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Yourself with ART: Collecting Secrets Revealedat Galerie d'Art International
The Everyman’s Guide to Buying Art
By Julia Spalding
SEEING ART IN A GALLERY can be an overwhelming experience that churns up waves of emotion, broadens the mind, lightens the soul and occasionally moves a person to tears. Buying art in a gallery can be an overwhelming experience that churns up waves of nausea, boggles the mind, lightens the wallet and occasionally moves a person to tears.
Case in point: On a recent Friday night in La Jolla, a pair of synchronized gallery openings boast (on the surface, at least) all the snobby accouterments people have come to expect from black turtle neck events. Vintage photographs by the late Andre de Dienes line the walls of Joseph Bellows Gallery, almost all of them featuring the fashion photographer’s one-time fiancée, Marilyn Monroe.
According to a laminated price sheet next to the giant flower arrangement at the front desk, the prints sell for a gasp-inducing couple thousand dollars each.
Directly upstairs at R.B. Stevenson Gallery, people are sipping wine as they cluster around 11 oil paintings by Jason Godeke, an artist who creates lush, fantastical still lifes full of fruit, flowers, small nude figures and Fisher-Price Little People.
Sure, there are some esoteric mysteries, some shocking price tags ($1,000 to $7,500) and more than a few people wearing intimidating little librarian glasses. At the same time, the featured artist is surprisingly down-to-earth, the gallery staff downright charming, the bartender friendly and generous with his pours, and . . . hey, this is kind of fun.
Clearly, an olive branch has been offered here, and we’re seeing similar gestures all around town. San Diego isn’t one of those big pretentious gallery hubs dominated by an art-selling cartel, but it’s no cultural backwoods, either. A person can hardly walk down the block on a Friday night without finding himself in the middle of a neighborhood gallery crawl. Plus, we’re home to several emerging artists and art genres—but not a lot of bloodthirsty art buyers, which is why some people (wealthy out-of-towners in particular) refer to San Diego as one of the best-kept secrets in the art world these days. (We’ll get back to that, but suffice it to say that you’d be wise to buy art right here, right now.)
But how do you pick the good stuff? Glad you asked, because there’s no hard science to this. If you’re the kind of person who needs validation, on-line services such as ArtNet.com, AskArt.com and ArtFact.com provide everything from artist bios and works for sale to price databases and e-mailed market alerts when any of the pieces come up for sale in a gallery or auction house.
A good old-fashioned Google search will also clue you in to past shows and possible reviews. But in the end, your critique— your visceral reaction to the work itself, minus the artist’s back story—takes precedence over anyone else’s scholarly opinion. So trust it. You could be on to something.
“The more you educate yourself, the more confidence you’re going to gain,” says Patricia Frischer, coordinator for the arts information database San Diego Visual Arts Network (another great source for local gallery information). To that end, SDVAN offers occasional workshops that cater to fledgling buyers, with lectures, collector roundtables, even practice auctions using play money. In one of the first exercises, students are asked to respond with a simple yes or no to about 30 works of art flashed on a digital screen. The object of the exercise is “to instill the confidence in them that they can say, ‘I know what I like,’ ” Frischer says.
WHICH BRINGS US TO THE FIRST STEP to becoming a happy art collector: identifying your tastes. Do you dig the crazy splashes of abstract expressionism? Does the exquisite detail of postmodern art suck you in? Are you highly impressed with the impressionists? If you’re not sure—or if your brain went numb just now— then you need to get out a little more. No, really. The more art you see, the more trained your eye will become for spotting work that is a cut above.
Opportunities to browse abound, beginning with some type of gallery opening or artist’s reception for practically every night of the week in the city. Basically, if the gallery lights are on after dark, consider it an invitation to pop in and have a look around —no strings attached.
Once you’ve signed up for a few of the gallery mailing lists and become part of the marketing matrix, the invitations will come flooding in. The fêtes are as mainstream as the San Diego Art Institute’s massive juried shows, where hordes of art enthusiasts stand shoulder-to-shoulder and stroller-to-stroller inside the Museum of the Living Artist in Balboa Park, and as funky as the artist parties at Magpie, a vintage clothing boutique and gallery in South Park that has featured the art of Pamela Jaeger, Tim McCormick, Jason Sherry and a host of other edgy up-and-comers.
Another business breaking out of the traditional art gallery mold is Little Italy’s Mixture, a contemporary home furnishings store housed in a 1940s brick warehouse conveniently equipped with high ceilings and soaring windows. By presenting original paintings and sculptures by local artists alongside one-of-a-kind furniture and other mod accessories, this store proves it has nothing against the long-scorned patron who wants a painting to match her red sofa. In fact, they’ll sell them to her as a set.
“It‘s all good, quality artwork that stands on its own. We just show it in a setting that looks good as well,” says Charles Taylor, a co-owner of the store, which opened in 2003. Taylor, who also organizes Mixture-curated shows around town in an attempt to grow the careers of some of his favorite local artists, says the white gloves are officially off when it comes to educating people who want to learn more about collecting. “Just tell them there are no dumb questions.”
What other little secrets have gallery owners been keeping from us all this time? Is there anything else they’d like to tell us before the learning curve roughs us up any more? Well, they’re only human, for starters.
Insider Tip No. 1: If you love something, shout it from the rooftops. Artists and gallery owners notice—and respond well to— people who show interest. After all, they want buyers who understand and appreciate their work. If you latch on to, say, a gorgeous acrylic-and-pigment still life of lemons on a table and find yourself obsessing over those lemons, thinking about those lemons at odd moments of the day, then go back to the gallery a few times and show the owner that you care. It might, just might, result in a sweeter deal than you’d expect.
Insider Tip No. 2: Artists don’t bite. In fact, they’re usually quite nice. “I highly recommend that people contact an artist personally if they find their work interesting,” says Ann Berchtold, site curator for SanDiegoArtist. com. “Meet the artist. Go to their studio to see their whole collection and really get to know their background. I think artists are much more open to that than people think. That’s how they build up their collector database, through those one-on-one relationships.”
Insider Tip No. 3: Everything’s negotiable. But not in the Moroccan bazaar kind of way, since bargain art tampers with the sticky issue of market value. However, if money truly is an issue, there are ways to get around that $2,000 roadblock. “People should know that most artists and art dealers will make any kind of deal with them,” says Mirto Golino, a 3-D mixed-media assemblage artist who has worked in San Diego for more than 20 years. “They should speak up if they don’t have the money right away,” she says, noting that there are such things as layaway plans, collector discounts and plain old ego-stroked price breaks.
Insider Tip No. 4: See it before you buy it. Catalogues and artist Web sites are a great way to get acquainted with a person’s oeuvre, but a thumbnail sketch on a computer screen doesn’t even come close to seeing the real thing. Colors, dimensions and brush strokes might take on a whole new life when you’re in the same room with a piece. Or they might fall disappointingly short of your expectations.
Insider Tip No. 5: Know what you are buying. Some artists have no problem selling prints and other reproductions of their original work. Others have a really big problem with it. “Personally, I wouldn’t do that,” says artist Kelly Paige Standard, who sells gorgeous oil paintings and commissioned portraits out of her self-owned show space in South Park. “I want everything I make to be an original that lasts a lifetime. Prints are going to eventually fade and get all blue, which are things people should be aware of before they go out and buy a $2,400 print.”
Insider Tip No. 6: Don’t limit your search to traditional galleries. Similar to the parking spaces–to–cars ratio in San Francisco, there’s simply not enough gallery wall space to accommodate all of the working artists in San Diego. They’ve adapted to this reality by displaying their works in coffee shops, restaurants, frame stores and even hair salons around town. Any time you’re out and see a painting with a little information card posted next to it, that means it’s for sale— and more often than not, minus the gallery markup.
Insider Tip No. 7: It’s not an investment. It’s art. Oh, okay. Sometimes it’s an investment. If you do your homework, develop an eye for artists on the verge, buy at just the right moment (which, incidentally, means going the night before a gallery opening and grabbing everything your budget allows) and then get really, really lucky, you might be able to put your grandkids through college someday. But that’s not why you’re doing this, right? If all you want to do is turn a buck, go buy some stock instead. Although , if ever there was a time to feel optimistic about dropping a stack of Benjamins (or even a James Madison or two) at a San Diego art auction, that would be now. We have the talent. We have the young, edgy energy. We have geographic dibs on a couple of emerging genres, including surf art and Chicano art. Trend watchers such as Joan Seifried, owner of Angel Appraisers and one of the most sought-after art auctioneers in town, are practically giddy with anticipation. “San Diego is just about to explode,” says the Sotheby’s trained appraiser. “If you attend some of the nonprofit auctions here, you are going to find some incredible surprises.” That just doesn’t happen in more “mature” markets like London, Paris, Barcelona and New York, where connoisseurs sniff out the best pieces long before the general public even lays eyes on them. “Even in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco—forget about it,” Seifried says. “But here, we aren’t to the point yet where we know who our own emerging contemporary artists are, and I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that some of them are not as well-known here as they are in other parts of the country.” Yet. Seifried points out that, at the moment, most of San Diego’s art scene is underground—almost rave-like. “It’s like a volcano, but it’s going to erupt soon. And when it does, it will be glorious.”
Abridged: read the full article