The commercials played on television regularly throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. A typical script began with, “Announcing the Starving Artists’ Group emergency art liquidation sale.” The nondescript and strangely calm voice – it was an emergency, after all, wasn’t it? – told viewers they could purchase “original oil paintings by professional artists,” and many of those were available for under $50. It was a lie, but it turned our attention to art.
Slowly but surely, the commercials slowed in frequency, and America fell in love with Deck the Walls. For a brief, magical moment, Monet’s water lilies were everywhere, or the bridge at Giverny with the water lilies. Impressionism roared back into suburban homes and urban apartments, all printed on paper and framed for a small fee at the local mall. The original remained safely at The Met, but we were able to bring some beauty into our lives, even if it was in poster form.
We regained our sanity eventually, and like sleepers waking from a dream in which we were chased by Farrah in the red swimsuit or by KISS with Gene Simmons’s tongue lolling or by a Giger-esque monster, we rediscovered art, real art. We are surrounded by it now; it’s in our coffee shops, schools, restaurants and houses of worship.
Consider the creator: It started with a house and a sun and a stick family on a fridge, and eventually she’s smoking and sneaking beer and drawing with real talent, but she doesn’t know where or how to sell, and we who want to support her (maybe the encouragement will help her quit smoking or infuse her wardrobe with warm or cool colors), we need to know how to find her work and give her money for it.
It is in that spirit that we offer the following guide to acquiring art, real art, without going broke or getting conned. We talked to people who know the art world, including artists, and we asked where to go, what to look for, what to avoid and how best to help support our friends, family members and neighbors who make the world shinier with their art.
The Foundational Rule
Buy what you love. Nearly everyone we talked to said some variation of this rule, and it’s so simple it ought to be axiomatic, but art is one of those things we wander into without much knowledge, and so we tend to think about what we “ought” to buy as opposed to what we want to buy.
Matt McNeil owns McNeil Liquidations, a company that specializes in estate sales and appraisals, including appraisals of artwork. He estimates that roughly half of his estates feature fine art of varying quality, and his advice to the new collector is pragmatic – a tone that suits a man who deals with the sober task of selling the accumulated treasures and detritus of someone’s dead relative.
“Buy what makes you happy,” McNeil says. “Investing in pleasure is far more sensible than investing in art for profit. That sort of investing takes a lot of specialized knowledge, combined with more disposable income than most of us have. If you like it, buy it.”
Louisa McCune is editor-in-chief and founder of ArtDesk, a magazine published by the Kirkpatrick Foundation, where she is also executive director. Her advice is similar to McNeil’s.
“Buy what you love, regardless of price or collectability,” she says. “Buy what speaks to you. Art should connect to the soul, and questions of resale value or asset value are questions for high-level investors, not aesthetes.”
Their advice assumes a few cautions are observed.
Emerging artists often don’t have the resources they need to work with high-quality materials, including especially frames and canvas. It’s not unusual to find work on printer paper, untreated wood and cardboard. Krystle Brewer, executive director of the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition, says, “When working with emerging artists, it’s important to make sure the work is secure, and that includes the frame. Is it good quality, well made, sturdy, et cetera? Works on paper are easier and cheaper to acquire, typically, but are they on acid-free paper? Ask questions about the materials.”
Beware of galleries that don’t have information on hand about the artist and the work. Laura Howell Tirrell, gallery director at Howell Gallery, 6432 N Western in Nichols Hills, says, “We can provide collectors with information about the artist – their bio, artist statement, articles from publications they have been featured in. We can also provide information for insurance purposes.”
Legitimate galleries are able to provide more than just art for sale, so Howell Tirrell advised to only work with people with whom you feel comfortable. “Do not be intimidated by a gallery,” she says. “It’s important to feel comfortable when purchasing artwork. Never be afraid to ask questions.”
The Howell Gallery also provides information about hanging, lighting – which is critically important to gaining the most enjoyment from art – cleaning and restoring. In other words, credible galleries care about customers’ concerns and questions.
► Where to Find Art
We asked about the best places to find affordable art, and the responses were very consistent. The following list is only a small cross-section of what is available in central Oklahoma, both events and galleries.
Momentum In terms of finding emerging artists, no event is better than OVAC’s showcase of artists under 30 years old. Held annually in the spring, Momentum is, in Brewer’s words, “a great showcase of art being made in the state by emerging artists.” Connecting with a young artist at Momentum also provides you an opportunity to watch them grow and mature in their work, even as you grow as a collector. March; ovac-ok.org
ARTini The annual art, cocktail and food showcase from Catalyst, the young professionals of Allied Arts, combines an art auction with a cocktail party. A wide range of works is on display for sale, and the mix of artists is a combination of established and emerging, meaning the prices run a very broad spectrum. April; alliedartsokc.com
12×12 This is OVAC’s only annual fundraiser, and its growth has been extraordinary. Brewer said there are now 175 Oklahoma artists involved, all creating pieces that fit within a 12” by 12” space, or 12” cubed in the case of sculpture. The buy-it-now price is $275, but the event is mainly a silent auction. The size of the pieces keeps the prices affordable, even as some more established artists will receive higher bids. September; ovac-ok.org
Red Dot The annual fundraiser for Individual Artists of Oklahoma occurs in the fall. The event features the work of approximately 75 Oklahoma artists in a silent auction format, and some of the pieces are very affordable. November; individualartists.org
Those are big annual events in Oklahoma City featuring local artists, but there are dozens of others, including May Fair in Norman, the Downtown Edmond Arts Festival and OKC’s Festival of the Arts, every year. Each organization’s website lists events, and the Allied Arts web site links to all organizations it helps fund.
We asked local artist and DNA Galleries founder Amanda Bradway for some advice on galleries and retail locations.
“Tree & Leaf and DNA Galleries (1705 and 1709 NW 16th) have a variety of original works from $50 and up, as well as artist prints. DNA Galleries makes it a point to keep affordable works on the walls, and hosts quarterly group art shows for emerging artists. Retail stores like Blue 7 (7518 N May) keep a selection of local artists’ works on their walls, too. JRB Gallery (2810 N Walker) is also a great option for those wanting a larger piece without the money up front, as they offer no down payment layaway. I have purchased a few amazing pieces from their collection.”
Restaurants and coffee shops around the area also feature local artists. Not only does it help promote the arts, it’s a great way to rotate décor in the businesses. La Baguette Bistro, 7408 N May, and The Metro Wine Bar & Bistro, 6418 N Western, have been longtime supporters of local art. LaVeryl Lower, owner of The Metro, even hosts a joint annual event with OVAC called Refreshing the Palate, a silent auction in which wine is the inspiration. Elemental Coffee, 815 N Hudson in Midtown, also features local artists on a rotating basis, and most of the works are for sale.
Estate sales, as McNeil mentioned earlier, also can be great places to pick up art. McNeil runs a highly respected business, so he does due diligence to find the name of the artist, biographical information and any other important details that are available. As an estate liquidator, appraisals are central to his business, and he does a sort of triage on the art in his sales. He categorizes this way:
Unknown artists – The works have “intrinsic merit,” but no information is available. The pieces can occasionally be beautifully done, though.
“Crap art” – His category, not ours, but accurate. “Starving artist” pieces, which are mainly mass produced and poor quality. “I don’t consider it art,” McNeil says.
Local artists –Established, local artists with a solid reputation, of whom there are many in Oklahoma.
Lesser listed artists – These artists are well established outside of the state and may have some national recognition. The art is gallery quality.
Listed artists – These are household names in the art world, and are artists of solid reputation. Oklahoma has many, including many Native artists such as Enoch Kelly Haney and Charles Banks Wilson.
McNeil lists his estate sales, as well as those of his “trusted colleagues,” at EdmondEstateSales.com. He said to ask lots of questions about the art at any estate sale. Good companies will have answers.
Art Walks are also great places to interact with artists and build a collection. Artists in The Paseo’s monthly First Friday event typically have incentives and sales. Norman has their Second Friday Art Walk in downtown, and the events are open to the public. Also on the second Friday of each month is Live on the Plaza, the Plaza District’s art walk that also features live music, food and events.
What Is Art?
In a philosophy class, the open-minded student quickly says something he thinks is wise but is in fact trite: “It’s anything you create that expresses something.” By that vague definition, a Campbell’s soup can label is art – not the Warhol label, the one on the actual can at the grocery store. If you want to call a Crest Foods store an art gallery, that is certainly your right, but if grocery labels are art, then everything is art.
Still, new technology is forcing us to reappraise what falls within the definition of art, most notably, Instagram. McCune is a big supporter of Instagram, because it gives us a place to figure out what we like, our own personal aesthetic preferences.
“New collectors don’t always know who they are or what they prefer at first,” McCune explains. “It can take two to three years of exploration to be able to say, ‘I like x.’ That’s why it’s good to be exposed to different media: photos, miniatures, large scale, acrylic, sculpture, et cetera.”
And Instagram is inspiring new artists, as well as showcasing established artists. “Platforms like Instagram have awakened the creative spirits of a whole generation,” McCune continues. “Many generations, in fact. It used to be that creative expression in photography was principally the province of someone with a nice camera and a darkroom. I had a darkroom as a teenager, and so did my siblings, thanks to my father’s and grandfather’s interest in photography, but most people didn’t have that small luxury. Now, because of decent smartphones and an Instagram account, artists are everywhere.”
Some of the best artists in the world are available on Instagram, as are the artists in your neighborhood. That makes the photo- sharing platform an incredibly useful place to sift through images of what could potentially appeal to your own personal aesthetic.
Integrating Art into Home Décor
When we saw Lea and Mike Morgan’s art collection, it was obvious the couple was committed to local art, and they also have a knack for picking pieces that “work” in their home. Their SOSA home contains approximately 75 pieces of local art from about 50 artists in many different media, and what is most surprising about the collection – other than its beauty and coherence – is how it does not feel overwhelming or obtrusive.
Lea Morgan said they don’t think of art as décor, but rather as something they enjoy having in their space, or in their lives. There is definitely some wisdom in that, since collecting art as décor can lead to a tired sameness if collectors attempt to match everything to a home’s or room’s color palette. Yet, while the Morgans do not consider it décor, walking through the home doesn’t feel like a museum or gallery either, and each room is brighter and more interesting because of the art.
“We just started with one piece,” Morgan says, “and over time it just grew with no real plan. Buying art can be addictive.”
The couple started volunteering for art organization events nearly 20 years ago. Morgan grew up with parents who collected, so she has been around art her entire life. (She’s a past president of the Oklahoma City Ballet, as well.) The events gave them a chance to meet the artists and get to know them. They also went to shows and events, of which she lists The Paseo’s First Friday and Live on the Plaza as important in their art lives. Her advice for new collectors is very familiar: “Buy what you like.”
How to Afford Art
Amanda Bradway already mentioned the layaway plan at JRB Gallery, but that’s not the only way to buy if your budget is limited. Knowing the artists makes it possible to negotiate a payment plan, even if it’s half up front and half on delivery. Many artists are eager to work with collectors who will commission work, so attending events and art walks where you can interact is critical for new collectors. Bradway also offered some very practical advice, including about décor.
“When I first started collecting, I would set aside $50 a month to put toward an art purchase. Every weekend, I would go to artist openings and keep my eye on artists who showed future potential by exhibiting their work consistently. I also enjoyed investing in emerging artists who had not exhibited before, even by purchasing a small print. Keep your mind open when you are looking for art as an investment; the artists who have the most promising future won’t always make art that matches your decor.”
►The Non-Commercial Gallery
[Artspace] at Untitled opened in 1997 with the mission of educating central Oklahoma about art and exposing the community to a wide range of arts: music, painting, fabrics, sculpture, etc.
“We’re not a commercial gallery,” says owner Laura Warriner. “That makes connecting with our intended audience a little more difficult than it is for a commercial gallery.”
Commercial galleries are trying to sell you art. Non-commercial galleries are trying to help you understand and experience art, which is not to say the commercial galleries can’t have the same effect. What the non-commercial gallery does is provide an eclectic set of activities that appeals to newcomers and art aficionados alike – but not to sell art.
“We are all about educating people on how to look at, understand, think more about and experience the arts,” Warriner explains.
For the new collector, that means exposure to different genres both for the purpose of determining a personal aesthetic and to help with misunderstandings. Warriner cited prints as an example.
“There is some confusion about the difference between prints and reproductions,” she says. “We have several print houses in to feature the work of different printmakers. That’s an art genre, not just a reproduction of a different kind of art.”
Exposure to terminology and techniques can be very helpful in assisting newbies to understand and appreciate what makes for good art, and help them avoid poor decision making when it comes to collecting.
“To further your education in the arts, you have to find people who want to guide, lead and introduce you to new art forms and new artists,” Warriner says.
That has been the mission of [Artspace] at Untitled for 20 years. All of its events, exhibitions and workshops are listed on its website, whose URL matches its street address: 1ne3.org.