If you’re a millennial, chances are that at some point in your life, you’ve proudly displayed a poster of a famous artwork, perhaps in a metal frame from IKEA or Bed Bath & Beyond. There’s no shame in that game (and yes, Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” probably was the worldliest decor in your entire dorm). But if that same possession has followed you from your 20s crash pad into your adult domicile, it might be time for an upgrade.
Building a personal art collection once may have been considered the exclusive purview of the wealthy and well-connected. But thanks to the proliferation of online art sales platforms, it’s more within your reach than you might think. And the process of buying art has not only become more democratic, it’s become more pleasant.
“Going into a brick and mortar gallery can be difficult,” says Rebecca Wilson, chief curator of the online gallery Saatchi Art, based in Los Angeles, where works range from $50 to $50,000. The environment can feel elitist, she adds, and “you risk being not met with a very friendly response . . . or they tell you it’s $10,000 and you feel like a complete fool because you can’t afford it.” Going online to peruse and purchase, on the other hand, is “a breath of fresh air,” Wilson says, because not only does it take self-consciousness out of the picture, it also makes it easier to find art you can afford.
But wait. Don’t pull out your laptop yet. Although Izabela Depczyk is the managing director of the online art auction platform Paddle8, she recommends that potential buyers begin their search in the real world, with a goal of understanding what they like — and want to live with, presumably for a long while.
“Art collecting is very personal, so I advise anyone starting a collection to see as much as they can and observe what moves them,” she says. That might mean visiting a major museum such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington or the Art Institute of Chicago. Or, it might mean browsing art fairs, exhibitions featuring fine arts students at a nearby school, or even checking out what’s on the walls at your local coffee shop’s gallery show. The goal is to discover pieces that inspire an emotional response and determine what you like about them, even if it takes time.
After you have a better sense of your own tastes, you’ll be ready to get serious about buying. There are plenty of online options at a variety of price points. Platforms such as Paddle8 and Artsy might, on any given day, feature works from well-known artists such as Keith Haring or Jenny Holzer. The former follows a traditional auction format where bids might climb into the tens of thousands; the latter has both auctions and works you can buy immediately, which, like on Saatchi, range in price from $50 to $50,000.
Uprise Art is specifically geared toward matching emerging talent with a “new generation of collectors,” as it says on the gallery’s homepage, and maintains a body of available work for less than $800. The accessible price range led me to purchase my first piece when I was in my mid-20s; not long after, I returned to the site and bought a second work. Similarly, Tappan Collective hosts a growing body of emerging artists’ work from all over the world, including a selection of pieces priced at $300 or less.
Unsure about making an investment? Saatchi Art offers a free art advisory service , regardless of your budget, as does the New York City-based Uprise Art — which also offers zero-interest payment plans.
The ability to spread out payments was one of the things that helped collector Justin Reis, 26, take the leap. Still, it took him awhile to get on board. “I loved the idea that I could buy art on a monthly payment plan, but I was a little doubtful that it would be strong art,” he says. Then he found a piece by artist Jenny Wink Hays that he couldn’t get out of his head.
In addition to online galleries, there are “in real life” options, such as the Affordable Art Fair, which features hundreds of pieces from dozens of galleries all over the globe. NYC fair director Vanessa Seis says the organization asks all exhibitors to be very upfront about prices, and the fair also highlights works less than $1,000 and $500. Other avenues to affordable art include looking at original works on Etsy or the “art and wall” section of the online decor site Chairish, cruising through Instagram to find works from artists without gallery representation, or signing up for mailing lists of artists who might do occasional limited-edition prints of their work.
Is all this imagery a lot to look through, especially for the untrained eye? Perhaps. But, Wilson says, “If you’re looking at a page of 10 works, there’s probably one that resonates or sticks out to you in some way.” Plus, the beauty of looking for art online is the ability to dive deeper into the biography of the person who made it.
“The idea of knowing more about the artists, and what their background is, is still a fairly novel thing in the traditional gallery world; the artist is usually kept behind closed doors as a sort of enigmatic genius,” Wilson says. “Whereas online, all that information is available, so people can make a connection. People want more layers to their discovery.”
Knowing where this work they’re about to buy came from appeals to millennials, who are known for valuing experiences over things, and the ability to trace a direct line from the items they are consuming to where those items came from.
Reis, the Uprise client, agrees. He loves that the piece he bought introduced him to a group of artists, collectors and gallerists. “That feels like what art should be: accessible, moving and community-oriented,” he says. It’s also been a gateway. Since purchasing that first piece, he has visited fairs where Uprise has shown, in both New York and Miami, and added to his collection.
“People want transparency, and they want value,” says Carter Cleveland, the chief executive and founder of Artsy. They also want to know: “ ‘Am I buying something that’s going to end up in a landfill?’ ”
Adam Green, 33, is a New York-based collector who purchased a work through Artsy several years ago. At the end of the day, he’s less concerned with how he’s buying a new work than the work itself.
“If a great piece of art is available, it doesn’t matter how it is available, whether it’s at a gallery, fair, auction, on Artsy or even on Instagram,” Green says. Several years ago, he was unable to attend a fair in Dallas that featured the work of an artist he was interested in, but Artsy enabled viewers to “visit” the event interactively online, which is how Green discovered a panel work by Diana Al-Hadid that now resides in his home.
In the time since, Green says it’s been exciting to watch Al-Hadid’s career blossom. He and his wife enjoy living with the artwork every day. Also, by owning one of her pieces, “We feel invested in her career,” he adds. Recently, Al-Hadid had an outdoor show in Madison Square Park, blocks from Green’s apartment. “We attended the opening and had a chance to finally meet Diana and talk to her about the show and the piece we own.” That ability to connect with the creator is another way that the art gives back.
Speaking of returns: Experts quoted in this story emphasize that the point of buying art isn’t betting that it will eventually be worth more than you paid for it. While some art does go up in value over time, Cleveland says, if you’re spending less than $10,000, it’s statistically unlikely, particularly for less-established artists. You have to buy it because you love it, and you have to love it even if it never appreciates a penny.
“You can’t ignore the financial aspect,” Cleveland adds. “But art really pays off a spiritual dividend.”
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