Looking for something original to hang over the fireplace? Here’s how to begin your collection — or build on what you already own.
BY JOANNE SASVARI
Joe Bembridge remembers the time a customer came into his contemporary art gallery looking for a serene landscape to hang on the walls of her home. “But,” says the owner of Victoria’s Gallery Merrick, “I could tell she was quirky and unique. I said to her, ‘Do you actually want a serene landscape or do you want to have fun?’ ” She walked out with a large painting of Dubble Bubble gum by Quebec artist Jacinthe Rivard — no soothing pastoral, it simply popped with bright colour and bold personality.
“You are the one who is going to spend all of the time with this piece,” Bembridge says. “My personal opinion is, first and foremost, buy what you love, even if it’s challenging.”
Of all the decisions you make for your home, choosing art can be the most gratifying. It can also be the most terrifying.
“If you’ve never bought art, or if you haven’t bought art for a long time, you might be a bit nervous,” says Karen Cooper, the art rental and sales consultant at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, who notes that many people simply don’t trust their own judgment. Sherry Willing, an interior designer with Make it Real Design, agrees. “People are intimidated,” she says. “They are afraid to make a mark on the wall and they are afraid to make an investment from their budget.”
It can be scary spending a lot of money on art, especially if you don’t really understand it. But art adds value to your place, both in actual dollars and in sheer enjoyment. It’s worth learning to choose and buy it. Here’s how.
First, though, it’s important to differentiate between wall décor and art. In general, wall décor is commercial and widely available, like that “Live, Love, Laugh” sign over your washing machine or the giclée (fine art digital print) of Van Gogh’s Starry Night you hung so proudly in your dorm room. Art, on the other hand, is unique. “When I think of art, I think of an original piece,” Willing says. “It could even be something that your child did, or something that you inherited.”
Wall décor has its time and its place. It’s great for casual spaces, especially if you are on a budget or when you are still developing your sense of personal style. But at some point you will almost certainly want to invest in something original that expresses your unique personality.
The question is: Do you choose the art to go with your space, or do you design your space around your art?
Michael Warren thinks the art should come first. He’s the owner and director of Madrona Gallery, which sells fine works, many by well-respected, well-established artists. “Often the art in your collection will be a part of your life longer than couches and your other décor,” he says. “The impact of the art will always trump the colour of the cushions. If you think of longevity, colours and trends in décor will age, but a piece of art will stay.”
Willing agrees, mostly. She likes to use art as a source of inspiration for a room, weaving the colours in a painting into décor elements. “It helps people come up with more adventurous palettes,” she says. “It’s almost like the art takes the lead for the appearance of the room.”
But not everyone thinks that way. “When I started in the art world 10 years ago, we literally had people coming in with paint swatches,” Bembridge says, noting that there’s nothing wrong with being all matchy-matchy, but it can be visually very boring. “Listen to your inner voice. Things don’t need to match.”
As Cooper says, “Art doesn’t have to match the sofa, but it has to match you and your lifestyle.”
Where you really should let the house speak to the art is when it comes to the size and shape (horizontal versus vertical, for instance) of whatever you plan to hang in a space.
“What I think people really struggle with is the scale of the work,” Willing says. “Often people are cautious about art so they make small attempts that don’t work with the space.” You can always cluster smaller pieces into a larger salon grouping, but she suggests taking inspiration from display suites staged with big, bold works of art. “For the price you pay for art, you’re going to get your money from that rather than spending it on candles and throw cushions,” she says.
A Sense of Discovery
Art also has more nuanced meaning than any other element in your home, so it’s wise to invest some time in education before you purchase it.
“Art is very personal, so how you choose it is going to be quite unique,” Willing says. “But with a little information, you can do a better job of it.”
This should not be a chore — after all, if you collect wine or hockey cards, learning about them is part of the fun. “The sense of discovery should be a really big part of art as well,” Warren says. “Start with things that you appreciate, then think about the history of the artist and all those things that add significance to their work.”
That could include social context and any artistic influences on the painter’s esthetic. For instance, at a young age Warren was impressed by Alex Colville, the Canadian Precisionist painter, and learning about Colville has not only influenced his personal choices, it has helped him understand more about the contemporary artists he shows in his gallery.
“You don’t have to do that, of course,” he says. “But if you’re looking at building a collection of art, those are good questions to consider. If you set that foundation, you are always going to be building in the right direction.”
He suggests working with a designer, a gallerist or art dealer “whose ideals line up with yours. And,” he says, “look everywhere so you can be informed and be enthused by the work that you do choose. Collecting art is a process and what you start with and what you end with are different, and that’s the fun of it.”
Once you’re ready to add a work of art to your wall, there are many places to purchase it, from street vendors to art shows to galleries to auction houses. But before you drop a few hundred or thousand dollars, why not test drive it first?
The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria has had an art rental program for about 30 years, and in recent years has expanded to feature about 60 artists who work in a wide range of milieus. “Selling and renting art by local artists is a way to raise money for the art gallery and to support our local artists,” Cooper says.
They rent to movie sets and home stagers, but most of their clients are residential, often people who’ve changed homes and want to see what works in their new space. Depending on the work, it costs $30 to $120 a month to rent a piece, with up to six months of rental fees going to the purchase price. The average fee is $60 for a painting worth $2,500 and, as Cooper says, “If you’re going to blow 60 bucks for one month on a painting, that’s not a big deal.”
Once you do choose to buy, Bembridge encourages you to purchase your art from a gallery — and not just because he owns one.
For one thing, he says, “When you’re purchasing an emerging artist, you are at the early stages of being along for the ride of their career.” For another, if you decide to sell the piece later on, you will need to prove provenance (a record of ownership used as a guide to authenticity, quality and value) and the best way to do that is for it to already be part of the gallery system. “There’s value in working with a gallerist,” Bembridge says.
And you shouldn’t feel bad if you decide you’ve outgrown a piece you once loved. “Art you bought in other stages of your life may not fit who you are now,” he says reassuringly. “If you spent 10 years with a work you spent $2,500 on, you’ve got your money’s worth.”
He adds, “Art is fun to curate … and it’s fun to edit.”
To make it easier, some galleries offer payment plans and approval programs that allow consumers to see how art works in their space. At Gallery Merrick, if a piece doesn’t work for technical reasons (it’s too small, or horizontal when it needs to be vertical, for instance), they can even sometimes commission a new work from the artist.
The world of art is a vast one and beauty truly is in the eye of a beholder. You might prefer sculpture or photography, watercolours or encaustic (a technique in which pigments are mixed with hot liquid wax), delicate florals or industrial abstracts or the human form.
Even perennially popular landscapes come in almost as many styles as there are artists, ranging from the bold lines and vivid hues of Monica Morrill’s cheerful island scenes to the misty, moody woods of Alanna Sparanese or Chrissy Nickerson’s impressionistic-writ-large beaches.
Whatever it is that takes your fancy, art is something that makes our lives better and our homes just that much more livable. “Art really helps to lift our spirits. It changes our mood and makes us smile,” says Willing.
And it isn’t always as pricey as you might think it is. “You can spend money to the nth degree if you want to, but you don’t have to,” Warren says. “Not everything is crazy expensive.”
Besides, as Bembridge points out: “You’ve already spent a ton of money on your home, so why not spend just a little more?”
How to Buy Art
Five ways to bring art into your home — even on a budget.
1. Rental: If you’re not really sure what works in your home, don’t buy right away; rent instead. AGGV’s art rental program typically runs about $60 a month and, if you decide you love a piece, up to six months rent can go to the purchase price.
2. Payment plans: Many galleries offer payment plans so you can spread the cost of an artwork out over time.
3. On approval: Some galleries will also allow you to take an artwork home and see if it works in your space for 24 hours (and sometimes more) before processing payment. Gallery Merrick, for instance, will bring it over, hang it, offer advice and let you really appreciate an artwork where it will live.
4. Commissions: Love a painting but wish it was bigger, smaller, more (or less) horizontal or that it had personal meaning to you? Many artists will take commissions, and the galleries they work with will often work as their agents. It can’t hurt to ask.
5. Auctions: These can be held in person or online and are often how fine, exclusive artworks are bought and sold. If you have, say, a Group of Seven painting you’d like to offload, it will almost certainly go to auction (unless you arrange a private sale). Participants bid on the art, and the highest bidder takes it home.
A serene landscape may speak to one person, while another individual may lean toward an industrial abstract. Yet another might prefer the hyper-realistic oil paintings by Victoria’s Joe Coffey, like Trigger above. For even more personal pieces, he also accepts commissions through his agent at Madrona Gallery.