How to buy contemporary art

A guide to picking out the perfect artwork and the pitfalls to avoid

Features

20 Oct 2016

Buying contemporary art can be a tricky business. Whether you are after a piece of abstract art or an oil painting of a landscape, working out whether an artwork is worth the money or an artist is worth investing in can be a terrifying challenge for the novice buyer. Here’s our five point guide to making an informed purchase…

Buy with your eyes, not with your ears

This is an old art world mantra, but somehow one that is frequently ignored. The art world is full of people who will tell you all about the latest great artist or how important or unique a piece of work is. There are artists who gain significant fashionable followings and have slick sales machines supporting them. They become ‘hot’ and you know that because everybody tells you. There are indeed many facts about an artist and their work that are informative but in every case the most important thing when considering a work of art is just to look. Consider what it evokes, how it compares to other works and whether the work means something to you.

Learn as much as you can about the artist

Although it’s essential to ignore the hype and focus on the artwork, finding out as much as you can about an artist is also important: where they are from, how they came to be an artist, which other artists they admire or reference in their work. Once you have bought a few works by an artist it would also probably be sensible to meet them. Understanding the conceptual framework of what they make or the aesthetic source of the work will inform your response to it.

Don’t try and make an investment

Tales of profiteering in the art market have grown, the market is indeed expanding and lager and larger sums are being wagered on contemporary and historical works alike. Buying an artwork will statistically not be a license to print money. Buy a work of art because you love it and buy work by an artist you feel passionately about. You’ll be making a huge difference to their career and increasing the chances they will be able to carry on making work indefinitely.

Go and look at lots of things

The more you look at art the more sophisticated your understanding becomes. Go frequently to art galleries and museums wherever you find yourself and challenge yourself to look at things that you don’t immediately understand or that don’t immediately speak to you. An appreciation of visual arts is a residual cumulation, only once you have been looking and looking will the references and abstract connections between things start to occur to you. The more regularly you look at art the more fluent you become in responding to it, and the more fluent you are the better informed your purchase will be.

Support local non-profit galleries and museums

Sometimes the best way to have art in your life is not to have it in your home but to support organisations that are commissioning and collecting works by artists for public collections. By becoming a patron of your local non-profit contemporary art gallery or museum or even larger national museums such as Tate and National Gallery you will be invited to regular exclusive events where you will get to meet artists and curators. You can also contribute directly to the acquisition of great works of art for our national and regional collections by supporting organisations including Art Fund and Contemporary Art Society.


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