A beginner’s guide to collecting art

Art City
If you truly love art, collecting it will be like owning a gigantic block of soap you whittle constantly into shapes.

This business of art is a universe of beautiful chaos wherein it is difficult to mount a supernova on your wall. Where does art start and stop, and what’s more, when can it become something defined by ownership or possession?

There’s found art, stripped of contexts and reupholstered in newer, shiner thematic bows; there’s pricy gallery store art from local or established national artists trying to make it as movers of meaning and memory. There’s everything in between. And if you want it, how can you get it without being a monocle-wearing walking-money-bag hustling to auctions where they probably have little numbered signs and the auctioneer snootily says your number followed by naming off some huge sum? “Sold, for a thousand, skrillion dollars to number one,” this irksome human wealth-stain might say.

Why do you want to collect art?

Is it for cache? For riches? It should be for cache. Do you love art and need to be surrounded with it the way one might surround oneself with kindly stacks of books or particularly tolerable people? Do you love a certain aesthetic and want to maximize it with art, or conversely bend your apartment’s design around an artist or art style? The more you feel it, the better.

For collecting art to someday resell it and be rich is a costly gamble that will probably leave you with a gaping hole. In most cases, wealthy art collectors buy established artists’ pieces and if they resell them at all, they do so for comparable value.

For some, art collection is an economic game. For others, it’s a lifestyle veneer covering other lifestyles. Do you love art? Do you like art staring back at you? Do you like being watched sometimes? Consider being a collector.

If you truly love art, collecting it will be like owning a gigantic block of soap you whittle constantly into shapes.

It’s not marble—marble is too hard to put back together. When you get soap wet, you can sort of mush it back into one form. So it is with art collection—by immersing yourself in artwork, you will ebb and flow with stylistic interests like the artists themselves. Do you prefer minimal work? Loud sculpture? Animal prints? Ugly, smeared portraiture? Photography of all colors or subjects? You will whittle this figurative giant soap block into shapes that interest and intrigue you.

Framing is an absolutely ridiculous business.

joann's 2When it comes to paintings or prints, most frame stores will give you price quotes that vastly out-cost the artwork itself, and they will somehow do it with a human expression on their faces, as if they were living, breathing people who felt empathy (and other emotions) as we do. Yet you must never ever sacrifice work for the frame itself.

You will hate yourself for having clipped or folded or bent work that you just know wasn’t meant to be that way. Always measure the art upon acquisition.

I have a couple of more affordable framing options to offer you. One is to make a pilgrimage to Ikea and buy some of their really awesome frames that are totally affordable. Going to Ikea is like a trip to a very well-organized space station, anyway, and maybe you will get some of those horsemeat meatballs that have been in the news lately!

My second suggestion is to go thrift shopping for frames. This one amazes me to this day—expensive, high quality frames are often used to house posters or prints that you can simply remove. They have myriad frames, and while you might be shaking thinking about unmatched frames across your living space, consider the different juxtaposition each might have against the “gallery walls” of each room … and ask yourself one more time if it’s about aesthetic, obsession, both or neither.

Collecting art will teach you that there are many ways to invest in people.

Hanging work by friends and family is another example of just how art can function. It’s not just about challenging yourself with images, but about giving shout outs to your loved ones. Art makes a home out of a house. Art makes a town into a community. In fact, there is an art school here in Iowa City. Why not familiarize yourself with the University’s art buildings and show fliers?

They operate out of a once-was-Menards, but it’s an overwhelmingly expansive gallery with endless emerging talent. An almost factory-like art producing studio pumping out the shock of the new at a pace like it does is in many ways utopian. We do not know the directions the art world will take. We cannot map or measure that which is at its core wildly seeking abstraction and subversion.

The best you can do is observe. Consider using Facebook (or whatever bigger-fish social networking site ends up eating Facebook) to learn about emerging local artists, THEIR artist friends and THEIR artist etceteras!

When you meet artists, ask questions.

There’s a troublesome phenomenon I see a lot at readings; I will hear people whispering their questions to one another about the work or know them personally and know they have things they’d like to speak to the writer about, usually about process of esotery of the work. But when a Q and A happens, the energy becomes so pointedly focused that they don’t want to risk impaling themselves in front of everyone by talking.

What makes art openings special is that you can approach the artist often in confidence—imagine if YOU were that artist. Wouldn’t you love people expressing interest in your work? No matter how cool and aloof they look, that’s what they’re feeling. Asking is learning.

Know your limits.

When I lived in Brooklyn, my ex-girlfriend and I came across an armless, legless sculpture in the trash. It was what looked like a stone Greek sculpture with a few colorful paint splatters—a real found treasure! I had to have it. But carrying it home for no charge came with a price tag: My back will always click a few more times than it normally would when I get up in the morning.

Do you have the room for your art? There’s nothing sadder than an impotent art collection languishing in butcher paper or cardboard piles unhung and unappreciated.

Collecting art needs to be like a weird umbrella that opens slowly, largely, colorfully and begins to draw attention from wet streetwalkers. Lots of artists like Helvetica-font-and-tons-of-white-space-Tumblr websites. Seek them out. Where you live can be the art community you never realized you were seeking all along.

Russell Jaffe is the editor of Strange Cage.