The Ugly Truth — Buying Art: A Beginner’s Guide

So, you’re not sipping champagne with Gagosian, huh? No big whoop. Affordable art fairs are popping up across the globe — not to mention emerging art galleries, end-of-year student shows and platforms like Mona — finding amazing works of art that won’t break the bank is the new norm. 

That said, let’s get you ready for buying a work of art in the following spaces…

1. THE ART GALLERY -- Don't take it personally... it really is them not you!

Some (not all!) galleries and gallerists can be snooty, conceited, hoity-toity and just plain rude to inexperienced collectors, or to people whom they don’t consider to be “serious buyers”. The good news is that you’ll know almost immediately that you’ve wandered into one of these abysses, so don’t sweat it! Just move on to a more welcoming elsewhere!

Here are a few tips for dealing with a gallerist like a pro:

Look for the red dot --

If an artwork on the wall or on the gallery’s price list (which, by law, must be prominently displayed, though often is not) has a red dot, that means it has been sold.

Let's make a deal --

Found something you absolutely love and gotta have, but it’s out of your budget? Take a moment to collect your thoughts, figure out how badly you want it, and what you can afford to offer. Most galleries are willing to negotiate with collectors on higher-priced work, as the contract between the artist and the gallery may allow for it. The gallery may even allow the buyer to pay for the work in installments.

Go with Plan B or C --

So you love the artist but even with a discount and a payment plan, the work is still too expensive — time to get creative! For example, ask to look at  smaller works by the artist, or see if the gallery has works on paper rather than canvas. You may even consider an older work or study by the artist. 

2. THE STUDENT -- Let's help them pay off that student loan!

Art schools across the country hold end-of-semester student shows by M.F.A. candidates. These are my favorite hunting grounds for new artists and inexpensive art. Keep in mind that some shows will be held on campus, while others will be hosted in gallery-like spaces, often with guest curators.

Here are a few tips for making the most out of a student show:

Relax and be cool --

Unlike galleries, student shows are informal and often without price lists. In most cases the school will act as a go-between and takes no fee, so the artist receives the full price.

If talking about money makes you uncomfortable --

Grab the artist’s card so you can follow up in an email. This also gives you a chance to do some Instagram-stalking to see more of their work. 

3. THE AUCTION HOUSE -- Sit On Your Hands... TRUST ME!

For the uninitiated, art auctions, whether in person or online, can be a little overwhelming and a lot like watching live theater. 

Here are some important tips to consider before entering the arena:

Create a plan of attack --

Review the catalog before going in and create a plan of attack. For example, pay attention to the low estimate vs high estimate for a particular work you are interested in. Then ask yourself:

  • Is it love or lust?
  • Can I afford owning it? Remember some works might require framing, special transportation costs, insurance, or all of the above.
Set a budget --

Set a budget, know exactly how much you are prepared to spend. Don’t get caught up in the feeding frenzy! Auction houses are hoping that the excitement and thrill of the conquest is going to get your hands in the air. It can be helpful to bring a friend along to provide some gentle nudging, should you need it.

And for all that is holy --

Please sit on your hands and refrain from unnecessary nodding during bidding! 

4. THE ARTIST STUDIO -- KNOCK KNOCK!

Open studios are annual events in art districts across the country. In Houston, we have a number of great places to visit, such as Sawyer Yards in EADO. Open studios (in general) are where individual artists, and/or buildings that house multiple artists’ studios, join forces and hold an open house for a weekend. Open art studios are typically very informal and are often without price lists. 

Here are some tips to help you navigate open artist studios like a champ!

Nosey much --

You are not being nosy by actively looking through the stacks — artists want you to go through the space.

Ask permission --

Before moving or picking up a piece, ask permission. Keep in mind not every piece you see will be available for sale.

The 'In' Crowd --

You will likely encounter a few established collectors of the artist — they love going to open studios. They get to see what new works are in progress, possibly check on a commissioned piece, and,  take up a ton of the artist’s time. If this happens, you have two options: wait around or grab the artist’s information and contact him or her later.