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How to buy art locally to transform your space into a home you love


April 2017

 “Houses at Night” by Dan Muller of Oconomowoc.
Courtesy of David Barnett Gallery

Surely you decorate your home with personal photos and mementos. But have you chosen artwork for its walls, shelves and end tables with the same care and emotional connection?

“People should feel the living essence of the person who created the art,” says mary rose, owner of willows gallery in Oconomowoc. “Original art has the energy where you can feel the artist and you can explore it yourself in the piece.”

If you’d like to change the look and vibe of your surroundings this spring but aren’t sure how to start — or you could use a refresher — help is here. We’ve gathered tips from experts at galleries around town, where your journey begins.

Lily Pad Gallery West.
Photo by David Szymanski

 “Ginger Dog” by Robert Richter /
Courtesy of David Barnett Gallery

“Milwaukee has a vibrant arts scene, but artists need people to buy their work if we truly value what they do,” says Jane Suddendorf, director of Gallery 224 in Port Washington.

Supporting artists in our community (and sometimes meeting them at gallery events) is just one way to connect with the art you welcome into your home. Read on for more tips for buying art locally for your home.

Look as much as possible, and go everywhere with an open mind.  So advises David Barnett, owner of David Barnett Gallery on the East Side. Simply seeing what’s available in a variety of locations will give you a better idea of what you’re really looking for — as well as what you don’t want.

Plus, in visiting multiple galleries in the area, you may find one or two that you particularly like and feel comfortable in, whether it’s because of the atmosphere, the staff, the art on display or the way the art is displayed. Galleries have personalities that reflect their owners.

“There are all kinds of galleries and dealers,” Barnett says. “Half of the fun is in the discovery and the looking.”

You can do this solo or make it a group experience. Head to several galleries during the quarterly Gallery Night and Day, a low-key way to peruse art, or learn about individual artists and their work through other gallery events like artist talks or receptions.

Browse at an art fair. “You can see a tremendous amount of work in a small area in a matter of a few days,” Barnett says. Perfect for the research stage of your search, art fairs and festivals expose you to a number of local and traveling artists working in different media all in one stop. At larger venues, booths can be expensive and that can be reflected in artwork prices, Barnett notes.

If you want to attend one this month, you’ll need to get on a plane. Many local art fairs occur later in summer and into the fall, but Bay View Art in the Park begins in May, the Lakefront Festival of Art returns in June, and the Lake Country Art Festival is back in early July.

Share your budget upfront. “You can buy terrific art in every price range,” Barnett says. “(I) don’t want to be steering people toward things that are unattainable. That just adds frustration to the equation.”

Knowing what you want to spend is also helpful when buying multiple pieces for a room. Gallery staff can keep prices in mind so that you can concentrate on finding art that resonates with you.

Don’t dismiss large pieces even in a smaller space. “People tend to have the preconceived idea that large isn’t going to work,” Barnett says. He notes that you have to consider what else is going on in the room and what works hinges on several factors.

One factor: “It depends on what style the artwork is,” he says. “Some things are better viewed up close than from a distance.”

Furniture matters too. “If you’ve got a small couch, you don’t want to put a piece of art that goes from the back of the couch up to your ceiling,” mary rose says. “You don’t want the artwork to overpower the room you’re putting it in.”

Buy what you like, not what matches the furniture. This comes from Suddendorf. “The piece will look better (in your room) and be more interesting to you as well as the people visiting your home,” she says.

“Choose art that connects you to the space around you,” mary rose says. “Rather than choosing a color to be matchy-matchy, choose something that makes you feel good and incorporate it into your space.”

She tells a story of a couple who came into willows gallery wanting art of a certain color in their dining room but fell in love with a piece that didn’t fit what they thought they were looking for. “After they made the purchase, they came back in and said, ‘We absolutely love it. We rarely used our dining room. Now we eat in there, and we spend time with friends in there. We’re in that room all the time, because that piece of art made the space,’” she says.

Bring along pictures of your room, or see how a work fits in your home by taking it out on approval. At willows gallery, mary rose encourages people to bring in photos of their space so that she can “re-create” it using color swatches and fabrics. Placing artwork within this simulated environment can help envision how the piece will look at home.

David Barnett Gallery lets you take the artwork into your home on approval for 24 to 72 hours. Either you can leave a credit card number and bring the piece home yourself, or you can set up an appointment with its mobile art service, which will bring the art to you. “People feel more comfortable in their own space, and it’s ultimately easier to visualize something when you have it at home or in your office,” Barnett says.

Play with how you arrange art on your wall. “Some people think that you have to put it smack in the middle of a wall,” Barnett says. “Sometimes you can have a large wall and put something offset, more to the side, for a more dramatic approach.”

Ask to see more, or commission a work. If you hit upon a sculpture or painting you like but doesn’t quite work for you, ask if the gallery has more work by that artist or similar works by others. “About 5 percent of what we have is on exhibit, and the rest is in storage,” Barnett says, adding that he and his staff are happy to bring items out for viewing.

At willows, mary rose acts as a go-between for clients who prefer to commission a work of art from a favorite artist to fit their specific needs. “We don’t require the customer to make the purchase if ultimately they end up not liking it,” she says. Just don’t request any names or dates in the work, she adds, or she can’t sell the piece to someone else.

Hire an appraiser if you’re concerned about the price. “What is a fair price? You really need an expert to figure that out, because there are so many factors that go into coming up with a fair value,” says Barnett, a member of the Appraisers Association of America. “At the same time, in secondary markets there is no such thing as a perfect market. Depending on who has it and what the condition is, there could be a huge variance on what the price is.” 

Listen to your gut. “Trust your reaction and intuition. If you like something, you like it,” says Jennifer Wagner, office manager at David Barnett Gallery. “Trust in yourself in investing in the piece, and don’t be swayed by trends or what other people are drawn to, because ultimately you’re the one who’s going to be living with the piece.”

“If you can’t stop thinking about a piece you saw, then you should probably buy it,” Suddendorf says.
The next Gallery Night and
Day is April 21 and 22.
For details,


In Mint Condition

-To keep your artwork in top shape and take care of your investment, David Barnett of David Barnett Gallery offers this advice:

-Since sunlight can damage artwork, consider putting solar film on your windows. That’s the most cost-effective thing to do, he says.

-Check to make sure your lighting does not have ultraviolet output. You can buy fixtures whose glass is coated for 99 percent UV protection. Frame individual works with Museum Glass, UV-inhibiting Plexiglas or Conservation Clear to protect them from 99 percent of ultraviolet light. Museum Glass removes about 90 percent of the glare and reflection, he adds.

-Use a stone s sealer on stone sculptures decorating your yard to minimize the effects of expansion and contraction when snow or rain accumulates and freezes.

-Be aware that outdoor sculptures require constant maintenance. You’ll have to repaint a steel sculpture after so many years, for example. You can hire a restoration service to help.


This story ran in the April 2017 issue of: