Gabrielle Shain-Bryson was newly single again and completely broke, she says, when she bought her first oil painting. For years she had visited galleries and dreamed of owning original artwork, but hadn’t thought it possible. Then, in the window of a Charlotte gallery, she saw an image she adored. It was “Persephone, Head of a Greek Woman,” a classical portrait of a woman crowned with a garland. Price tag: $1,000.
“I was so obsessed with her,” Shain-Bryson says. “I happened to show her to the guy I was dating at the time, and he said, ‘Let’s buy her.’” She adds with laughter, “So I married him!” Almost fifteen years later, “Persephone” has never lost her place of honor over the Shain-Bryson mantle.
Shain-Bryson, who now owns Shain Gallery, estimates she has bought (and sometimes resold) more than a hundred paintings for her personal collection, but she remembers what it was like to make her first art purchase, and she believes anyone who loves art can become a collector, regardless of income and regardless of how much they start out knowing about this sometimes intimidating field.
The first step, art experts say, is to discover what you love. There’s only one way to do that: look, look, look. Go to museums, notice the art in other people’s homes, drop in at galleries, look at magazines. “The more you look, the more you will quickly learn what does and does not appeal to you,” says Katharine Hidell Thomas of Hidell Brooks Gallery, which welcomes browsers, even if they can’t buy.
“There are no right things to appreciate or love,” says Kellie Scott of RedSky Gallery. “There is only being yourself and making choices that reflect who you are. … Do you like old masters, landscapes, pictures with people? Or perhaps you prefer abstracts, bright colors, mixed media. Or is it glass, ceramics, or metals that catch your eye?”
In addition to many galleries featuring works of living artists, Charlotte has three museums that can expose you to a wide range of contemporary art – art that has been produced since the mid-1900s. It’s important to get to know what artists of this generation have been producing, because that is usually the most affordable for a novice collector.
The Mint Museum’s collection includes contemporary paintings, drawings, sculptures and photography, not only from internationally recognized artists, but also from artists in this region. The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art collection contains work from European, British and American artists, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts & Culture offers The Hewitt Collection of African American Art.
“I like the comments made by Thomas Hoving,” says Shain-Bryson, referring to the museum director who revitalized New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1970s. You don't have to "read the book" or "wear the headphones."
“Just look and look and look some more. The information you will gather is enormous. One picture really is worth a thousand words!”
If all that looking baffles you, Shain-Bryson suggests you ask yourself about a given piece: Does it grow on you? Does it intrigue you every time you are in its presence?
Once you’ve developed an eye for what you like, it’s probably time to think about your budget. And all three gallery owners interviewed for this story agree you can find art for well under $1,000 if you start small and collect from living artists.
Define how much money you can spend per year and keep to it, say Hidell and her gallery co-owner Rebecca Brooks. The price of a given work is usually dependent on where the artist is in his or her career. It reflects the breadth and duration of the artist’s career, whether the artist has received acclaim from museums, and how much demand there is for the artist’s work. That means you might find very affordable work at student shows at colleges, art leagues and guilds and art fairs.
Hidell bought her first painting while a senior at the University of Alabama in the early 1990s. She purchased it from a teaching assistant who was having a show. “I had to have it,” she says of the six-foot-tall abstract titled “Race Car.” “He put real flowers in the paint.” She borrowed $600 from her parents, paid them back with her summer job, and the painting still hangs in her breakfast room today.
Think about the work’s design, suggests Scott. Is it creative in concept and composed well? Does the craftsmanship meet an acceptable standard? Does the artist’s body of work create a cohesive statement? Again, the only way to know that is to look at a lot of work by that artist, or others who use a similar style or technique.
Take time to look up the artist online to judge the artwork’s value. “I found a Thomas McKnight original hanging in a lamp store,” says Scott. The store owner had the painting on consignment. “I checked online for a gallery that sold his work to find out what it should go for. I purchased the piece for one-fourth the price it should have been.”
However, if you’re just getting started, don’t buy art as an investment, or at least be clear about your expectations regarding future value, says Scott. The value might not increase within the time frame you expect. “When the economy is down, the price people pay for something is also down.”
Then again, you might get lucky. “I have friends who started their collection with unknown British ceramic artists for very little money. Those same artists now sell pieces in the five-digit figures and reside in major museums,” says Scott.
The most important thing is to buy what you love, says Shain-Bryson. And to be sure, take the piece out on approval. “Even if you are traveling out of the United States, a reputable gallery will have an approval policy. That neon Hibiscus painting you loved in Hawaii may not really be you when the Mai Tai's wear off.”
One thing NOT to worry about is whether the artwork fits your décor.
“Most of a time if a client likes a painting in the gallery, it always fits fabulously into their home, says Brooks. “Collectors, whether they realize it or not, are usually drawn to the same color palette in paintings as they gravitate toward in their own homes. “
Sure, it’s logical to ask yourself where you’re going to display a piece of art so you can enjoy it, says Shain-Bryson, “But if you are madly in love with it, it won’t matter. You’ll recover the sofa to match later.”
Or, like Scott, when you build your home, you’ll create a place of honor. Her first fine art purchase was a glass vase by Bernard Katz, which she acquired in the 1980s. “It was more money than I could imagine spending,” says Scott. ”It was $800. It has a peach/orange hand-blown vase with birches etched into it. I fell in love. I loved the poem by RobertFrost titled ‘Birches.’ When I built my home I had a lighted niche created for it. I love it as much today as I did then.”