Charlie and I began dating in the summer of 2000. A few months into our relationship we went to an art show, the annual School of the Museum of Fine Arts student and faculty sale, and bought a piece of art together. It was $300 and we split the cost. We'd fallen in love with this large painting on paper made by an alumna at the school and we couldn't leave without it, even though we weren't yet sure we'd fallen in love with each other. We hung the piece in his apartment and each of us fretted privately about who would get the painting if we broke up.
Our first jointly purchased piece of art. It's called "Tilting at Windmills" and it's by SMFA alumna Louise Weinberg.
13 years later that piece is still hanging in our house where we look at it every day along with the dozens of other pieces of original art we've bought together since then.
When new guests come into our house they look around and just keep looking. There’s a lot to see in here. We have our walls painted white and we’ve collected mid-century furniture with understated clean lines so that the paintings and sculptures that make up our art collection are the focal point.
I think for many people collecting original art can be scary. How do you know what to buy? And where to go? Is it worth the money, and how much money are we talking about anyway? I've put together some tips to help an aspiring collector get started. Bringing original art into your life will improve the daily environment of your home. And it just may spark your own creativity.
First, a note of reassurance. Yes, you absolutely can have a house full of original artwork and have young children. Our kids are 2, 7, and 9 and they’ve been surrounded by art, much of it hung low enough for them see and reach, since they were born. There's original art in each of their bedrooms. In our house we have rules about respecting art. We just look and don’t touch. And that goes for the art they make as well as the art we buy.
The kid's table in our family room, with two paintings right above. One is by my aunt, Judith Mensh Ryan, and other by William McCloy, bought at a huge fire sale of his work in Connecticut while visiting my in-laws.
Okay, so how do you get started? Here are ten tips for beginning an art collection:
1. There are no rules. Don’t get too academic about things. This is your house, your money, and your taste. You can hang anything you’d like anywhere you’d like. Free yourself from rules you’ve read about decorating or art history or whatever. Just jump in. A lot of the work of building a collection is developing your personal aesthetic. What are you drawn to? Charlie and I share a love of abstraction, modernism, simplicity, and pseudographica (text that looks like words, but isn’t). We don’t always agree, but it’s thrilling when we do.
2. Don't buy for value. Buy what you like. I’m not talking about buying a Picasso here. The kind of collecting I’m referring to isn’t about trying to find a treasure that will grow in value and become part of your estate, or working through an agent to find pieces by a particular well-known artist. I’m talking about buying beautiful original art that you like. You’re the one who’ll see it while you’re eating your oatmeal each morning.
This is our biggest piece. It's called "Yoder" and is by Joshua Goode. We bought it from him in his studio when he was in grad school at Boston University. We lived right down the street and he carried it to our apartment, up three flights of stairs!
3. Buy big stuff. I’ve found that people are afraid to commit to a large piece and instead buy lots of little tiny things. It’s hard to hang lots of little things well. A big canvas makes a statement and fills a space. Get over your fear and commit to something big and dramatic.
4. Consider a canvas. You’ll save on framing costs.
5. Find an affordable framer that knows what they're doing. Framing is an art form in and of itself and unless you’ve been trained to do it, you’re better off leaving it to a professional. A bad framer can ruin a piece you’ve spent good money on by using glue, poor quality glass, or a cheap matte that will fade over time. Develop a relationship with a good framer who understands your style and will be able to help you choose a frame and matte that shows off your piece. We use a framer in an industrial part of Waltham that is among the scroungiest retail setting you’ll find, but their quality is amazing and the prices can’t be beat. It’s worth every penny.
6. Hang it low. I’m 5’2”. Charlie is 5’10”. Here’s how we hang art in our house. He holds the piece up and says,
I say, “Move it lower.”
He says, “Now?”
I say, “Lower.”
This goes on a while until he reaches a breaking point and refuses to go any lower. Then it’s perfect. Art should be at eye level. Eye level is low. Buy good quality hangers and get out the level. Don't be afraid to group things together or stack pieces one above the other. We have to stack now because we’re running out of wall space.
7. Go directly to the artist. Where do you find and buy affordable art? From the artists themselves. Wherever you live, whether it a small rural town or a bustling cosmopolitan city, people around you are making art. Go see them. Here in metro Boston many towns have open studio weekends in which artists invite the public to visit their studios to view and purchase art. Check out the colleges near you. Most colleges have some kind of art program and many have student and faculty shows and sales periodically throughout the year. We’ve bought fantastic student artwork and some of those students have gone on to enjoy very successful careers as artists. And bring your kids. It’s fun to see how art is made!
This is our latest aquisition. It's a vintage piece from the late 1960s, clearly strongly influence by Louise Nevelson. We bought this at ModHaus in Dorchester while looking for some end tables. The artist is unknown.
8. Buy it when you see it. We were at a show a few years ago and both of us were really drawn to this incredible portrait done in pen on a gnarled piece of driftwood. We turned around for a moment to discuss whether we should get it and when we turned back it was gone. Someone bought it from under our noses! Another time we visited the studio of a man who made geometric assemblages that were so incredible we were totally enthralled. But they were a bit over our price range. We hemmed and hawed and left without one, but we still talk about them longingly. Lesson learned: go with your gut and don’t hesitate.
9. Keep all the documentation. Save the receipt, the artist’s business card, and the label from the back of the piece. Every now and then a particular artist does rise in prominence and your piece may become valuable. Other times you’ll change your mind and want to sell a particular piece. In both cases it helps to know how much you paid for the piece and when. We sold a big canvas on Craig’s List last year for $50 and we don’t miss it.
10. Don't try to match your decor. Art doesn’t need to match furniture, or a paint color, or the carpet and upholstery. Art needs to move you. Don’t go to the gallery looking for a particular mauve or yellow stripe. Go with an open mind. That being said, if you have certain dimensions you need to work within, that can be helpful.
Visiting artists’ studios together as a family connects us to the artist and the art in our home. Our kids have met many of the artists and seen where the work was made. Bringing it home is exciting for all of us. Once it gets here, we inevitably we have to take something else down and move it. That move leads to another and soon we’re shuffling everything. It’s good to move stuff around periodically. When you come down to breakfast the next day the house will look new.
Building an art collection takes time. It’s like a wonderful, endless treasure hunt. And it does take a bit of money, but not a lot. Charlie and I don’t buy each other holiday gifts. Instead we pool the money we would have spent on each other and buy a piece of art together. When we’re sitting together we glance at the wall there’s something interesting for our eyes to rest on. Through the ups and downs of everyday life as a family we're surrounded by things of beauty and that makes all of our lives richer.