By: Kristine Hansen
There are many reasons you may be looking at affordable art for the first time. Perhaps you are a new collector and want to dip into the art world slowly, savoring the time to figure out what artists and styles get your heart beating. If tightening up your art-collecting budget is a new goal, your process for acquiring art may have suddenly shifted, too. Now you may be looking for emerging, young and undiscovered artists—not the blue-chip names you once sought.
Whether shopping out of investment or for pure passion, here are some tips on how to—with great success—research, find, sell or buy affordable art.
Where to Find Affordable Art
Student shows (such as thesis exhibitions) at world-class art schools—from Pratt Institute in New York City to Rhode Island School of Art & Design in Providence, Rhode Island—are gold if you are working with a limited budget. These shows often take place in the spring, near graduation, but it’s not uncommon to find them throughout the year. If you’ve just missed a show, consider clicking through a roster of the student-artists who appeared—you may find art for sale through their proprietary websites.
“What’s so appealing about early-career artists is their relative creative freedom,” says Ali Hillman, art curator at h Club Los Angeles, a members’ club in Hollywood, California. The club connects artists to members through studio visits, written content, talks and events hosted at the club. Entry price for the program’s artworks are $160, often smaller in size. “Smaller works tend to be less expensive but don’t necessarily bring less joy and they often stay with you for life because you can always find a wall in future homes to fit them,” says Hillman.
Once artists are more established, she says, they are often bound to their collecting base or to the expectations of galleries that represent them. “By engaging in a young artist’s career, you are also having an effect on the sector, by giving support to a creative voice.”
“[Recent graduates] are still at the affordable price point,” says former Christie’s auctioneer and specialist Tom Best, founder of The Auction Collective. His company specializes in featuring a mix of lesser-known, emerging artists and established ones, too. “We’ve got buyers from all over the world,” says Best. A bonus for those who don’t wish to spend a lot is that all purchases through the site do not add on sales tax and royalties like galleries do.
Art Money is rising in popularity with collectors who have a limited budget and 1,100 galleries worldwide accept it. “With Art Money, you can put down 10% on partner gallery artwork and pay the balance over 10 months, all interest free,” says Lisa Cooper, owner of Elisa Contemporary Art, with galleries in New York City; Riverdale, N.Y.; and Fairfield, Connecticut. “Best of all, you get the artwork immediately.”
Cooper also views art fairs as a good starting point, including her personal favorite: the Affordable Art Fair. This art fair — typically held in-person, but is now held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic — is where all the artwork is priced under $10,000—and half of that under $5,000. “I always believe that art should make you ‘feel’ something,” Cooper says.
Also based in New York, Alex Mitow—who has a personal collection of 200 pieces of art, most purchased for less than $5,000—curates three Superfine! Fairs (one with female artists, another with LGBTQ+ and gay art, and the third focused on Surrealism) that recently made the decision to switch online in 2020. Featuring more than 100 artists, “each were chosen based on the merit and individuality of their work, and we provide coaching for them to help them isolate the right price points, sizes, and scales of work to show,” says Mitow. “You can be assured that the artists you’re seeing all qualify in terms of the content of their work and their professionalism.”
Cooper also says that Instagram is one of the best ways to discover galleries’ rising stars. “Be sure to get on a gallery’s mailing list to stay connected and updated on new artists and artwork and follow them on Instagram. Often a great way to see the work of emerging artists is to go to ‘Open Studio’ weekends or attend an opening reception at an Art Center, especially one with a juried show.”
Indeed, Instagram is a great place to discover new artists, says Kellie Sirna, co-founder of Studio 11 Design, an interior design firm with boutique-hotel and chain-hotel clients all around the world, “because they may not have the means to exhibit elsewhere.” This could include indigenous artists or those in rural areas without local galleries.
If you are buying from a dealer, don’t assume all works are expensive. A dealer may have a diverse portfolio of artists that spans various price points. “Look for dealers who have long-term relationships with artists,” advises Pauline Findlay, owner and founder of New York-based gallery Artioli Findlay. “Also, look for galleries which are transparent about their pricing. A dealer who is flexible about their return policy and actually has a return policy is important.”
Prints and Photographs
Generally speaking, size and medium often dictate the price point of a work of art. For example, a large-scale fiberglass sculpture will no doubt cost more than an 8 inch x 10 inch etching. (Of course, given the artist or the work’s provenance, there will be definite exceptions.) There’s a common belief that photographs and prints are a more affordable entry point than, say, oil paintings.
“Prints and photographs are definitely great entry-level purchases,” says Mitow. “Oftentimes you can get beautiful, limited, signed prints by both emerging and well-established artists at a very reasonable cost. If you can manage to get yourself into a studio visit with an artist (usually not that difficult: artists love having people interested in their work!), ask to see their studies and drawings. You can find some really amazing work this way, and sometimes you might even connect with a drawing more than you do a finished painting.”
Best warns against getting too trapped in the idea that affordable means cheap. “If you just keep your eye out, you can find incredible high-quality paintings and sculptures, not in just one medium,” he says. Best points to two artists on The Auction Collective whose works cost under between £140 and £300 (between $173-$370 in USD): Alexandre Marciano, a Parisian painter; and Jason Tessler, a British painter. And Best notes that a print that costs only £50 ($62 in USD) will quickly escalate in price. “You have to buy a frame on top of it,” he says.
“The reigning thing you should consider is quality,” says Best. “It doesn’t matter what the price is. You could buy a painting for £100 pounds ($123 in USD) but if the canvas is in terrible condition… Don’t sacrifice quality when you sacrifice the budget.”
Realizing you may not be skilled in art restoration, peruse the works just as you would clothing in a thrift store. Are there stains, rips or other manmade imperfections? You may not be able to chat with an art restorer before purchasing, so consider these extra costs, whatever they may end up being.
Buying for Investment or Passion?
There’s an age-old debate in the art world about whether one should buy a work of art with intentions to make a profit—or to hang or display in one’s home. That same argument moves in circles in the wine-collecting community. You are the driver of this horse and only you get to decide the course of your buying.
“I’ve been selling art for over fifteen years, and there are two types of art buyers: those who buy with their eyes, and those who buy with their ears,” says Robert Berry, an art advisor and consultant who has worked with several New York galleries. “Those who buy with their ears just buy the artists their friends are buying, and read all about big auction numbers that have little impact on the value of emerging to mid-career artists. These speculators typically see art as another investment, and do not care what they are buying. They also typically just want a deal on whatever work they are inquiring on, and do not care about the value of what they are buying.
The second type of collector is one who actually looks at art, and falls in love with the objects they purchase. These are the individuals who live and breathe art—like myself—and who believe that art can make a positive change on society.”
“I don’t actually believe in art as an investment,” says Best. “My advice is always to buy what you love, and collect with your eyes and your ears, not your bank account. Don’t buy something and put it into storage because then you can’t enjoy it. Buy the artwork you can’t stop thinking about, that gives you that ‘teenage crush’ when you walk into the room.” And who knows? You may never want to sell it.
Mitow agrees: what you view as amazing art could be a popular view over time. “If you collect work you really enjoy and connect with by lesser-known artists, but you develop a taste and sense about it, the chances go up greatly that you’ll pick an artist who’s eventually much more recognized and whose value increases in kind,” she says.
Wherever you end up buying art that you love, try to look for avenues that provide the artist’s story as well as details about the piece’s creation. While this information may not cause the assessment to spike, your intrigue will. Just like with collecting wine, a certain vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon that you enjoyed at the winery’s Napa Valley estate as sun bathed your face and you chatted up the winemaker is far more precious than the fact that you scored it for a good price in an online auction.
Memories—such as meeting the artist or that the artist has a connection to your family—can be a unique form of currency when deciding whether to make a purchase, and may very well trump all other factors. They will no doubt unspool into stories to share at cocktail parties or when visitors arrive at your home, particularly if the work is on display. “Always buy what you love,” says Hillman. “You have to live with it and authenticity is at the heart of collecting.”