How to buy art
Buying art can be intimidating. Here’s some advice from local artists and gallery workers.
When Annie Hooker graduated from California College of the Arts with a painting degree, it felt “pretty worthless” to her. “I had no idea what to do next,” she says. It did, however, prepare her to paint what she loved—mainly large-scale, figurative, photo-realistic oil paintings of urban landscapes and figures within them. However, turning that into a livelihood has proven difficult.
“You have to have other work,” she says, explaining why she’s currently working days as a house painter with a contractor’s license. “I mean, I know there are artists out there that are able to support themselves with their art. But it’s hard.”
Hooker sells her work entirely on her own, through her website, in local businesses and by networking with the art-minded here and in the Bay Area. Her website familiarizes people with her work but isn’t a big revenue generator on its own. She has yet to use other ways to sell art online, such as Etsy.com.
Preston Lillo is a landscape and macro-photographer who had no aspirations to sell his work until his wife suggested that lots of people want beautiful pictures but don’t have a lot of money. “She decided we could make affordable pictures and make them available to everyone,” says Lillo. His wife started an Etsy account, and got Lillo’s work displayed in local businesses.
“We don’t sell a ton, and it didn’t help that the economy collapsed a few years ago, but people who see the work love it,” says Lillo. “On the internet, more people can find you. But it’s a double-edged sword. If you’re in an enclosed space, you have their attention, and you aren’t competing with thousands of other people.” Plus, Lillo says, many people prefer to see and touch their art before buying it, and shipping involves risks and costs.
He’s had some success hanging work in businesses, but “we’re not hanging $500 pieces in a coffee shop. A $75 or $100 piece will move.” Lillo believes that artists often over-value their work. “It’s only worth what someone’s willing to pay for it. You can say it’s worth a million dollars, but if someone’s only willing to pay $300 for it, that’s the reality of economics.”
Perhaps that’s why many artists, like Hooker, would jump at the chance to have gallery representation. “They do it all for you, which is what every artist wants. Of course, they take a percentage,” she says.
Artists are often incensed by gallery commissions. The consensus among gallery director Cheryln Bennett and member/artist Christel Neldner of the Artists Co-op of Reno, as well as Stremmel Gallery director Turkey Stremmel, is that the standard private gallery commission is about 50 percent.
But just as realtors earn commissions because of their expertise, contacts and marketing savvy, galleries provide highly valuable services: finding and educating buyers, and negotiating and closing the sale. Galleries have the contacts, time and business savvy that artists don’t.
“The artist may be making the piece,” says Stremmel, “but the gallery will call someone and say, ‘Wait’ll you see this work we just got in.’ It’s easier for a gallery to talk about an artist, and most galleries have an ongoing list of which clients want what. Plus we do the promotion, the exhibits, we have the wall space. So it seems only fair to me.”
One alternative is the Artists Co-op: Owned and operated entirely by artists who work in the gallery in exchange for the promise of wall space and marketing, it offers the gallery advantages of expertise and accessibility. Its low overhead means they can keep commissions down to 20 percent, and they allow for artists’ work to be shown elsewhere (such policies are common among private galleries).
10 tips for buying art
1. Find a reputable seller. Consult friends, artists and museums for references. This not only protects against price gouging—taking advantage of people’s intimidation and lack of knowledge about art—but it also ensures a degree of expertise that may help you understand the work.
2. Price doesn’t say anything about quality. Many artists just want to sell their work and have adjusted their pricing to keep pace with the economy. In other words, as Lillo points out, “It doesn’t have to be expensive to be good.”
3. Maybe you could do that yourself—but you didn’t. Bennett and Neldner have painful memories of purchasing booth space at art shows, only to watch customers complain about price and whisper, “You could do that” to each other. “That just means they aren’t knowledgeable or serious about buying art,” says Neldner.
4. Don’t lowball artists. “One of my frustrations is that people don’t want to pay for it,” says Hooker. “They don’t see the time I spent on it, the overhead on the studio and supplies, all that goes into being a reputable artist. They think, ‘You’re an artist, it’s just fun, and you should be happy that I even want to buy it.’”
And as Neldner points out, “I don’t mind lowering my prices if it’s my choice and that’s what the market will bear. But I don’t like doing it for people who ask me. It’s demeaning.”
5. Art you love is not an investment. Approaching an art purchase as though it were a bank account is a poor way to gamble your money, and it diminishes your own emotional connection to art.
“Buy it because you love it, and you have a passion for it,” says Stremmel. “If it grows in value over time, that’s a bonus.”
6. Check for quality. How’s that frame holding up? Is there acid-free matting and backing on the paper? Paper products contain acid that eat away, over time, at paper. If it’s touching cardboard, step away from it.
7. Don’t buy mass-produced art. As Stremmel points out, “Maybe for the same money, or a tiny bit more, you can have an original piece. …You’ll have something that thousands of other people won’t all have, too.”
“Having an original piece of art, something made with an artist’s hands, it just has a different soul than that pre-fab stuff,” says Hooker.
8. Don’t let money be an obstacle. Lillo’s work on Etsy starts at around $2 and may only hit $100. Check out student work at the University of Nevada, Reno or Truckee Meadows Community College, or in local restaurants or coffee shops. You might find something affordable and extraordinary. Stremmel Gallery and the Artists Co-op both offer layaway plans to soften the blow. And when buying direct from artists, trade for in-kind services is never off the table.
9. Art isn’t furniture. Bennett shudders when people come into the Co-op with couch covers, looking for work that matches. If you love it, she says, you’ll find a space for it, and it won’t be so expendable that you’ll change it with the furniture.
10. “Buy what you like, not what someone tells you is good,” says Lillo. You don’t have to be educated in art or endowed with special talent or knowledge in order to appreciate or purchase art. “If you like something, that’s all that matters. Not whether a critic likes it or an important person made it. Just go with what you like.”