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Art on a Budget

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

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008; Page N01

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.

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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.


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