An empty expanse in the corner of the den, sterile white paint running alongside the stairwell, a blank wall over a sofa — all cry out for some sort of artwork that will not only soften those stark, vacant spaces but will also bring some much-needed warmth and color.
While it can be tempting to snatch up a run-of-the-mill painting that gives you a smile or a piece of middling sculpture whose only redeeming quality is that it fits in the den, remember that you will be walking by, looking at, and living with whatever you purchase and display every single day. In the same way that you would reject even the most economically stable roommate who is going to simply sit on your sofa, day in and day out, sporting a mysteriously stained T-shirt and a sorrowful expression on his face that just makes you sad every time you look at him, you shouldn’t settle for just any piece of so-called art. When you purchase art, you want to lead with your heart.
Michel (pronounced Michelle) Moore is both a successful Columbia real estate agent and an avid visual art aficionado. She began accumulating an eclectic assortment of artistic items at an early age and currently has approximately 300 to 400 pieces in her possession. And while she does not like the word “art collector” to describe her passion, she agrees that when someone “collects” any object that will be displayed in the home, it has to almost immediately call to your heart. If it doesn’t, it probably shouldn’t belong to you.
“I didn’t set out to have an art collection,” says Michel. “I would just see something, and I would fall in love with it. And anytime I had to think about whether or not I wanted a particular piece, it ended up being a mistake.”
People choose to fill their homes with visual art for as many reasons as there are different mediums to create it. Seasoned patrons might strive to build a complete collection filled with works from specific artists, while more casual buyers might want to fill a particular spot, placing a premium on color and size over artistic pedigree. But Michel believes that the impetus to owning pieces of art is much more primal.
“It is my belief that people have an innate desire to create and that everyone responds to visual stimuli,” says Michel. “If you study any culture that had the ability to survive, you will see art.”
The gut reaction to a piece of art, the longing to have it near, the continual desire to look at it for the feelings of inspiration, joy, or excitement it invokes ultimately drives people to fill their homes with visual creations.
Unfortunately, the lack of trust in one’s own emotions often causes potential art owners to mistrust their instincts, leading them to pass on a piece that really inspired them or to purchase another that was believed to be either a good bargain or a sign of refined taste, yet elicited no emotion.
“It’s like what happens when kids are told to color in the lines or that a tree is green, not red,” says Michel. “A person’s sense of confidence in acquiring something beautiful gets squashed by the rules.”
But research suggests that having meaningful art can have a significantly favorable effect on quality of life. It can elevate mood, reduce daily stress, and may even improve relationships by inspiring interesting conversations with those who live in the home and visiting guests. Before leaping into the art purchasing pond, however, it is important to evaluate your personal tastes. Michel suggests starting this journey of self-definition with art books, trips to galleries or art fairs, and conversations with people who either sell or purchase art.
“Being able to respond to your initial reaction when it comes to buying a piece of art is something that comes with time,” she says. “The more you buy, the more secure you’ll become with it.”
Talking with experts or even making that initial foray into a local art gallery can be intimidating for a novice art enthusiast, but Michel believes that most purveyors of art are in the business because they have a passion for it and are usually more than happy to help a beginner.
“If you walk into an art establishment and say to an employee, ‘Hey, I’m not going to buy anything, but I want to see your gallery and I have some questions,’ that puts everyone at ease,” she says. “You don’t have to worry that they are just going to try and sell you something.”
Michel cautions against purchasing pieces sight unseen, such as those sold online, because color and scale can be misleading. She gives the example of visiting the Louvre Museum in Paris and looking for the portrait of Mona Lisa, which she expected to be gigantic. But when she finally located Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous piece of work, it was only 30 inches by 21 inches in size — far smaller than she had anticipated.
“Had I bought the Mona Lisa online, when it showed up at my house I would have said, ‘Whoa, this is not at all what I expected.’”
Ronald Long, president of Columbia’s Charlton Hall Auctions, agrees that viewing art first hand and visiting established art galleries are both ideal ways to get acquainted with all types of art and, in the process, learn what appeals. He also suggests going to “starving artist shows” to experience some talent that might be off the artistic beaten path.
“These are shows set up for artists that are not yet recognized,” he says. “There are many such shows because there are millions of artists, most of whom will never become famous.”
When you have built up a little confidence and are ready to start acquiring art of your own, a framed photograph might be a good first purchase. It provides not only a lovely way to decorate a room, but it also has the added advantage of typically being cheaper in price than other types of art. Acquiring small paintings that evoke a positive emotion and grouping them together to form a wall gallery is also an inexpensive way to get started.
Some experts caution against buying art simply to match a piece of furniture, but Michel feels that if doing so is what it takes to get you started, then by all means, find a painting that pairs nicely with your sofa.
“If you are the person who has purchased that piece of art to match your sofa,” she says, “then you are the person who has taken that leap and might buy the next piece of art.”
When you are ready to spend a little more money on art for your home, buy pieces that you enjoy, not ones that you feel might be a good investment. Almost all experts agree that novice art collectors should avoid purchasing a piece with an eye to flip it.
“If you are a new art collector, I would tell you to buy art because you like it,” says Ronald, “not because you think it is going to be a big time investment. Nothing is wrong with investing in art, but not as a beginner.”
Set a budget for art acquisition, remembering that additional costs may not be reflected on the price tag, such as shipping, insurance, and installation, but also be a little flexible. Splurge a little if a piece truly inspires you.
“We live in a world where we know what a lemon should cost or what the value of a house or a car is,” says Michel. “But how do you know what a piece of art is worth? If you are buying it for yourself because of the joy that it brings you, then it’s worth the price.”
When you find that piece, it’s not always necessary, or desirable, to accept blindly a dealer’s price. Do your homework, check websites, and find out what other similar pieces or works by the same artist are typically priced, then go back ready to deal. Art auctions provide another venue where potential buyers can find substantial bargains. Auctions sell pieces of art to the highest bidder.
“The auction world and the retail world are two different places,” says Ronald. “In retail, buying art is like buying a pair of shoes or a blouse or anything else. The prices are fixed.”
Live auction houses, however, generally post items for sale three weeks prior to the auction, giving buyers a chance to view the art and ask questions about each item for sale. On the day of the auction, you can register online and bid against other potential buyers in real time by clicking an icon on your screen.
“You can see the auctioneer, hear the auctioneer, and watch the bid prices on your screen,” says Ronald. “Then you hit a button every time you wish to bid.”
And, hopefully, leave the auction with a newly acquired bit of art for your home. Once a piece is yours, whether it was purchased at a gallery or through an auction, the next step is installation. Consider where it best fits in terms of both literal space and the colors and arrangement of the room in which you wish to hang it.
When you have more than one piece you would like to hang together, experts suggest arranging in odd numbers, such as three or five pieces on a wall, to create an automatic sense of balance. Art work placed behind a sofa or above a sideboard is generally more pleasing to the eye if the art is two-thirds the size of the object it floats above. And avoid hanging paintings too high on the wall. Eye level is generally preferred and perhaps even lower than that in a dining room to ensure that seated guests can fully enjoy your art display.
Don’t get too hung up on hanging all your paintings and photographs. Art simply propped against a wall or layered on a mantel not only adds personality to a room but also makes it easier to swap out and change pieces when the mood strikes you.
Before hanging art, plan it out first by using kraft paper cut to the same size as the painting and then taping those pieces to the wall to get an idea of how the finished display will look. Removing a bit of tape is much easier than pulling out a misplaced nail and risking damage to the art in the process. And don’t be afraid to organize paintings and photographs in an off-center arrangement.
“I like to see paintings that are not necessarily hung symmetrically,” says Ronald. “If you are doing paintings up a staircase, you can place them step by step. Really, you can place them in any way that pleases your eye.”
Almost as important as the paintings themselves is the space you leave between them.
“If you are hanging 10 pieces of art together, you want the space between the art to be consistent,” says Michel. “The pieces of art don’t have to be the same size, but the spaces between them do.”
“Often, you can buy a piece of art, hang it up, and think that just doesn’t look quite right,” says Ronald, “but change the frame and it fits right in.”
Sculptures present their own particular placement problems. As three-dimensional art forms, they should be displayed so that they can be enjoyed from as many different angles as possible. The center of the room might seem like an ideal solution but may also create both traffic flow problems and stumbling hazards. Shelves or recessed walls are ideal for smaller sculptures, while larger pieces might be best exhibited on a pedestal, out of the way of traffic, but with a plenty of room along the sides to provide optimal viewing potential.
However you decide to display your artwork, make sure it is a piece with which you truly wish to live. Even if you are merely lukewarm on a piece, it is not worth the financial expenditure or the loss of wall space that could have gone to something that really inspired you. But when you find the “one,” that special painting or photograph or sculpture, and it is close to being within your budget, find a way to bring it home. “You see it, and you realize that it belongs to you,” says Michel. “And then you just try to figure out how you are going to make it work.”