Collecting on a Budget: Bringing Art Within Reach

When asked what impedes them from collecting art, one of the first reasons people give is that art costs too much. Some view the expense as unfairly elitist (a perceptual barrier), others recognize the value and intangible paybacks of collecting yet can't make specific works jibe with their checkbooks (a practical barrier). Even for people like us who view art as essential, dealing with sticker shock is an undeniable part of the process. Since any discussion that ignores that fact would be incomplete, we decided to devote our first issue of Conversations on Collecting to sharing ways that passionate collectors have dealt with this central but often sticky issue.

Happily, the decision about a work's affordability is not always a simple yes or no-it is often maybe. There are many possible ways to bring a work of art within reach, even if at first glance it may seem like an impossibility. Participants in this discussion posit a variety of suggestions, ranging from the sensible to the audacious. The responses we received boil down to a few basics:

Educate Yourself.
Research is an important step in any purchase and art is no exception. On the one hand, it is necessary to determine the upper and lower bounds of what we can afford, and that is a whole discussion in itself. There is a parallel research on the other side of the transaction, a process of learning the lay of the land, so to speak. This search through studios, galleries, catalogs, and art spaces can be exhausting but also a delight. We collect art because we love to look at it, so looking at as much art as possible is a great pleasure that can also yield concrete results. Often times, for example, an artist whose work might seem beyond our reach can have an edition or series that might make for an interesting and affordable purchase. Several young collectors in this group have obtained the works of top-shelf artists in this way.

    Issue 01: June, 2003  

Start Small.

Art takes many forms and some quite simply cost less. Most all of the group said that they either focus on works on paper-photographs, prints, and drawings-or started that way. Similarly some artists' work costs less than others. While this group does not focus exclusively on emerging artists, most everyone said that they often find great works from lesser-known sources. Clearly, the meaning we derive from a work of art is not primarily a function of the artist's reputation nor of the whims of supply and demand. Particularly among new collectors and those with tight budgets, emerging and/or outsider talent is recommended.

Artists and galleries alike can help make a work of art affordable, often in surprising ways. It is neither unacceptable nor crass to speak up if a work of art is close to-but not within-your reach. Simply mentioning the issue may open the door to a variety of payment options that benefit all concerned.

Although it is not always evident, prices of artwork can be negotiated. This becomes more true as relationships between collector and artist or gallery deepen. Even in galleries, where prices are required by law to be printed on a price list, there is some room for price flexibility. Don't expect more than 10%, however, and bear in mind that some or all of that reduction might come from the artist's pocket. Also do not forget that gallerists are arts advocates who have a tough livelihood to earn under the best of circumstances.

Extended payment plans are sometimes-though by no means always-an option. There are compelling reasons on both sides of that issue. Subscription plans are an avenue that can be especially interesting for serial works and a safer bet because works are paid either on delivery or in advance.

One collector we interviewed cited folk art as a very reasonable way to begin, pointing to a series of three works she acquired for a relatively small sum because the artist had sold them to a gallery after he became stranded on the way to Arkansas and needed gas money to return home!

Many artists will barter goods and or services in exchange for their works. For example, while visiting an artist's apartment/studio, collector/artist Wayne D. of Brooklyn noticed that the ceilings were in very bad shape so he proposed a trade whereby in exchange for scraping, plastering and painting the artist's ceilings, he received a painting that he desired. He also trades his own works and has grown a more-than respectable collection of over 150 works.

We recently met another collector who pursues these types of exchanges almost exclusively as a way to build her collection-providing childcare, for example, that enables artists such as Karen D. of New Haven to spend more time in the studio. Karen's positive experience with this collector gave her the confidence to make a bold proposal when a neighbor expressed longing for a painting by Karen's husband, also an artist. A real estate transaction is now underway whereby the artist-couple is receiving an additional eight feet of backyard in exchange for the desired work.

Not all collectors or artists use the exchange strategy, however. Randy Jewart (who is both) does not like to barter precisely because he knows only too well how artists struggle to make ends meet. He is very committed to supporting artists through the more direct financial means, so he insists on paying full price.

Think outside the white box.
Galleries serve a vital role for collectors, and the importance of the services they provide cannot be overstated. Still, they are just one of many places where art changes hands.

Elinor spoke in depth with collector Elisa Billings about starting an art collection and about bringing art into her price range. View the full text on this site.

Open studio tours are a great way to meet artists and begin forming relationships that have long-unfolding benefits. They can also be a great way to shop for art. An artist's best work can sometimes be tucked away in their storage bins, and, because they are most interested in their most recent work, artists will often be glad to part with older pieces at very reasonable prices. Most importantly, the artist's work is presented in a context that reveals a lot about the artist, and that gives their work a whole new presence and level of meaning.

A number of participants buy art at benefits and fundraisers of various kinds, including silent auctions and even raffles. These take place periodically in nearly every city and form a bridge between the related phenomena of art collecting and philanthropy. Artists receive exposure and collectors build their collections while supporting worthy causes. Plus these events can be very exciting in themselves. Most of us have experienced the giddiness bidding on a work and hoping that the bid will stand or the similar thrill of watching their choices be validated as the bidding increases. Raffles can be fun because they include an element of chance and are wholly non-competitive. For example, Wayne enjoys an event in Brooklyn where he purchases six hundred-dollar tickets that will yield up six works of art. When a collector's name is drawn from the box, he gets to select a remaining work. He enjoys the "ahhs" he hears when someone snags a piece that others want. It is a great way to interact with other collectors.

Think way outside the white box.
While there is much to be said about the thrill of amassing a private collection, by becoming an arts advocate at-large, your ability to surround yourself with great works of art can increase dramatically, and in new places.

Working or volunteering at either a gallery or a non-profit art space will expose you to more art, and allow you to meet artists and gain all kinds of new opportunities. Randy and his family are even starting their own home-based gallery venture. "We think this could be an excellent way to broaden exposure for the visual arts nationally, and could have a great impact on the market for affordable art to people who may be intimidated by gallery pricing and elitism," he writes. Not only will the Jewarts' venture have a very positive impact, but it will allow a vast amount of artwork to pass through their lives. Indeed many top dealers are motivated by an urge to collect and began with living room salons.

Consider getting your employer to display or acquire original works of art. Occasionally there is money already allocated for office improvements, and perhaps your voice can help sway decisions as to how those funds are spent. Businesses and corporations have generally much more purchasing power than individuals and their works can be seen by more people, multiplying the benefits. We once interviewed a vice president of a Virginia hospital that has established its own permanent collection and earmarks acquisition funds each year on the belief in art's role in the healing process. Similar cases can be made in many shared spaces for the usefulness and desirability of art collections.

Many municipalities, even in this era of budget crises, have public funds set aside for beautification projects. Citizen demand for original art can contribute to a sense of place and be a touchstone for a community to engage in worthwhile dialogue. Helping to bring art into your community can be a source of personal pleasure as well as a public service.

There are many, many ways to bring art into our lives without breaking the bank. Doubtless, there are innovative ways that none of us have mentioned. As with anything, solutions to the dilemma come most freely to those with open minds and who ask lots of questions. It's about creativity, curiosity and joy in exploration. These are our motives for collecting art, and they are also the tools that make it easier and more affordable.

© 2003 Elinor Buxton/Peter Krebs

Buying art in alternative venues is not without ambiguity. When we purchase at a benefit, it is likely that the artist will not receive any financial compensation. There is currently a bill before the Senate that will allow artists to at least deduct the value of the work from their taxes (they can currently only claim their costs, which they would do regardless of the work's destination), but artists cannot live on tax deductions. Similarly, if collectors only visited studios, galleries would cease to exist and the whole art economy would likely implode. There are no easy answers here and at least as many opinions on these matters as there are collectors. All the various channels mentioned here are legitimate, though, and they do offer exciting new ways to collect art.