Buying into the art world; You don't have to be rich or art-savvy to start collecting

by Maria Montoya
The Times-Picayune
Lagniappe Section
July 9, 2004

Greg Burnett is ready to buy real art. At 33, he's tired of the cheap Dali and Matisse prints offered on the LSU campus each semester. This fall, he hopes to finish graduate school, get married and begin furnishing his first home.

What better place to start art shopping than in New Orleans? That's what Burnett was thinking when he decided to attend this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Friends told him that the festival offered great opportunities to buy work by artists from around the country.

"This right here is beautiful," said Burnett as he pointed out a wooden sculpture of a woman's body by a visiting New Mexico artist. It cost $500. "That just seems like so much. I could buy my books for an entire semester with that amount of money."

Uncomfortable with idea of bargaining, Burnett walked away with a much smaller piece that cost less than $100. It wasn't the piece he wanted, but he didn't want to insult the young woman's work by trying to hustle a deal.

That is a mistake many novice art buyers make, say local artists, gallery owners and art world denizens. An art collector should never walk away unsatisfied.

"There is some kind of method to buying and collecting art, and most people don't have any idea how it works," said Bob Shaffer, a Chartres Street folk artist known around town as "Dr. Bob." "People generally know what they like and what they can afford. They just don't know how to get what they like at the price they can afford. That's the tricky part."

Art fairs and festivals

Novice collectors, like Burnett, can learn how to play the "art game" and become collectors with just a little experience. New Orleans, experts note, offers a wealth of ways to experience art.

Lew Thomas, former curator for the Contemporary Arts Center and the present director of the Stan Rice Gallery, advises novice collectors not to buy on a whim or because of the latest trend.

Anyone getting ready to make a purchase should look around a little before heading straight for his wallet, Thomas said. Talk to gallery owners, to the friends of an artist and visit the artists' studios. It's all about becoming a sponge and soaking up as much knowledge as possible, Thomas said.

"This is the perfect city to learn and buy art, you just have to get out there," Thomas said. Simple things like visiting museums, getting on mailing lists of galleries and even just chatting with artists are the best ways to become a smarter art buyer.

"Whatever you do, you can't let fear stop you," he said. "A person has to expose themselves and get out there and develop their own tastes and judgments about art -- otherwise they'll never know what they like or don't like."

The first step for a budding art collector is to explore the local art scene. Art aficionados suggest visiting museums and attending gallery openings. As simple as it sounds, newcomers to the art arena may feel intimidated by the idea of visiting a gallery or approaching an artist. One way around that is to start by visiting festivals and art markets.

"Some galleries and artists will go out of their way to be intimidating or snobbish, but there are many, many more artists within the community who find that sort of treatment to be ridiculous," said Blake Vonder Haar, the conservator-in-charge of the New Orleans Conservation Guild and president of the monthly Bywater Art Market, a venue created as a friendly and affordable site for the public to peruse and buy local art.

The Bywater Art Market began with 11 artists and has grown to include more than 100. The event is held the third Saturday of every month at Markey Park at the corner of Royal and Piety streets. The clientele ranges from the wealthy chic, who are there to scoop up trunkloads of folk art, scenic postcards and ceramic sculptures, to twentysomethings just soaking in the ambiance and musing over which works they like and dislike.

It's just the scene Haar and her colleagues were hoping to create when they started the market in May of 2002. There are other neighborhood art markets around the city. Most recently, the Mid- City Neighborhood Organizations started an event called the Mid- City Art Market, at corner of South Carrollton Avenue and Canal Street. It is held the fourth Saturday of every month.

The idea behind the markets is that locals who have an appreciation for art but can't afford a gallery's markup have a place to go, Haar said. At festivals, artists don't have to deal with steep overhead costs or commissions, which keeps prices lower.

Another advantage to such events can be the diversity in the artists that a collector might encounter. The diversity of the work is what attracts Robert Tannen, a local conceptual artist, and his wife, Jeanne Nathan. They are bringing art to the people with "ArtStream," a touring AirStream motor home, decked out with a computer, television and slide projector, that they hope to bring to White Linen Night in August and Art For Art's Sake festivities in October.

"Galleries aren't like Wal-Mart where just anyone feels OK about walking in and taking a look around," Tannen said. "There's definitely a place for them (galleries), but the fact is there has to be something more interactive and comfortable out there to offer the public."

Guidance from galleries

Sculptor Adam Farrington doesn't believe attending a gallery opening has to be an uncomfortable experience. His work is now showing at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, where shows are generally welcoming to art lovers, no matter their level of experience, he said.
Some galleries can be intimidating, but, Farrington said, neophytes might take comfort in the fact that artists themselves are often nervous about gallery events.

"One half of art is the creative process and the other half is the business side," he said. "Truthfully, most artists aren't the best at the latter end and that's where galleries come in."

Farrington echoed other artists' sentiments when he said he feels comfortable when people approach him to talk about his art. He said that it's often through casual encounters that he meets collectors.

Conversations struck at gallery openings or art festivals can help new collectors develop relationships with gallery owners and artists.

Once a relationship is established, some galleries and individual artists will allow a trustworthy collector to take a piece home and pay for it on time. Another way galleries encourage buyers with less cash to start collecting is to offer them pieces from their "back room," an area of a gallery where they might have smaller pieces or drawings available at lower prices.

Galleries can also provide a measure of validity for an artist, Farrington said.

"Someone who is plopping down a lot of money for a piece wants to feel confident in what they're buying," he said. "For the most part galleries tend to create an air of stability and credibility, which an artist may not necessarily be able to duplicate in the back of their dumpy little studio.

"If I am just giving my work away at my studio or handing it out on the street, what does that say about the value of it? You should buy only what you are visually drawn to, yes, but most collectors want to take home something that they know the artist felt was worth something."

Despite his increasing popularity, however, Farrington said he has tried to maintain a broad price range so that his work is available to novice as well as experienced collectors.

The value of art

Farrington's efforts to keep his work affordable leads to another tricky issue for tenderfoot art collectors -- the dos and don'ts on negotiating the price of a piece of art. It is a beast of an issue that most artists and gallery owners prefer to dance around. Others, however, feel comfortable broaching the issues of art and money.

Jessica Goldfinch, a New Orleans artist who is known for her large installation pieces, gets angry when she talks about naive collectors being told that more expensive means better. She's also thrown off by the idea of buying art purely as a long-term financial investment. At the same time, she doesn't believe that artists should just give their work away.

"A lot of people don't realize how much work goes into a piece, they'll just see the price and the work, not the process what went into making it," said Goldfinch, who realizes that not everyone can afford to drop $1,000 or more on one of her larger pieces. "But if you really like a piece, you should appreciate the work that went into creating it. Too many times, people don't want to pay for a larger piece if they're not sure they'll get a return on their investment.

"I don't make art for the sole purpose of making money, I do it because I love it," Goldfinch said. "That's the basis on which art purchases should be made. Buy out of love for a piece."

Art aficionado Patricia Chandler agrees.

Entering the world of collecting art for investment purposes is a whole other arena that should be approached only by a collector who has the experience and the skills to know what is and isn't a sound investment, said Chandler, who is the curator of the Walda and Sydney Besthoff Collection.

"There will always be artists whose works will appreciate more than others," Chandler said.

For beginning collectors or those who simply want to collect for aesthetic reasons, Chandler said that the drawings and sketches that established artists make of their works in progress may be the way to go. She's found that many times such drawings can be quite affordable and at times even more "lively" than the finished product.

When buying from a gallery, it ultimately comes down to the relationship that a buyer develops with a gallery owner or the artists themselves, she said.

She notes that frequently galleries have wiggle room on their posted prices, but, she said, there are generally several parties involved so that any profits must be divided, driving the cost up. Some galleries may be willing to take a cut of as much as 25 to 30 percent if they know the buyers are looking at purchasing more than one piece. When it comes to single sale purchases buyers might expect some galleries to give them at most 10 percent off an item that is priced higher than $2,000 to 3,000.

"What I would tell anyone buying art is to buy, not with the future in mind, but according to what a work makes you feel," Chandler said. "A piece that makes you feel something every time you see it . . . it doesn't matter if it appreciates because it becomes priceless to you."

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Staff writer Maria Montoya can be reached at or at (504) 826-3446.

Tips for novice collectors

For less than the $400 you might spend on a weekend trip to Pensacola, Fla., you can start collecting original art. Who wouldn't rather have an original oil painting in place of that faded Degas print?

But, step inside a local gallery -- feel a bit uneasy? It is common for the uninitiated to become overwhelmed.

Here are tips that can help budding art collectors gain comfort and knowledge:

Be a sponge. "There are so many activities available for someone who is interested in engaging the local arts scene," said David Rubin of the Contemporary Arts Center. "At the CAC, we offer panels and discussions and the colleges and universities are often hosting events too. The galleries and artists are also holding all kinds of events throughout the year. I find that I am constantly learning about new events taking place in this city."

Buy out of love, not to match your sofa. "I don't make art for the sole purpose of making money, I do it because I love it," said Jessica Goldfinch, a New Orleans artist. "That's the basis on which art purchases should be made. Buy out of love for a piece. Don't buy something because it may match your sofa or because someone says that you may make money off the piece one day."

Remember a higher price doesn't mean fine art. "Don't be naive in thinking that because something is selling for $4,000 or $5,000, it means it's better art," said Bob Tannen, a New Orleans conceptual artist, who with his wife Jeanne Nathan runs Creative Industry, a local company trying to promote Louisiana artists. "Good art doesn't have to be overpriced."

Beware of the poster trap. "Sure, Jazzfest posters can be nice, but subsequently many locals are afraid to purchase anything else," said Blake Vonder Haar, president of the Bywater Art Market and Conservator-In-Charge of the New Orleans Conservation Guild. "The most important thing you can do as a new collector is not be afraid to buy original art."

Check out unusual sources. "Before venturing to the galleries, a person should look around home to see if there's anything that could make great art," said Steve Maklansky, assistant director at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Photographs are an easy way to start any collection, whether framing personal photos or those bought from an artist. "Another suggestion: Contact the area colleges and universities. Every year they mint new MFAs. These are people who are trained artists and who tend to be both young and serious about their artistic commitment." Another source: Artists often donate their work to help nonprofit organizations and schools raise money through fairs, festivals and events.

Take advantage of city's specialties. "Different parts of the country have various specialties and right now there are 40 or more people working in glass around New Orleans," said Mitchell Gaudet, owner of Studio Inferno. "Right now, sculptural glass seems to be big and many of the pieces are quite affordable and beautiful."

Avoid peer pressure. "A lot of people like to go by the opinions of others, is the artist hot or not, will their work be worth more later," said Coygon Robinson Jr., an artist from Biloxi, Miss., who often participates in New Orleans arts festivals. "My feeling is you can never go wrong by trusting your first instinct. If a piece speaks to you, then buy it. If someone has to tell you it's good art, then chances are you won't love it 10 years down the road."

Have no fear. "Don't be scared off by feeling intimidated because chances are that's exactly what the artist and even gallery owner might be feeling," said Adam Farrington, a New Orleans artist. "Anyone should try to feel comfortable approaching an artist because generally we are there to help create an environment where our work can be discussed and enjoyed. It's our responsibility to be welcoming of anyone's interest in our work."

Age is just a number. "It's talent that counts not an artists age or years of experience," said Joshua Walker, co-owner of the Neighborhood Gallery in Central City, which specializes in helping emerging artists create a name for themselves. "Everyone has to get their start somewhere, build up their name and following. It's fascinating to see their work develop because they are offering us a whole new way of looking at things. Their work shouldn't be missed by anyone in the city, it's just too wonderful."

Avenues for art

The Crescent City is rich with galleries that are open throughout the year. Here is just a smattering of other regular hot spots where you can find art and art education, along with a glance at a few annual visual arts events that collectors shouldn't miss. Check the gallery and museum listings in Lagniappe each week (on Page ?? this week) to learn about changing exhibits and special events in the city.

Ongoing events

Art at Jackson Square. For decades artists have shown their wares in the French Quarter meeting ground of Jackson Square. Despite recent controversies, many artists claim there's still great local art and artists to be found around the Square. Cooler temperatures and the tourist season tend to draw out a larger number of artists.

Bywater Art Market. Markey Park at Piety and Royal streets. Local artists display and sell paintings, pottery, photography, jewelry, sculpture and furniture on the third Saturday of every month from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free admission. Call 944-7900.

Gallery talks at HNOC. The public is invited to a series of free talks each Wednesday afternoon. The talks highlight themes in the exhibition, from "Louis XIV" to "Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Tapestry." Talks begin at 12:30 p.m. at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 533 Royal St. Please note that talks on "The Birth of Jazz" take place at the Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres St. Call 598-7171.

Mid-City Art Market. Corner of S. Carrollton Avenue and Canal Street. A new venue for local artists opens to coincide with the new Canal streetcar line, with paintings, jewelry, pottery, furniture, wood, textiles and accessories for show and sale, on the fourth Saturday of every month from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Free admission. Call 482- 1794.

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art's Brown Bag Art Series continues through August with artist-led workshops that include: Creating assemblage sculpture with Jeffrey Cook on July 15 and creating architectural constructions with Gina Phillips on July 23. Workshops take place from noon to 1 p.m. at the Ogden Annex, 1000 St. Charles Ave. (at Lee Circle). Admission is $10. To reserve a place, call 539- 9623.

Mark your calendar

White Linen Night. Galleries along the 300 to 700 blocks of Julia Street and at the Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St. This year, the free event will be held on Aug. 7. Art gallery hopping is from 6 to 9 p.m., with live outdoor music, food and cash bars. The gallery hopping is followed by a post-party from 9 p.m. to midnight at the CAC, with Latin dance instruction, cash bars and restaurant stations. A $5 donation is requested. Call 528-3805.

Art for Arts' Sake. The free citywide gallery hop opens the city's art season this year on Oct. 2 from 6 to 10 p.m. About 50 galleries are open on Julia Street, Magazine Street, the Warehouse District and at the Contemporary Arts Center, which sponsors an opening party with live entertainment, cash bars and food. Gallery openings are free. Admission for the CAC opening party is $5. Call 528-3805.

New Orleans Fresh Art Festival. The fifth annual New Orleans Fresh Art Festival is a public arts festival that will be held in the 700 block of St. Joseph Street between Carondelet and St. Charles Avenue on Oct. 16 and 17, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The festival showcases the works of 85 juried artists and the money raised supports the many programs of the Arts Council of New Orleans. Admission is free. Call 523-1465.

Underexposed. A photography open house held each January at the New Orleans Museum of Art. There's no fee for participants, but visitors must pay $5. Curator Steven Maklansky describes "Underexposed" as a "foray into new avenues of art distribution," in which the museum can deal directly with artists, instead of dealers and collectors. There is no date yet for the open house in 2005. Call 488-2631.

Insider's tricks from Dr. Bob

Before Bob Shaffer started painting funky "Be Nice or Leave" signs, he claims he didn't know jack about the art industry. On his first trip to New York galleries, he literally had the velvet rope drawn on him at the front door.

Still, Dr. Bob didn't let the "highfalutin" gallery owners get him down. Instead, their discouragement, he said, made him want to learn even more about this art biz.

Here's some advice the folk artist likes to share with regulars of his Chartres Street studio:

Know your seasons. "It's always best to know when the artists you like are typically the brokest. In the summer, it's dead in New Orleans and they may need rent money, so you just may get a good deal. For me, the beginning of any festival is usually a good time to make me an offer because I am usually trying to cut even in order to pay for hotel room or next meal. Chances are I am more willing to sell, if I am feeling real hungry."

Start small, trade-up or pay on time. "All artists are looking to get their work out and many are willing to make a deal, if it means the possibility of doing repeat business. Galleries often have some negotiating room on their pricing, you just have to ask them about what they can work out for you."

Remember your manners. "Most artists are willing to make a deal, but you have to remember we're also trying to make a living. I've seen some people get pretty nasty when it comes to paying for art. To me, it's pretty rude to ask someone to lower their prices on a $20 or $30 item like a small sign or even a print. That just ain't nice. . ."

Plan ahead. "Look at what you got money-wise and always plan to purchase one or two medium- to large-sized pieces a year, then put aside a little each week or make a deal with the artists to pay a small part at a time. Most artists I know don't have a problem working with you on a lay-away plan."

Brush up on the art vocab. "You learn the art-speak from actually doing some talking. So, if you want to know the difference between signed, unsigned, numbered or whatever, just ask. Shoot, most of us had somebody who had to explain to us the difference between all that at one point or another."

Don't be snubbed. "What's kept me alive is repeat business and that's why I don't try and snub anyone off. If an artist or gallery owner treats you wrong -- take your business elsewhere. I guarantee you there are those of us out here that'll treat you right."