Art Galleries: Etiquette for the Curious & Daunted—Becoming a Collector

Posted on August 02, 2017, 10:35 am
7 mins


In the third installment of Art Galleries: Etiquette for the Curious & Daunted, I’m going to get you buying art.

Whoa, tiger, hold up, I hear you say. Only rich people buy art. I’m not sitting on a trust fund over here.

I know. I’m not either. In fact, most day-to-day buyers at the galleries where I’ve worked aren’t wealthy, but there are ways of collecting on a modest budget. Most gallerists are willing to work with buyers. But first, the big question is:

Why Should I Collect Art?

Guests of Seattle Art Fair 2016 in the BACKSLASH Gallery booth. Photo by Lara Swimmer, courtesy of Seattle Art Fair.

Collecting art is about finding things that resonate with you: A person whom you don’t know made an object that speaks to something inside you that you cannot see or hear or touch. That’s incredible! Honor that. Take down that Starry Night poster that you and everyone else bought for your college dorm room, and put up something unique, something that expresses who you are and how you see the world.

Have an empty wall that makes you depressed every time you see it?

Get something up there that will make you laugh.

Have a bare, white cubicle that makes you die a little inside each day?

Put a sculpture on your desk that will shock, inspire, or amaze you whenever you notice it.

Work with a bunch of listless employees who need a morale boost?

Google the words “art” “employee” and “morale boost” and you’ll be convinced in a second to furnish your office with prints or paintings or giant inflatable sculptures of bananas. There’s a reason why cities have civic art collections, and why corporations like Amazon and Microsoft and Vulcan have massive art holdings. Art is a fundamental need in our lives—full stop.

When you are buying work by local artists, it is also a good deed for the culture of your city. It allows artists to further their careers and continue to create amid rising rents and living costs. It helps the gallery cover their giant overhead, so they can contribute to the cultural life of your region (and provide a place to eat those tiny cheeses each month). And, most importantly, you get a killer piece of inspiration out of the deal.

Emerging Vs. Established (Or, Do You Have Art By That One Famous Guy?)

Yeah, sure, we have that famous guy’s art. But you know what else is out there? Work by a million other artists you don’t know. (And they probably need your support more than that really famous guy does.) The cool thing about buying art from an art gallery—as opposed to most other stores or sites we purchase from on a daily basis—is that you’re supporting individual creators. This is one or two people making a thing, and getting compensated for it. Not a company, not a corporation. (It’s peeeeople!)

Emerging artists—artists who are largely un-famous, have day jobs (sometimes multiple), and who are sacrificing a lot to make their work—need your patronage. Their work is less expensive, too, for you budget buyers.

Will it increase in value? Possibly. Possibly not. Should that matter to you? Nope.

You May Not Need to Pay In Full Up Front

Ask about making layaway payments, especially when you are working with regional galleries.

Will that painting dazzle and inspire you whenever you see it? If the answer is yes, but you can’t justify the $1,200 price tag at the moment, ask about a payment plan. Pop $100 down each month for a year, and—Happy New Year!–it’s yours forever.

Don’t be embarrassed. I don’t know a single gallerist who would refuse to break a purchase into monthly payments.

I’m In Love – And I Can’t Afford It

If that piece you adore is totally and completely out of the budget, ask if there is other work by the artist. I can almost guarantee you that there’s always more. There could be something smaller, or less involved. There may be a prototype that didn’t quite work. Or, even a slightly dinged and dented piece that the gallerist would sell at a discount.

(You’d be surprised how little damage it takes for a piece to be considered unsaleable. You might barely notice a little fading on a print, or a bubble under some varnish.)

You like a piece but it’s too big, too expensive, too orange, too naked? There might be another. There might be ten others. Ask. The gallerist will help you out.

The Buyer’s High

When a first-time collector completes their layaway and walks out with their painting, I see a magic, manic sparkle in their eyes. It’s the buyer’s high. They feel like a winner, because they’ve upped their quality of life. They feel like a hero, because they’ve helped out an artist who appreciates it. And they feel like a Renaissance patrician, a Medici baller, a Patron with a capital P. It’s something I experience myself, and I’ll tell you what: It’s addictive.

Closing Remarks / TL;DR

1) Galleries are stores, and they are free to enter

2) Come in, look around, and ask questions, even if you’re not an “arts person”.

3) Artists work hard making the art; galleries work hard selling it.

4) Trying to buy directly from the artist makes baby Jesus cry.


Sarra Scherb an arts writer, gallerist, curator and graphic designer in Seattle. Her writing has appeared in The Stranger, The Toast, Stackedd Magazine and Weave Magazine. She has worked with five Washington museums and four Seattle art galleries, and none of them have caught fire or flickered into a different dimension, so she must be doing something right.She runs around town as Brass Archer: