I've been out of college long enough to know that posters, store-bought inspirational quotes and printed canvas landscapes can't cut it forever. Your walls deserve more, and quite frankly, no place really is complete without artwork. It's what gives your space soul. The problem is "good" art can be elusive, sometimes expensive and often best, and most meaningful, when collected over time. But that doesn't mean you should wait a lifetime for a gallery wall—or go at it alone, either.
Enter Katharine Earnhardt, the lady boss behind Mason Lane, a boutique art consultancy firm that specializes in art buying, curating, e-consulting, gallery walls and even custom murals. If there were ever someone to demystify the process, it's this MoMA and Christie's alum (among others), who ventured out on her own in 2014 when she realized people like us (with an interest in art/design but not gobs of money) needed objective guidance on the art buying process. "Art buying is intimidating because pricing is subjective, the art world is not transparent and education about quality, pricing and reliability of resources is lacking," says Earnhardt. Amen. And I'm an art history major myself.
So I challenged Earnhardt to come up with some tips on starting an art collection, and she totally rose to the occasion (even though she was mid-installation, prepping for a podcast and had just launched Mason Lane Partners, which is geared towards interior designers that need to efficiently get art for their clients). Here's a Cliff's Notes guide on getting started in the art buying game.
Think outside the gallery
If you find the traditional art gallery set up—no chairs, stark white walls, highly academic literature—off-putting, Earnhardt says you're not alone. The good news is these days, there are plenty of places to shop for original art outside those channels, both online and in person. "An art fair is a great place to see a TON of pieces at once, and there are art fairs selling work at various price points," says Earnhardt. Smaller fairs like Art on Paper or IFPDA (both NYC-based) can be great for collecting affordable pieces. "Pulse, Nada, and Untitled are also resourceful," says Earnhardt.
Online buying is another option, and again, working with a consultant can help you make sure your purchases hang together aesthetically. Earnhardt likes Uprise Art and ArtStar, so definitely check those out.
Mix it up
When you buy all your furniture and accessories at one store, your place starts looking like a catalogue really quickly. The same is true for art.
For a gallery wall, don't get everything by the same artist or gallery. "Go for a mix with pieces that interest you," says Earnhardt. She also recommends planning the wall out before you hang and hiring an art installer if you're inexperienced. "Creating a to-scale plan and then hiring a professional to measure perfectly, use the right hardware and secure each piece so it's level will leave you with a polished finished product," she says.
Set your budget and intentions for art early in the process
Furnishing an entire apartment or whole home with artwork can be daunting, so it's important to determine your goals. Ask yourself whether you're ready to invest in quality pieces, Earnhardt says, or if you want to do something affordable but creative or some combination of the two. Best to have an idea of what you'd like your art to accomplish decoratively and be able to put into words how exactly you'd like your art to improve your space. Maybe it's adding color, maybe it's creating a focal point—these are the kind of things up for discussion here.
If you're a first time buyer, seriously consider an advisor
Working with an advisor is kind of like working with a realtor to find a house in an unfamiliar area, a personal shopper for a new wardrobe or even a financial planner for money. If you're super busy or really confused about art in general, advisors really can help you learn about, see and understand art resources in an efficient way. "Seeking out galleries with art that fits your aesthetic, budget and space can be enjoyable but also arduous if you're on a mission," says Earnhardt. "Working with an advisor lets you focus on feasible works that you may not have discovered on your own and learn about them so you make confident buying decisions."
So basically, somebody who's in the know and always discovering amazing artists, meets with you to get a sense of your taste and then does all the shopping legwork. Like working with a designer, you'll get a project proposal of sorts and then art viewings along the way.
Buying art is not always love at first sight
"A common mistake is the expectation that you should buy art that you fall in love with immediately," says Earnhardt. "Sometimes that happens, but other times a piece can be more intriguing and thought-provoking."
Instead of considering whether you love a work, Earnhardt recommends thinking about whether it's interesting to you. "That type of piece will very likely continue to interest you and bring you joy in the long term," she says.
Starting from scratch isn't a must
If you have family hand-me-downs, vintage items or other one-offs, don't disregard them right away. One of Earnhardt's favorite projects involved working with someone that had existing artwork. "I re-curated everything," says Earnhardt. "We reframed pieces, often to make them look more expensive, and changed the location of most."
The lesson here: You can teach old art new tricks with strategic framing, matting, cropping and relocating. And your old pieces can become the basis for expanding your collection or taking it in a new direction. Again, this is a service that an advisor can provide you with if it seems too difficult to go at it alone without a strategy or clear vision.
Ultimately, art should complement your design, not compete with it, says Earnhardt. Once you know your budget, the biggest hurdle is finding things you'll truly feel good about displaying in your home. Hopefully, these tips will help get you there a little quicker.