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Art insider
Love the work, but use your head 
when buying art, experts advise


August 2005

As the old saying goes, you always remember your first time. Itís a truth that applies to virtually anything momentous in life ó your first car, your first job, your first date ó and your first piece of art.

Taking the leap from being an art admirer to art owner isnít always an easy one. From picking out the right artist to working within your own budget, being an art collector is a process.

But that doesnít mean it canít be enjoyable, fun and satisfying at the same time, particularly with the following five insider art tips.

1. Know thyself, know thy taste

In other words, never buy a piece of art that you donít love. "It has to talk to you," says Barbara Brown Lee, chief of education at the Milwaukee Art Museum. "You want it to hit you in the gut, the heart and the mind ó in that order. Youíve got to have a love affair with it."

Katie Corcoran, director of Gallery 505 in Whitefish Bay, agrees. "Art is a very personal and emotional experience," she says. "You really want to feel like you need the piece that youíre buying."

She also recommends a little self-reflection. "Spend a little time thinking about what appeals to you," Corcoran says. "Think about color, texture, subject matter."

Donít fret if your favorite types of art are exclusive to museums and high-end collections. "Thereís a very good chance that there is a skilled, contemporary artist using the same approach, has a similar influence or creates in a similar style," notes Brown Lee. "Ask around to see if thereís a modern-day equivalent in your price range."

2. Let the hip buy the trendy and leave the speculation to the financiers

First-time art buyers should fuel their acquisition with a bit of Midwestern practicality.

"Sometimes people can become really wrapped up in finding art thatís really Ďiní as opposed to buying art that they really like," explains Corcoran. "But trendy art can have a very short life span."

First-time buyers are better off focusing on what appeals to them rather than the art of the moment, of course, unless the two are one in the same.

"For example, letís say that thereís a really exciting artist right now that uses a lot of yellow," Corcoran uses as an example. "If you are not fond of yellow, then this probably isnít the artist for you. ĎIní art can be quite Ďoutí in a few years, meaning that youíll be stuck with a piece that you didnít really like in the first place."

Unless youíre King Midas, never attempt to buy art as a financial investment.

"The value of a piece is not likely to go down drastically, but first-time collectors should also realize that there is no way to tell if there will be a huge payoff 20 years from now," she says.

3. Like wine, a high price does not automatically dictate goodness

What is the price you should pay for a piece of art? Itís a question that has no right answer. But Mike Brenner, owner of Hotcakes Gallery in Milwaukeeís Riverwest, offers this suggestion.

"They say you should spend two monthís salary when you buy an engagement ring," he says. "I tell people to spend half-a-monthís salary on art every year and enjoy themselves while theyíre doing it."

How can you get the most bang for your art buck? Brenner suggests learning about art, go to art events and festivals and hang out with artists and gallery owners.

"Weíre a fun bunch," notes Brenner. "Itís money well spent."

When it comes to the nickels and dimes of art collecting, know that certain artists can and will command certain prices. Other artists are more interested in accessibility and find ways to reach that goal.

"I have kids in the neighborhood buying art from my vending machine for $2," Brenner says.

Brown Lee suggests art fairs and even secondhand sources. "Not all art for sale at rummage and garage sales is reproductions," she notes. "You can find original art in all sorts of places."

4. Understand the madness behind the medium

The medium in which an artist works can affect the price of artwork. "If thereís an established artist that you really like but canít afford, consider a piece of his or her art on paper," suggests Brown Lee. "Generally speaking, a work on paper is less expensive than canvas or sculpture."

Some artists reproduce their original works through the use of high-quality giclee prints. While some art collectors prefer to only collect original artwork, others are open to the prints.

Corcoran says that these types of prints are worthy of consideration, particularly if the price point of an original piece is outside of your budget. "Generally speaking, giclee prints tend to be run in lower numbers and some of the artists are quite involved in the production," she explains. "Some of them will even go back and enhance the giclees after they are printed."

Regardless of what medium you ultimately purchase, investing in a piece of art means taking care of it. Use museum-quality archival methods for framing and keep the works out of direct sunlight and away from severe environmental changes.

5. Be sensible with your dollars & cents

First of all, donít think that artists wonít be open to creative financing terms. When Brown Lee first started collecting art, she didnít have the financial resources to buy the pieces up front.

"Donít be afraid to ask an artist if you can buy on time," she says. "The worst thing an artist can say is no, though I found that many artists were receptive to my request."

Sheís also an advocate of making a wise investment. "Instead of spending money on an inexpensive reproduction and then spending another $200 to have it properly framed, why not support local artists and simply buy original artwork?" she asks. "If you decide you donít like it 30 years from now, donate it to charity."

Art collectors obtain art through a variety of means. When working with a gallery, find one that not only offers your style of artwork, but whose staff encourages you to take an active role in the process.

"You should feel welcome in a gallery and comfortable asking questions," says Corcoran. "Buying art should be a fun experience."