Home Is Where the Art Is: How to Buy

Intimidated by gallery owners?

Have the cash but not the confidence?

From where to go to what to look for, our simple 10-step plan will get you started on curating an inspired private collection.

No offense, but chances are your sofa isn’t an exclusive Knoll. More likely, it came chugging off an assembly line along with a thousand others just like it, the fabric pristine, the springs full of scientifically tested bounce. The same probably holds true for your rugs, your china, and your drapes. Nothing against these objects or your decision to purchase them—it’s just that they don’t make a powerful statement about who you really are. They will not spark conversation or instill a sense of wonder in the guests at your next cocktail party. A work of art, on the other hand, does all these things, converting even a would-be cookie-cutter home into something refreshingly idiosyncratic, something that expresses you in a way most sofas, rugs, china, and drapes simply never can.

As collector Andrew Maydoney sees it, art isn’t merely decorative—it has transformative power. “When I look at certain art objects, I am absolutely moved to another place,” says Maydoney, who recently left his job as vice president of the communications consulting firm Sametz Blackstone Associates to begin graduate studies in photography—a move inspired in part by years of art collecting. “I think this is true of most collectors, whether or not they have an art background.” There are hundreds of works in Maydoney’s Jamaica Plain home that bring a quiet radiance to his face: ceramics, paintings, crafts, charming native art bought in Brazil, and a broad array of photographs by the likes of local luminaries David Hilliard and Abelardo Morell.

Although Maydoney started collecting art “in the crib,” he says, most people begin much later in life. Many others, although curious about art, are intimidated by the seemingly pretentious world of galleries and avoid collecting altogether. This is a shame. Sure, you’ll find the occasional art snob in Boston—just as you’ll find wine snobs and indie rock snobs—but you’re more likely to meet people like the enthusiastic young staff at the Judi Rotenberg Gallery on Newbury Street or the disarming, straight-shooting Camilo Alvarez at Samson Projects in the South End.

Once you get your feet wet, collecting art can quickly become a deeply satisfying—and addictive—pursuit. Here are 10 simple guidelines to help you get started.

1. Hit the Streets
“Boston is a great place to start collecting art,” says Barbara Krakow, whose prestigious Newbury Street gallery opened in 1983. “Not like New York City. It’s too intimidating. People don’t talk to you.” She adds, “If you go into a place and people don’t treat you well, walk out the door. There will be plenty of galleries more than happy to show you what they have.” Krakow, whose roster of artists includes Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, and Jenny Holzer, says the first step to collecting is getting comfortable with art. You do this, of course, by looking at it. Lots of it. It may sound obvious, but the simple act of looking is nearly always where dealers, artists, and collectors tell novices to start.

Boston’s art landscape is lively and percolating, offering ample opportunity to get out there and look. Beyond venerable institutions like the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art, there are slews of academic institutions that put on brilliant shows; standouts include MIT’s List Visual Arts Center and the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis. Art schools like Mass-Art and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts churn out a steady stream of fresh talent. There are so many artists in the area, open studios occur practically every other weekend from fall though the spring. And although some Boston-area galleries have closed recently (including Gallery Katz and the BF Annex), several others, such as Rhys Gallery and Malden’s ArtSpace@16, have helped fill the void.

2. Read Up
Start by picking up a copy of Gallery Guide, which is free and available in most galleries. It features listings for many—although not all—galleries and has handy maps of the various art districts, including the two big ones: Newbury Street and the relatively new, vibrant SoWa neighborhood. Other publications that will help steer you in the right direction are Art New England, found at most bookstores, and the superb local online magazine Big Red & Shiny (bigredandshiny
.com). In addition, many individual galleries occasionally publish detailed catalogs of their current and past exhibitions. “Boston is a very intellectual town,” says Diana Rabinovich of DTR Modern Galleries on Newbury Street, which specializes in Dalí, Magritte, and other big-name 20th-century masters. “People want to know a lot, so we put together packets for them, which include an artist bio, information on a suite [a group of pieces, making up a work], and images of works.”

3. Cultivate Your Eye
Once you’ve got your bearings, spend a day traipsing in and out of every gallery on Newbury Street. Do the same thing in SoWa. Buy absolutely nothing. Instead, enjoy spending time refining your taste. “Reserve your purchasing power until you’re ready—until you really know what you love,” advises Maydoney. By visiting galleries regularly, you may start to notice, for example, that Newbury Street’s Kidder Smith shows vivacious, large-scale works; the Kingston Gallery and Allston Skirt Gallery, both in SoWa, champion emerging artists; Gallery Naga on Newbury Street showcases some great furniture makers; and the Judi Rotenberg Gallery—which has reinvented itself as one of Newbury Street’s most exciting venues—often features provocative video art. Photography enthusiasts may gravitate to SoWa’s Gallery Kayafas, which shows the work of many younger, adventurous photographers, or to the perennially strong Bernard Toale Gallery, also in SoWa.

“When it comes to art, people fear making decisions,” says Paul Lam of SoWa’s Locco Ritoro Gallery. “If a couple is decorating a new house, they’ll buy carpeting, appliances…they’ll spend $2,000 on a toilet seat cover because it’s an investment for the house. But they won’t spend $2,000 on art. The key to overcoming this fear is to look at art—go to museums and galleries. Develop your own aesthetic. It should be fun.”

4. There Are No Stupid Questions
Most dealers live and breathe art, and love discussing their roster of artists and shows as well as the art world in general. So as you spend time cultivating your taste, take advantage of these invaluable—and free—resources. “The only way you get good at looking is by looking a lot and asking questions,” Arlette Kayafas, of Gallery Kayafas, explains. “It’s about building a relationship with galleries and artists. You eventually find someone who has an aesthetic similar to yours.” Seasoned collectors like Jeanne and Donald Stanton, who helped found the artists’ support group Friends of Boston Art in 1980 and own an impressive trove of contemporary art in their Back Bay home, admit they had a lot to learn in the beginning. “I did go through the typical intimidation of ‘Oh my God, am I going to ask a stupid question?’ Most people do,” says Donald, a senior vice president at the investment firm UBS and board member of the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln. “I got over that pretty quickly. I believe the only dumb question is the question not asked.”

5. Know When to Go
Opening receptions for gallery shows offer a fun opportunity to dive into a giddy swirl of artists, collectors, and aesthetes, all jostling to view the work and get another glass of Bordeaux. But if you want really to study the art, these events—especially the increasingly raucous SoWa First Fridays—may prove frustrating. They’re often packed, and gallery owners may be more concerned with restocking the Brie wheel than discussing an artist’s painterly brushstrokes. For these reasons, collectors don’t bring their checkbooks to opening receptions.

If you visit galleries at other, less hectic times, you’ll have a better opportunity to speak with the owners and staff, who, contrary to popular belief, encourage beginners to drop by. “We have lots of novices who come in,” says Krakow. “We sit down and talk to them. It’s my job to let people know why we’re committed to this type of work.”

Open studios and benefit auctions offer plenty of opportunities to snag art cheaply. At open studios you can buy work for as little as $25 (say, for a small print), as well as speak to the artists directly, surrounded by the tools of their trade. “Not enough people talk about the art that they’re looking at,” says Lauren Hewitt, a School of the Museum of Fine Arts student who participated for the first time in Dorchester’s Open Studios last October. “At school, they really encourage dialogue. That’s why I’m doing open studios.” She smiles, then adds, “Besides, artists love talking about themselves.” Noted local sculptor Joe Wheelwright, who has work at the DeCordova and also participated in the Dorchester Open Studios, agrees. “Art is a solitary vocation. It’s great to have people come in and talk—and it sometimes leads to commissions.”

A word of caution: Although there is some top-notch art at open studios—especially the Fort Point event this month—don’t expect wall-to-wall Picassos. What you’ll find instead is a range, from beaded jewelry and gewgaws to high-quality painting and sculpture. It’s also worth noting that some artists may open their studios but not sell their work, and many artists represented by galleries do not participate at all. Although open studios are enormously fun and full of bargains, they cannot do what galleries do: namely, curate. A gallery presents a group of artists carefully selected from thousands; in other words, it attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff. So by all means, visit open studios, but don’t overlook galleries in your quest for a deal.

6. Get Cozy with Gallery Owners
Most galleries have a broad array of art beyond what’s on view. At the Miller Block Gallery on Newbury Street, for example, ask to see the works on its clever sliding walls. Down in SoWa at Bernard Toale, peruse selections from the “Boston Drawing Project,” a deftly curated collection of works on paper by more than 150 local artists (each month the work of one project artist is exhibited in the gallery, while the rest is stored in flat files). In any gallery, if you like an artist’s work—whether or not it’s on view—a dealer may be able to dig up additional selections from storage or provide digital prints of other items for sale.

In fact, once you establish a relationship with a dealer, he or she often will go to great lengths to help you find art by doing research, locating the right seller or broker, and—if you’re lucky—getting a discount. At this level of collecting, dealers can become almost like personal shoppers. “If you want something from an artist working in London or Berlin, don’t be afraid to ask,” says collector Barbara Quiroga, a local PR and marketing consultant. “These days a lot of local dealers can get it for you.”

Samson Projects’ Camilo Alvarez conducts most sales “through the back room,” as opposed to shows. “If I hear about a private collector who wants to sell 15 pieces,” he says, “I start to think about who might want them. I have to know people’s taste. It’s a two-way street.”

7. Work the System
Of course, not everyone has the money to track down the work of, say, the next Damien Hirst. But, as Kayafas points out, “there are ways to buy art even if you don’t have lots of money. If somebody really wants something, there’s a way to get it—because sometimes there are things that you can’t live without. Collecting can become an addiction, and there’s no 12-step program to overcome it.”

Most galleries, for instance, will allow people to pay in installments. “I have done layaway plans for years,” says Krakow. “I’ve bought many things that way. Years ago I had an Agnes Martin show. When it was over, I thought, ‘Wow, it would be wonderful to own this certain painting.’ There was no way I could come up with the money, so I arranged a payment plan with the PaceWildenstein gallery in New York. Now it’s worth—well, I better not say.”

There are many factors—ranging from medium of art to market demand and hype—that determine the price tag on a work of art. Whether it’s a drawing, a photograph, or a sculpture, you’re paying an artist for his or her time and materials. Photographs and prints, which are often produced 25 to 100 at a time, are cheaper than paintings, which are obviously one-of-a-kind. A large bronze sculpture, for example, will be accordingly expensive.

An artist’s résumé also affects the price. If a museum has given its stamp of approval by showing the artist’s work or, even more impressive, by buying a piece, expect loftier price tags. Solo shows, especially at museums or New York City galleries, further increase cachet. For example, take Laylah Ali, who has a home in Williamstown. Back in April 1998, Ali had a solo show at the Miller Block Gallery—which has a strong track record for showcasing successful artists early in their careers—where her edgy figurative works in gouache sold for between $500 and $750. She followed that with a solo show at Mass MoCA in 2000, then participated in the 2004 Whitney Biennial of American Art in New York and had two solo shows at Manhattan’s 303 Gallery. Comparable work by Ali now goes for between $15,000 and $25,000.

As in all markets, supply and demand play a role. If a particular artist is hot but creates only four paintings a year, the price shoots up. In the same vein, the work of living artists is more affordable than that of deceased artists. “If somebody says they want a Basquiat drawing,” Alvarez explains, “I tell them, ‘Do you realize you’re looking [to spend] $65,000, and a Basquiat painting goes for $170,000? The guy’s dead. He’s not going to produce any more.’”

8. Don’t Consider Art an “Investment”
Although some are happy to talk about buying art for investment purposes, most dealers vehemently advise against it, and many consider the notion crass. As Paul Lam says, “In the ’80s, people were flipping art all the time. But these days ‘investment’ can be a dirty word in the art world.”

This is not to say that what you buy won’t appreciate; many times, it will. Yet even veteran collectors like Jeanne and Donald Stanton urge caution. “It’s a poor way to invest,” says Donald. “If you were going to do it, you’d have to have a real aptitude for it, maybe become a dealer.”

While considering your budget is certainly a necessity, collecting is ultimately about self-expression and surrounding yourself with objects you love. Many people choose work based on aesthetic appeal alone, reflecting Matisse’s famous yet melancholic statement that he wanted his art to have the effect of a good armchair on a tired businessman. However, art that has beauty and intellectual depth—whether through a powerful social message or a provocative way of conflating two- and three-dimensional space—will likely provide longer-lasting satisfaction.

9. Make It Work with What You’ve Got
Some private collectors curate a personal collection around a certain theme, like female artists or black-and-white photography. For instance, the Stantons own work by conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth and multimedia artist Kara Walker, known for her racially charged, iconic silhouetted figures. But they collect primarily local artists, like the multifaceted Michael Mazur and photographer Lalla A. Essaydi. “We feel like we’re supporting the artists and the community,” Jeanne says.

It’s clear that art collecting is no idle pastime for the Stantons. “Collecting is a never-ending quest to learn more about art,” Donald explains. “The beauty is that there’s a world of art and you can never conquer it.” Some people even select the colors of their furniture, walls, and carpets to complement their collection, not the other way around. Many, though, do consider their décor when buying art. For example, those who live in a small Wellesley colonial probably won’t shop for 8-by-10-foot canvases, whereas loft dwellers in Lowell might. Once you’ve established a relationship with a gallery, you may be allowed to take a work home to ensure it fits in. At DTR Modern Galleries, the staff will bring pieces to a client’s home to see how they work with the other art, furniture, and color scheme. (Most dealers say they hope clients consider a work because of its artistic merit rather than thinking about its placement in their home. As Alvarez says, “I’ve had interior decorators come in here and say, ‘I’m looking for something to go on a maroon wall,’ and I’ll say, ‘Honey, are you kidding me?’”)

10. Feel Good About Your Purchase
Collecting can quickly become a pricey habit, especially once you tack on the cost of framing and proper lighting. Yet there’s no need to feel guilty. The benefits are manifold and profound. By shopping locally, collectors help fuel the art scene—and prevent art school grads from scurrying off to New York. “You literally could make an impact on the Boston art scene if you spent $10,000,” says James Hull, director of Jamaica Plain’s Green Street Gallery and one of Boston’s most respected curators. “You’d be considered a collector. You could help shape what a gallery shows and what sort of work an artist pursues. If you bought five pieces by one artist in a year, they’re gonna quit waiting tables.”

What’s more, a piece of art is not just another object to consume and hoard. It’s both an expression of the artist’s perspective and a representation of your own. “Collecting is about considering the world in a different way,” says Andrew Maydoney. To illustrate his point, he recalls a three-wheeled electric vehicle he used to drive around Jamaica Plain. “It made a distinct sound. You’d see someone lift their head with curiosity, thinking, ‘What the hell is that?’ Then a smile would cross their face. I think with art, it works the same way. Great objects really move you to another place.”