Art for the Cash Poor: Collecting on the Cheap

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The new tongue-in-cheek DIY book by Amy Sedaris (sister of David), Simple Things: Crafts for Poor People, inspired this blog--only we (naturally) crammed her ideas, which include assembling cutesy candles, ugly earrings and "crap caddies" from household materials into a decidedly more profitable vein, because really, who has time to make anything anymore? Why not buy some crafts--specifically art--that other people have slaved over, people that might, you know, know what they're doing, and maybe make some money off it someday? It's all in the name of a weak economy.

That being said, we wanted to explore the idea of buying affordable art. What does that even mean these days? Sure, we're aware that serious collectors pay tens of thousands of dollars for sculpture, paintings and the like. We're not interested in that level of investment. We set out to discover if there's an art market for the poor.

Mary Lou Swift, a local art consultant with close ties to New York, says it's possible to collect art on the cheap, but it's not easy. "The art world is incredibly complicated," says Swift. There are critics, museums, collectors, artists, and all of these factors are at work at one time." She says that buyers generally fall into two categories: those who buy what they like and don't give a damn, and those who're willing to be educated and commit time and money to the process.

Hmmm. Money.

Buy direct from the studio if you can, Swift suggests. Buying art from an artist who doesn't have a written distribution agreement with a gallery is one way to side-step steep pricing. However, these artists are often difficult to find because they're not being branded or marketed by a gallery. Knowing an artist personally or leveraging a friend-of-a-friend contact is likely your best bet.

What if you're poor and you have no friends?

"Artists and gallerists will kill me for saying this, but [go to] Second Saturdays," says Blakely Bering. An artist herself and soon-to-be gallerist at Spring Street Studios (opening April 2011), Bering suggests attending the open-house that occurs on the second Saturday of each month, like the name suggests, from 2-5 p.m., in an old furniture factory at 2101 Winter Street. Artists open their studios and showcase their work directly to the public. Budget-strapped collectors can garner direct access to up-and-coming artists before local or regional galleries scoop them up and raise their prices.

When browsing these studios, what should a poor art buyer keep in mind? "Look for 'lifetime artists' as opposed to those who are doing it as a hobby," says Bering. She explains that if the artist is full-time, it's obvious that he or she is looking to build a career. It's tough to afford, she admits, for the artists, but in terms of collecting you need to identify those who are dedicated and devoted to the craft. This gives buyers a better shot at the eventual appreciation of the artwork's value (though like any investment, it's never guaranteed).

Bering also suggests hitting international art shows. The Houston Fine Art Fair will premier this September http://blogs.houstonpress.com/artattack/2011/01/houston_fine_art_fair.php in Houston at the George R. Brown Convention Center, with 6,000 artworks from 500 artists. Access will cost as little as $17 per day, or $26 for a three-day pass. Also, the Dallas Art Fair, in its third year, is coming up in early April.

But Swift discourages the monetarily burdened from purchasing works at art fairs. "The only reason a novice art buyer should attend art fairs," she explains, is to "educate your eye, pocketbook and overall mind." You do this by surveying the works and talking to gallery representatives and dealers. "If you're intelligent, you'll see trends," she adds. For example, if multiple galleries are representing the same artist at various shows, that would speak to the artists' traction and potential for appreciation. Or, maybe a certain type of abstract painting seems especially en vogue. "There's always direction in art," she explains. It's a matter of spotting it. And it's difficult; not everyone can do it. That's why in most mature art-buying markets, like New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, buyers go through private dealers, says Swift.

She thinks rookie purchasers often buy because they think it would be fun to take home a package, but they don't know anything about the gallery from which they're buying, and they haven't done any research on the artist. She likens this to another art-buying mistake made by poor and rich alike: vacation buying. "Street-accessible galleries," she calls them, are often not serious galleries. Impulse shoppers often buy works that over time "are not attractive to the buyer," in terms of investment. Or, worse, "they buy it because it matches the sofa." Fine if you're trying to make the home tour circuit; not so much for an art investment.

So if fairs are a good place to acquire taste but not art, where else can poor people buy?

Estate sales. According to Swift, after a large collector dies, if they've acquired a significant amount of work from one dealer or gallery or artist, the heirs to the works will take often liquidate the residual inventory after choosing the picks of the litter under the advice of their estate attorneys. These sales can often yield between 25 to 50 percent discounts from the regular market value of the works. The downside is that consultants and galleries are usually the first ones tipped off on the large collections going on sale. The poor and inexperienced might have to sift through a lot of tarnished silver and dingy antiques before locking onto a steal.

So to summarize, buying art on a budget is doable; it's just a lot of work. Here are a few bullet points to take with you on your search (also free):

Poor Art Buyer's Initial Checklist:

- Buy art you love. - Educate yourself at local art fairs. - Buy art direct or from estate sales. - Buy art from full-time artists who are trendsetters. - Don't buy art on vacation. Oh, wait, you're poor. You probably don't vacation. You staycation.

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