for the client, because they don’t have to fork it all over at once. Hooray!

So that’s it- a few simple steps towards enriching your living space and life with labors of love. In times like these, it’s easy to look at art as fluff. Clearly it’s not a necessity the way toilet paper and bread are. But be assured that when you’re ready to venture into it, the emerging collector’s art market will be here waiting. 🙂

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