How do I find and buy affordable original artwork?
April 22, 2015 10:43 PM   Subscribe

I'd really like to have more art in my house, and I love the idea of having original pieces. But I know almost nothing about art, so I don't know the best ways to go about finding and buying it.

I'm mostly talking about paintings, but I like sculptures and photographs too. While I'm willing to spend some money, I have a lot of blank walls and my budget does have a limit so I can't be spending five figures every time. I'm hoping that I can find artwork I love by new and/or unknown artists who don't command huge prices. I really want originals rather than prints when I can (I know this is kind of silly, but I love the idea of knowing I have the one of a kind). To be absolutely clear, I am NOT looking at this as an investment, I'm not trying to find the "next big thing," and I have no illusions of some day selling an art collection at auction. I also don't care if it's something critics or other people like. I just want beautiful art without crazy prices.

I have two problems (at least). First, I don't know the right places to look for this kind of thing. There are a ton of galleries near where I live, but at most of them even the cheapest pieces start in the thousands. I've also been to a few student art shows, at which the quality level was frankly very low. I'm hoping there's some middle ground, I just don't know where to look.

The second problem is that I don't know what to look for or ask, or the language to speak when buying. While I'm not looking for an investment, I also don't want to get ripped off (e.g. by buying some mass produced painting that is claimed to be an original). And I don't want to look like an idiot when talking to artists or gallery owners.

Any pointers? Are there books I should read? I feel like I don't even know the right questions to ask...
posted by primethyme to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Jubey at 10:46 PM on April 22, 2015

Response by poster: Sorry, I should have mentioned, I'm not really interested in buying online for this (despite the fact that I buy almost everything imaginable online). Art is something I need to see in person before I know if I like it or not.
posted by primethyme at 10:50 PM on April 22, 2015

I'm not sure where you are but if there is a university near you, what about some sort of art appreciation/art history type class? You'd be educated on the classics and about famous artists but you might acquire some language to help you talk about art. And it might help you figure what you like and why so you can look for and ask gallery owners for similar pieces.
posted by Beti at 11:05 PM on April 22, 2015

Well, here is a thought, what about custom framing stores? The ones I go to seem to have original art; know what the trends and the local art scene. Another option is things like artist open studio visits. It is a chance to go to a lot of artist studios and see some interesting work. For the Twin Cities it is called Art Awhirl, your town may have something similar.
posted by jadepearl at 11:21 PM on April 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've bought a few paintings at coffee shops. They'll bring in an artist for a month or three. If you like a piece, you pay for it and collect it at the end of the show. But if you didn't like what you found at student art exhibits, then maybe you're looking for something higher quality than this.

And are there major art galleries near you with a rental and sales department? My recollection from the ones I've seen is that they've had pieces in the low four-figure range, although some are certainly higher.
posted by Banknote of the year at 11:24 PM on April 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'd pick some galleries you like the look of, go in & tell them you are looking to buy an artwork in the range of $X, and do they have anything that they can show you.

Galleries owned by arts dealers tend to have a stock room out the back, with a range of work by the artists they represent, at a range of prices. Even galleries who generally show more expensive work out front might have some newer and unknown artists on their books & in stock. That said, I'd try to pick galleries that are relatively smaller or have work on show with prices that are not outlandish to you.

A good art dealer will be happy to spend time with an art newbie, showing you what they have in stock & talking to you about the works and the artists. After all, gallery owners tend to be art obsessed & want to share that obsession - and why pass up the opportunity to cultivate someone who might become a regular buyer? Of course not everyone will prove to be helpful, but some will.

Showing their stock to potential buyers is a standard part of the gallerist job, and they will not expect you to buy something just because they spent time on you.

I did exactly this when I first started being interested in art, and found some nice art dealers who were happy to spend 15-20 minutes showing me things. It helped me develop a sense of what I liked, and I ended up buying two small paintings for around $400 each (this is about 15 years ago).
posted by yesbut at 11:46 PM on April 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Where are you located?

Taking the time to build your own small art collection is SO worth it. We have real art all over our house, and each piece brings me immeasurable joy throughout the year. They all have stories and all have very special places in our home. I've build my collection through events, travel, friends, thrift stores, online and galleries.

Our city runs a few "First Friday" nights where restaurants, bars and clothing shops become galleries for local artists. Usually each place will feature 1-2 artists and there will be a map guiding you to all of the locations. You can often look up the artists ahead of time to see which aesthetics might be of interest.

Some folks also host an annual blind silent auction, comprised of both student, amateur and fairly well known folks. The key is that you have no idea who made the piece you're bidding on -- you do it by your own preferences! It's a cool event and is marketed on Facebook.

Get on the email list of every small gallery in the area, and like their page on Facebook. Try to search local Facebook events for arts exhibits and openings - it's a great way to see more art and get invited to other events.

Also search for "artist live work loft" or "artist studio buildings" in your area. They will often hold group shows to showcase the art of everyone in the building. That's an awesome way of finding local artists before they hit it big!

Search art blogs and contemporary books to find the kinds of painters or artists that you like. Go to their website and get on their email list and again, like their page on Facebook. If you're on Instagram, that is a GREAT place to follow artists even if they're not in your area or out of your price range. The artists often announce on Facebook, their listserv and Instagram that their work will be featured in XYZ show in CITY! If you like their art, chances are you'll like other pieces at the show too. Search and find art galleries that seem appealing to you too - they often host holiday pop-ups and other types of low key events, and you can start to refine the names and styles of the artists you appreciate.

The key to all of that is that they'll be announcing shows and events, and some of those shows will be small pop-ups or weekend shows in your area. It's worth the effort to hear about those kinds of events.

Whenever I travel, I make a point of trying to find a local art market. In Vancouver it's on South Granville, Main Street and Granville Island. In Mexico City it's on one of the plazas on the weekend. I've found some amazing paintings this way!

General student art shows are usually mediocre, but if there is an actual art school in your region, they'll usually hold a graduating art show, or an alumni art show. The RISD show is epic and I've scored some awesome art there, and the Emily Carr show in Vancouver has always been strong too.

Many of my pieces also come from artist friends, but I've been incredibly lucky, and I know that's not feasible for everyone.

Hope this helps!
posted by barnone at 12:18 AM on April 23, 2015 [25 favorites]

You may not want to buy art online, but most galleries do have an online presence and that can really help you keep up to speed with what they're showing - it's a lot easier to skim a few websites than it is to traipse around every local gallery. You may also find that if you have a favourite artist in a few months' time you'll be happier buying their stuff online because they'll be a known quantity by then, so don't discount that out of hand.

My husband buys original art - he usually pays somewhere between a couple of hundred and a couple of thousand dollars depending on the size of the piece and the popularity of the artist and whether or not it's pre-framed, so there is definitely stuff out there within your budget. I'll send him a link to this question and see if he explain how he identified artists (I think the short version was "look at loads of art on tumbler/Instagram").
posted by tinkletown at 4:34 AM on April 23, 2015

Universities with art schools often have a big sale of student work once or twice a year.
posted by jeather at 4:39 AM on April 23, 2015

Art fairs are an absolutely wonderful resource for original artwork at reasonable prices, plus they can be a fun experience. Find a few fairs in your area and go look around. Talk to the artists whose work you like. The artists are always present and happy to talk about their work. You'll learn a lot and develop a greater appreciation for art. I promise that the artists are not going to pressure you into buying their work. If you see a painting you like, take a little break then come back to look at it again. Try to imagine it in your home. Will it bring a smile to your face every time you look at it, or will you find it boring after a while? If you see an artist whose work you like but you aren't impelled to buy anything at the time, sign up for the mailing list. They will send you postcards (or emails) advertising the upcoming art fairs they will be attending, and that can be a great guide to fairs that are likely to have other artists whose work you will like.
posted by DrGail at 4:56 AM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

One strategy that has worked for me is seeking out handmade prints (woodcuts, linoleum block prints, collagraphs, etchings, etc.) Prints are less expensive than paintings because the same block can be used to make several copies, but you still get the satisfaction of something the artist made herself.
posted by yarntheory at 5:38 AM on April 23, 2015

I've bought a number of my recent pieces from Art Shows and Sales where a regional gallery or community will have an Art Prize (either acquisitive or not) and they gather entries from all over. Many are amateur but a number of entries are truly entrancing and not over-priced.
posted by Thella at 5:51 AM on April 23, 2015

Oh, and don't forget artist prints. I have one of these signed 1/100 artist lithographs and it's given me pleasure since I bought it in the 1980s. The original, by the way, is very large and virtually priceless.
posted by Thella at 5:59 AM on April 23, 2015

The art schools near me (in Boston, the sMFA and MassArt specifically) have annual art sales and I love them both. They feature student, alumni, and faculty art (and craft, particularly at MassART). If you have something similar near you I highly, highly recommend it!
posted by mskyle at 5:59 AM on April 23, 2015

Try -- it's online, but you could use it to find galleries near you and scope out their prices before visiting.
posted by hyperion at 6:03 AM on April 23, 2015

When traveling in tourist-friendly towns I have always had great luck at art cooperatives, where artists share responsibility for managing the shop and there are usually a couple dozen artists with work displayed in different mediums. Rarely are items in the thousands. Most are in hundreds and some much lower. Most if not all are original. The artist on duty is usually quite helpful in explaining things. I have acquired many special pieces this way, with the bonus of reminding me of great travels.
posted by rabidsegue at 6:11 AM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Look at independent art schools. The Arts Center I belong to has classes in painting, weaving, pottery, jewelry, etc. The school runs 2 art galleries. Sometimes there are student shows, sometimes faculty shows but more often the shows are juried with work by working artists. Look at community college galleries, too.
posted by sarajane at 6:17 AM on April 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have 3 originals + one from my aunt so far and I've also bought one for my niece. nthing barnone, original art brings a lot of joy & satisfaction to a home.

I've gotten a sense for general market price by going to a lot of art crawls and open art shows and local galleries.

I agree, in general student art tends towards "bad art good walls" but there are usually a 1-2 gems there. I've come to expect that kind of hit rate, so I just think of it as a fun evening out rather than "looking for art." Like dating. If I find something, great, if not, no biggie.

When you find artists you like, research them online to get a sense of where they are showing their stuff, what circles they run in and how well established they are. There is a Cuban artist I adore and I had the opportunity to visit her studio and buy some art last year. I found her because my friend had bought a cheapo print of hers back from Cuba in 2010 and her style just resonated with me. When I bought her piece I got a certificate of authenticity and a little written blurb about the artist. I can't remember the details but I believe the cert of authenticity included the city & date that the art was created, a comment that the artwork is an original and the signature of the artist.

The other suggestion: if there is a hip-but-kinda-low-rent area of town that hasn't quite gentrified yet, or funky coffee shops or whatever, that's where the artsy people/galleries tend to gather. Then keep your eyes peeled for posters advertising art crawls and showings.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:06 AM on April 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Consider vintage art. I have an etsy shop and sell quite a bit of original art from the mid century and older. It is often quite a bit cheaper than new (so you can buy more!), and old oil paintings have such a wonderful patina, as do older pastels and sketches. I have also sold many sculptures and photographs as well. Many are already framed. Many look modern and new, such as abstracts and pop art styles.

Might I suggest a search on Etsy using the Shop Local feature? You can find sellers near to you, selling both their original art, and vintage as well, and you can ask if they would mind if you meet to look at the piece. Some will be happy to accommodate you.
posted by the webmistress at 7:54 AM on April 23, 2015

For me what's worked for finding art is galleries in smaller towns, particularly Mowen Solinsky in Nevada City, CA and Art Works in Grass Valley, CA. I pop in about once every month or two and see what's new. Both places tend to decorative; one is more fancy and national artists, the other is strictly a local artist co-op. I don't like 90% of what's there but some 10% is interesting. Local coffeeshops work too.

The other thing that's worked is travel, particularly to SE Asia. There's a lot of beautiful handmade stuff in smaller economies that's quite affordable. Also a lot of tourist dreck, you need to learn to spot the difference and have confidence in knowing what you like.

My sister works professionally in the art world and gave me great advice years ago. If you see something you like and it's not too expensive, buy it. Don't second guess it, don't say you'll go back next week. Just buy it. "Not too expensive" is relative of course, but basically it's something that's a purchase rather than an investment.
posted by Nelson at 8:26 AM on April 23, 2015

My very first art purchases came from people I met during college. I highly suggest that you get on the mailing list of your local college/university art department. There are usually student shows each semester, and many times the pieces are for sale. Go, talk, meet, collect!
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 9:12 AM on April 23, 2015

I've had a lot of luck at student sales at very good art schools, particularly places that include MFAs in the sale. There will still be a lot of pretty amateur coursework to sift through, of course, but there are always a few artist that make me wish I could afford to buy everything they brought.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:25 PM on April 23, 2015

My cousin is an artist (painter, mainly still-lifes, very realistic). Now that he's successful enough to not sell to a gallery, much of his clientele is word of mouth from people who have purchased his paintings. He does also have his work online, as do others in the local art community, so I think it would be possible for you to google "your city" and something about the type of art you want, look at local galleries and then find artists you like, etc. You could also look at the alumni list of local art schools and start googling people who have graduated a few years ago -- the successful ones will have more experience. If you happen to live in the Philly region and want a place to start, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:51 PM on April 23, 2015

Find out when the local university is having exhibitions and go to them. Buy what you like for a good price -- students usually need the money.
posted by pracowity at 1:31 AM on April 24, 2015

I'd point you to mrs. mmascolino as she sells her original paintings for hundreds not thousands of dollars but you said you didn't want to buy online. :)

In any case, while there are big formal gallerias here, they tend to be in the range of thousands and tens of thousands of dollars. Where mrs. mmascolino shows her work tends to be neighborhood art collectives and other galleries that do regular, rotating shows of local artists. These tend to have prices that are an order of magnitude cheaper than the larger fancier galleries.

You should get yourself on mailing lists of these local spaces for when they premiere a new show and then go. You might even get to meet the artist of any new pieces you buy.
posted by mmascolino at 6:18 AM on April 24, 2015

Oh! Also, if your area has a First Friday type thing, that's when many galleries tend to open their doors so you can browse multiple galleries, artists, and price ranges. In our city (others I assume too?) there tends to be a huge art community out and about, so you could ask around and strike up conversations with knowledgeable-looking people. Additionally, people are always selling their work on the street. This tends to be simpler, often sketches more so than paintings, but you never know what you'll stumble upon.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:04 AM on April 24, 2015

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