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Art on a Budget
The Secret to Starting a Great Art Collection? It's Not a Fat Bank Account.

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008

The most vibrant room of the house I inhabit is the ground-floor bathroom, which isn't a bathroom so much as an eight-square-foot closet with a leaky toilet and a teeny sink.

That's the one room with original art. Hung on the wall is an 18-by-40-inch oil on canvas of a woman rendered in crimson swaths of goop and clothed in shimmering gold paint. The canvas is stretched across a wood frame and signed by the artist, Quest Skinner, who lives in LeDroit Park. I bought it from Skinner in 2006 at Eastern Market for $160, discounted from $400 after she saw I loved the piece but couldn't afford its starting price.

The fact that I, a writer of modest means, bought this beauty for a reasonable price does not alone demolish the notion that collecting art is the province of the wealthy. But the opinions of local artists, collectors, gallery owners and curators seem to do just that.

First, let's remember why we're buying art. The queen bee of the D.C. art world, Margery Goldberg, is here to remind us: Buy art because you love it and want to live with it forever. If you do, it's hard to have regrets about parting with the money.

"Buying a piece of art is like a good relationship," says Goldberg, owner and director of Zenith Gallery in Penn Quarter. "You shouldn't buy it if the most you like it is the first time you see it. It should grow over time. Every day you should like it a bit more."

Unlike with most relationships, though, you need dollars when you say "I do."

It's easy to recoil at a painting with a $25,000 price tag at a commercial gallery and retreat to buying cheap, mass-produced art from Target. But you might find meaningful pieces at reasonable prices by exploring Washington's original-art market, where more affordable work is available through emerging talents and lesser-known mid-career artists. The first step to becoming an art collector is, after all, totally free: Loiter at exhibitions in both commercial galleries and nonprofit alternative spaces, establish your tastes and familiarize yourself with what the area offers in terms of styles and prices.

"Educate, educate, educate yourself," says Norman Parish, director of Parish Gallery in Georgetown. "Get familiar with all the art galleries. The most important part is get to know who the artists are in the community, and you only do that by going to art events."

Galleries suitable for beginning art collectors on a budget are, according to local scenesters, the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, the Arlington Arts Center, the District of Columbia Arts Center in Adams Morgan, the Randall Scott Gallery on 14th Street NW and Transformer Gallery on P Street NW (specifically its Flat File collection, which includes two-dimensional works 16 by 20 inches and smaller).

It's also good to pick a day to tour neighborhood galleries that open jointly. Spaces in Dupont Circle, Bethesda and Georgetown hold opening receptions on the first, second and third Fridays of the month, respectively. In a single day, you can hit 10 to 15 galleries in one area and get a feel for what's selling and for how much. Sign guest books, get on e-mail lists and talk to people.

"Galleries should not be intimidating," says Parish. "Just visit and get accustomed to coming to receptions, meeting the artists and getting into the society of people interested in art."

But what's the least you should expect to pay for good original art in Washington? Is it always possible to find a great piece like mine for $160 or less? Depends on whom you ask.

"You don't get anything decent under $360," says Marc Zuver, exhibit director at Fondo del Sol in Dupont Circle. "More likely an artist is going to start at $800. You've got to spend money, and you've got to have a good eye. If you put $3,000 a year into buying first-rate art, you'll never lose money, and you'll have fun owning it. Twenty years later, it'll beat everything except gold as an investment."

Sounds like a rosy situation if you've got money to burn, but many of us can't justify laying down $1,000 at once (or $3,000 a year) for what is really a luxury item. Before you rule out buying a great work of art you're in love with, however, consider the options. There is generally a 10 percent leeway in price, and most reputable dealers will give regular customers a 10 to 20 percent discount right off the bat, says Chevy Chase artist and critic F. Lennox Campello, who has been involved in the art industry at almost every level, from dealer to gallerist to blogger ( http://dcartnews.blogspot.com). And most galleries offer payment plans without interest.

When you're investing in art, though, take care to make the proper inquiries. "The most important question to ask is, 'Is this original work?' " says Campello. "Technology now can visually fool people into thinking that a reproduction is an original. When you see the word 'print,' be careful. If you have copies of a watercolor made on watercolor paper, that's not a print. That's a reproduction."

With proper inquiries comes proper budgeting. Aspiring collectors should set aside a certain amount to spend on art. Some say allotting $500 per year can yield a respectable collection in five to 10 years. In 1990, Adams Morgan resident Philip Barlow started earmarking $100 to $200 a month for buying original art. Eighteen years and 262 pieces later, Barlow, a 48-year-old actuary, is a well-known area collector who buys almost exclusively from local artists. Why does he do it?

"I want to help promote the local art community, because I think it makes Washington a better place," says Barlow. "And it's kind of nice that I get the benefit of getting interesting artwork that I can look at whenever I want to."

Last year, Molly Brose of Adams Morgan painted three to five small watercolors a week and sold them for $95 apiece on her blog, A Day's Work ( http://www.mollybrose.com). She made hundreds of paintings, and buyers e-mailed her from across the country. If you have a small living space and a small budget, the Internet's the place to look. Artists who want to avoid the anxiety and overhead of galleries are selling through personal Web sites or through communal sites such as the Daily Painters Gallery ( http://www.dailypainters.com).

"It's been so natural for artmakers and art buyers to find each other like this," says Brose, 27. "This is a way for art to be affordable and accessible. It's not intimidating to get on a blog."

Brose puts her own spin on the "painting a day" concept hatched by Richmond resident Duane Keiser, who was in the news a few years back for posting photos of original works daily on his blog ( http://duanekeiser.blogspot.com) and auctioning them on eBay, a business model followed by hundreds of artist-bloggers today.

There are, after all, more people getting MFAs today than anytime in the past century, and not enough physical galleries to house them, says Lisa Hunter. She is the author of "The Intrepid Art Collector" (Three Rivers Press, 2006), a guide to finding, buying and appreciating art on a budget. So the Internet becomes a universal gallery for the talented but otherwise unconnected, as well as a way to bring together artists and buyers.

Hunter suggests the Web site 20x200 ( http://www.20x200.com) as a resource for fine photography at cheap prices. Started last year by New York gallerist Jen Bekman, 20x200 issues 200 smaller reprints of new work and sells them for $20 each.

"I thought $1,000 was the entry point for serious photography, and now with 20x200, it's smaller size and cost," Hunter says. "Not every piece works small, but if you choose carefully, it's a terrific opportunity."

When it comes down to it, you should go for the best art you can afford, says art consultant Allison Marvin, founder of the D.C.-based business Sightline ( http://www.sightline.biz). She tells her clients to consider quality and how much they like a piece rather than quantity for the sake of filling up their walls. And for those wanting to amass a collection but lacking the space to exhibit one, there's an easy solution.

"Think about your art collection as a rotating, living collection," Marvin says. "Just because you decide to put something on the wall one day doesn't mean it's static and has to stay there forever. Maybe you have just one wall, but you can change it up every few months. You can enjoy more art than your space can allow."

Indeed, even a tiny bathroom with a teeny sink can be transformed into a personally curated exhibit. All it takes is the money that would be used to fix the leaky toilet.

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