For many of us, the idea of buying collection-worthy art conjures up images of a deep-pocketed set who can afford to spend on big-ticket, non-essential items. The reality is, however, that it doesn’t take a lot of money to start building — and keep growing — a trove of impressive artworks to call your own.
And, it’s an endeavor that’s worthwhile, says Sue Hostetler, the former editor-in-chief of Art Basel Magazine and a longtime collector. “Art is a fantastic investment because it adds aesthetic appeal to your home and is a reflection of you,” she says. “Also, in many cases, it reflects what is going on in your life and world at the time you got it.” As an example, Hostetler, who is a fan of social and political art, was inspired last summer by the Black Lives Matter movement and bought several works by emerging Black artists from the United States and Africa.
Given that we’re all in a permanent state of nesting right now, there’s no better time than the present to dive into the quest of building a collection of dream art — an activity that actually feels as essential as any other right now.
Our tips below from the best experts on the topic show you how to build your collection smartly — without breaking the bank.
Look at Art Relentlessly
All of our experts unanimously agree that before you even think about buying art, you need to look at art. “The more you see, the more you know, and your tastes evolve and become clearer,” says Stella Flame, who owns an eponymous art gallery in Sag Harbor, New York. How can you do this? Hit museums, art fairs and galleries whenever you can, and look at art catalogues from auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Online sites such as saatchiart.com and absolutarts.com are fantastic places to peruse contemporary art in a myriad of genres and price points.
For a two-in-one art hit, Hostetler recommends emailing or messaging artists directly who live in your area and asking them if you can visit them in their studios to view their works. “Don’t expect to do this with blockbuster names, but, in my experience, most up-and-coming artists are receptive to visitors,” she says. “They want to cultivate new fans and want people to understand their process better, which they’ll have a chance to explain only when you’re there.”
Focus on a Genre
Once you’ve spent some time understanding and looking at art, you can start buying. The big “but” here is that every piece you acquire should have a purpose. Miky Grendene, the owner of Casa Tua, a restaurant and private club in Miami, Aspen, and Paris that regularly hosts art exhibitions, advises newbie collectors to pick a genre of art that they’re drawn to and stick to buying pieces within it. It could be photography, street art, abstract pieces, contemporary works or any style that moves you.
“If you randomly start buying, you’re going to have works from all over the place that look like a hodge-podge together,” he says. “The world of art is a jungle, and you have to find your way through the jungle or you’ll get lost.”
A focused collection is also more meaningful in the long run.
Never Buy as an Investment
You’ve likely heard or read articles about collectors who’ve sold their artworks for multiples of what they paid for them, but you should never buy a piece with the intention of doing the same. Flame and Grendene both caution against art as a financial investment — it’s a risky proposition that may not get you a return on your money. “Yes, you’re investing, but the investment is for your own pleasure,” says Grendene. “You should buy a piece first and foremost because you love it, and it makes you happy. When I look at my art, I smile, and you should do the same when you look at yours.”
Figure Out Your Budget
Whether it’s a $100 or $1,000, our experts say that it’s helpful to have a budget in mind for what you want to spend on art. Of course, the idea is to keep growing your art over time, but having a ballpark figure for those initial pieces keeps your search more focused.
Catherine Gee, a designer in Santa Barbara, CA, and the former executive director of The Arts Fund, a nonprofit that supports the arts in her area, says that nearly every city or town in the country has an arts scene, whether it’s established, burgeoning or a small presence. Tap into this scene to find works by local artists. “Go to gallery openings and art walks, and see what appeals to you,” she says. “You may even get to meet the artists behind the pieces, which gives you a real connection to them.” Gee owns around 20 pieces of art, and half are by artists from her hometown. “I’ve met most of them and know the stories behind the works. I know I’ll treasure them that much more because of it,” she says.
Hit Up Street Vendors
Many successful artists have gotten their start by setting up street stands where they sell their works. Flame says that she has found some incredible pieces of art this way. “These vendors are everywhere from boardwalks to artsy neighborhoods to markets,” she says. There are also some established areas around the country where talented artists sell their creations such as Prince Street, in New York, and Venice Boardwalk, in Venice, California. And, be aware that most big cities hold regular art markets, particularly in non-pandemic times, which can be goldmines for finding keepsakes pieces of art at affordable prices.
Buy on Your Travels (When You're Doing That Again)
You may not be traveling far these days, but even a weekend trip to the country or beach can be a boon for finding fantastic art, says Mary Ta, the founder of the contemporary furniture store Minotti Los Angeles who built an art collection in her 20s on a shoestring budget. “When you buy on a trip, it’s like taking a photograph of that experience. It conjures up memories of who you were with and what you were doing,” she says.
Ta, for example, regularly goes on road trips from her home in L.A. and hits up homegrown stores in or around her destination that sell pieces by local artists. En route on a recent trip to Ojai, she stopped in the tiny and quaint downtown of Summerland at an antique furniture store, Field and Fort, and found a chicken sculpture with bronze feet. “It reminds of the bucolic countryside where I was and the amazing experiences I had there,” says Ta.
Pre-pandemic, when she regularly traveled internationally, she made it a point to buy a piece in each place she visited, from Dubai to Buenos Aires.
Join Your Local Museum’s Acquisitions Committee
Most museums that actively collect new pieces have an acquisitions committee who weighs in on the art that the curators want to buy. Joining this committee is a highly beneficial way to learn more about art and view pieces before they’re on display for the general public to see. Some museums charge a fee to join their acquisitions committee, says Hostetler, but you can write off the cost as a tax deduction. “You get to see new collections, and you get invited to special events such as studio visits where you can find art for yourself,” she says. “And, you have access to curators who are a wealth of knowledge for anything art.”
Try Social Media
Instagram is becoming an ever-important platform for artists to sell their pieces and should be a go-to for you to find works for your collection. Hostetler recommends following artists whose works you admire and also following museums and galleries — you can best do this, of course, if you listen to our first tip to voraciously view art in any form possible. “Instagram gives you access to a breadth of works for sale at all price points, and you often get to see the newest works to hit the market,” says Hostetler.
Create Your Own Art
You don’t need the skills of a Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst to tap into your inner creativity and fashion an artwork yourself by treating objects you own as works of art in their own right. Ta does this regularly: She bought a map of Amsterdam, for example, which is one of her favorite cities, mounted it on matte and framed it. “It hangs in my hallway and looks big and important,” she says.
She also framed a kimono she bought in Japan and likes to create collages with pressed flowers and magazine ads. For fashion lovers, Ta likes the glamorous ads in Italian Vogue while she suggests National Geographic for its stunning landscape and travel photography.
Taking an arts class, either online or in person, is another way to create your own art. “I’m taking an online painting class right now which is inexpensive and so therapeutic,” says Ta. “I get to express my frustration and emotions through art.”