If you’ve been around the art world for awhile, it’s easy to forget that a lot of people can still find the whole thing intimidating.
From commercial galleries and their directors, assistants and openings, to art fairs, museum exhibitions and catalogues, to art magazines and websites, the entire art world can seem like an interconnected web of snobbery and exclusion. And that’s partly true.
I remember, as an art student in the early 80s, that the thought of going to an opening at a commercial gallery was confronting. What went on there? What did you say to people? Did you have to pay for drinks? The answers were remarkably mundane: you could see new art at an opening, and you usually just talked to your friends, and as far as drinks were concerned, you’d just swan up to the bar and act like they were free unless you were told otherwise.
Getting to know how the art world works is really just a matter of getting involved, but even the simplest of activities have their own unique processes. Take, for example, the apparently simple task of buying art.
Once you’ve worked up the gumption to walk into a gallery one of the first things you’ll notice is that very few galleries will put a price next to the work.
These are usually supplied on what’s called a ‘room sheet’ – a simple list of the artwork titles and their corresponding prices.
But that doesn’t mean the works are necessarily available. If there’s a red dot on the wall next to the work that means it has been sold. A half red dot means that either a deposit has been taken, or someone is seriously thinking about buying it.
This practice dates back to the days when art truly was the preserve of the rich and a salon hang of art (lots of framed works crowded on to walls) was an opportunity for a gentleman to enquire about availability, the price be damned.
Like much of what goes on in the commercial art world, this antiquated practice is now based on preserving that aura of exclusivity around art. Most people would agree that art is something special, and in the right context it can be profoundly meaningful, or even spiritual. But selling it as a commercial enterprise is often seen as sullying that special relationship between the artist, the work of art and the viewer.
So, a degree of discretion is practiced by the professional gallerist. Sure, you might want to buy art, and own some of that specialness for yourself, but don’t be too hasty. The key is to establish a relationship with the gallery. Bursting in with a handful of cash – or the burning desire to buy – can be seen as gauche.
For many galleries it’s not just a matter of selling the art, but rather finding it the right home. Most enlightened collectors know that even though they own a work of art, it won’t be forever; it will be passed on or resold. While it’s tempting to think a gallery just wants to sell as many works of art as they can (and there are plenty like that), it’s also true they don’t want to sell to some idiot who’ll buy the work then boast in the media that the massive and expensive painting they bought looks better upside down. (Fun fact: this actually happened).
So establishing a relationship with a gallery is key. It might just be as simple as saying, ‘hey, I want to buy that work of art,’ but it may take longer than that, maybe even a few years if the artist’s work is popular and there’s a waiting list. If the work of art is as beautiful and important and meaningful as you think it is, then what’s the rush?
The next and most obvious question is: what to buy?
The old adage is ‘buy what you like’ because ideally you’re going to have it for a long time. Modestly scaled works are a good entry point because you have to have the space at home to hang it, and art by emerging artists is usually priced to sell. A tour through artist-run galleries is another great way to get into buying art but they have their own idiosyncrasies and ways of doing things however, the great thing here is that the person minding the gallery is almost certainly the artist. You can cut out the middle person and buy direct from the source.
For people with more money to spend, and who know what they like but not necessarily what they want, the commercial galleries are actually pretty accessible. And if you’re putting down in excess of $10,000 that you’ll want to think about resale value, but remember the usual turnaround time for art to reach its full maturity in the market is 20 years. There’s plenty of time. (Fun fact: another blue-chip long-term investment used to be taxi plates, but now post-Uber, they’re worth less than half their previous value. The lesson here: stick with art).