buying Art
October 25, 2004 3:04 AM   Subscribe

How do you buy art? [more inside]

My girlfriend and I went to an "open studio" event this weekend, and we really liked a particular artist's work. I wanted to figure out what price category his work fell into (i.e., "bargain", "attainable", or "don't bother"), so I asked him what the asking price was. He seemed really startled and taken aback by my question, hemmed and hawed quite a bit, then told me that his gallery charged (x), and so he would charge (about 40% of x).

So, did I commit a faux pas? Is there a way you're supposed to ask what something costs when there isn't a posted price? Is haggling acceptable? How about when you go through a gallery...does that change anything?
posted by Vidiot to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Vidiot, IMHO, if he didn't say "What would you offer?" then either you did the right thing, or you did the wrong thing and he's being a jerk about it. Either way, you're in the right now. :-)
posted by shepd at 3:38 AM on October 25, 2004

It seems from his response he (wrongly?) presumed you meant what does HE charge for his work - outside the gallery - and maybe thought you were trying to make a deal on the side with him, which took him off-guard.

I don't see anything wrong with what you asked, though. What kind of gallery doesn't post the prices of the work it is showing?
posted by contessa at 5:16 AM on October 25, 2004

Eh, many artists are sensitive about their work in relation to money. Pragmatically they have to deal with galleries and buyers to make some semblence of a living and I think a lot of them like knowing that people value their work, but it makes them uncomfortable to actually discuss it. I wouldn't consider myself an artist but I've sold a few prints and, I guess coupled with the fact that I was raised to not discuss money, I hated talking to prospective buyers about cost. In my mind they were aghast that I was asking THAT for THIS although that never seemed to be the case.
posted by RustyBrooks at 5:45 AM on October 25, 2004

I don't think you did anything wrong, either. It just sounds like you took a budding artist off guard. I'm sure there was no harm done and the artist was surely flattered, even if he didn't show it. I think Rusty probably nailed it, actually; many artists so self-conscious about their work that they feel presumptuous putting a value on it.

If you want to approach this type of thing in a more roundabout manner in the future, perhaps you could start by asking if the artist sells directly (as in outside the gallery), or if there's a gallery contact he/she can give you. That lets the artist avoid talking about money directly if he/she feels funny about it.

p.s. Who's the artist, if you don't mind me asking? I'd be interested in seeing the work that caught your fancy.
posted by boomchicka at 5:58 AM on October 25, 2004

Most galleries charge 50% these days so by giving you a 40% discount he was probably still doing better than if you had bought it from his dealer. But his dealer certainly wouldn't be pleased about this. A good dealer takes a lot of risk. He not only shows the work but he also markets it - publicizes it, shows it to potential collectors and hooks the artist into an artworld social scene where he or she can do their own networking. He also knows that a lot of artists do what this one did.

I started buying art by wandering into a gallery looking around and asking the dealer a question. We got to talking and he asked if I would like to meet the artist. I said that I would and got invited to a party where I met a lot of the artists. I got hooked and over about ten years I put together quite a big collection of work that was still affordable in those days. Then I got an expensive divorce and that was the end of it. But the collection did grow 1000% over ten years and my share turned out to be an unexpected windfall.

Anyway, the best way to buy art is to meet the dealers and the artists and feel your way into it. If you can buy from the artist, do. And don't forget you can always bargain with the dealers.
posted by donfactor at 6:11 AM on October 25, 2004

So, is haggling expected or discouraged, either when dealing with a gallery or an artist directly?

(I don't want to put the artist's name here, but will happily e-mail it upon request.)
posted by Vidiot at 6:18 AM on October 25, 2004

(whoops, didn't see your comment there, donfactor. I guess it's okay, then.)
posted by Vidiot at 6:20 AM on October 25, 2004

"is this for sale?" might be a slightly better question, and then "what is the price?". but i've bargained in the past. you certainly didn't do anything wrong. (is haggling ok? i think it depends on the price and the work and who you're buying from, and where (what are the local customs, is it a gallery).

(more generally, "how do you buy art" - just buy what you like, which can be pretty rare. if this is the first time you've liked something enough to ask, you might want to go back and make an offer, even if you are embarassed. if something really clicks and it's from a new/young artist at a decent price then buy it!)
posted by andrew cooke at 7:06 AM on October 25, 2004

I used to sell the ocassional print and always had an asking price set before attempting to sell. It just makes everyone's life easier. I get impatient with pompous artists or galleries that want to make stating a price some kind of ritual. There was nothing wrong with your question.
posted by normy at 8:23 AM on October 25, 2004

at a gallery, it's really more appropriate to ask the curator/owner/sales staff. making a deal with the artist at the gallery can cause problems for the artist with regard to his contract with the gallery. if you want to buy from the artist but not deal with the gallery, you can ask the artist if his studio is open. you may not be able to buy directly from the artist (if he has a representation contract with a gallery). because you were at an open studio event, asking the artist really was the most logical thing to do. maybe he was under the impression that sales weren't permitted at the open studio (sometimes they're not, largely to avoid the problem of some artists being free to sell outside of their gallery and others not); maybe he just isn't good at valuing his work. IME making an offer is okay; haggling is not.

there are, of course, tiers to the gallery system.

me, when i want to buy art, i throw money at a couple of the artists i know. (and am happy to direct anyone who's interested to their portfolios)
posted by crush-onastick at 9:02 AM on October 25, 2004

Generally, open studio shows aren't necessarily direct "art sales" events, but more a chance to see works. That said, many artists have price lists available. At my recent open studio, I didn't even attempt that, and I might have been caught off guard if someone asked a price. When I buy work, though, I do like buying directly from the artist, both for the price break, and for the sense of connection with the creator of the work. It's always a bit of a process, though.
posted by judith at 10:12 AM on October 25, 2004

Vidiot, you asked correctly--as everyone else said, he may just have been taken off guard.

My husband and I have bought a lot of our art (by "a lot" here I mean that I can think of 20 or more pieces--paintings, sculptures, glass art, fabric art) at "open studios" events. At least here in Massachusetts and in other cities where we've gone to open studios (New York, Chicago, Toronto, Burlington (VT), Portland (ME), San Francisco) the opportunity to buy and sell directly, artist-to-client, has been emphasized in the publicity a key element of the event.

Neither of us is a big haggler, but we have been known to say "$300, you say? We're looking to spend something closer to $200, so I guess this won't work for us" and let the artist decide if he/she can afford to let it go for $200 (generally, yes, in our experience).
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:22 PM on October 25, 2004

Yeah, sounds to me too like the artist got distracted by an internal conversation with the bad devil on one shoulder and the good angel on the other: "Go on, cut out your dealer! Muh ha ha!" Most artists do this -- and it often results in trouble for their relationship with dealers and collectors.

As for you -- don't EVER be afraid to talk money with galleries and artists. The stuff is for sale -- like it or not, it's a commercial product, like in any store. It's nice to be romantic about art but the fact is, art is a multi-billion dollar industry.

With regard to your question about haggling with galleries: yes, but it's not quite like haggling with a rug merchant, though it probably should be. Most collectors who I sold to basically presumed they would get at LEAST a 10% discount; probably more assumed they deserved a 20% discount. And in galleries, pushy people often get their way -- it's an ugly industry often, in my somewhat bitter opinion, and you should feel free to practice the same behavior in a nicer, more human way. Many galleries routinely give 30% to 35% discounts to museums like the Whitney or large collections -- they also will give 25% for bulk or public (lobbies, etc.) purchases. Basically: no one pays retail, and there's no reason you should either, even if you're not Ms. Fancy Collector.

Smarter dealers will give non-percentage discounts, rounding down to the nearest appropriate hundred- or thousand-dollar amount, arriving somewhere between 10 and 20%. Keep that calculator on your cellphone handy -- and don't forget that sales tax and, if applicable, framing, mounting, or delivery charges may be included. (Maybe instead of a discount you'd rather they paid framing and made delivery to your house? Dealers will go for that too.)

My advice: be straight up. Ask for a payment plan from the dealer, if you want or need it -- six months isn't uncommon. And ask for a 20% discount, though often you'll only get one or the other.

And any gallery that doesn't have a publicly available price list is a shady, bad gallery, either by intention or oversight, and you shouldn't support them.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:17 PM on October 25, 2004 [1 favorite]

Thanks to everybody for their insights....I was especially hoping that you'd show up, RJ/Choire. Much obliged.
posted by Vidiot at 9:55 PM on October 25, 2004

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