The Art of Building an Art Collection Even if You Have No Money or No Idea Where to Start

updated Mar 12, 2021
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Alex Bass' apartment in the West Village

The art world can be an intimidating one to break into, as both an artist and a collector, but what if it didn’t have to be? That’s essentially the ethos behind Salon 21, an art buying and discovery platform for young art enthusiasts with a focus on democratizing art by providing access to makers through digital artist talks and curated events. Founder Alex Bass knows a thing or two about building a collection with limited resources; she outfitted her prewar West Village studio with a mixture of her own artwork and personal pieces by friends, artists she admires, and even a piece from the famous street artist Trevor Andrew, aka Gucci Ghost, which she won in an Instagram contest… but more on that later!).

That’s why I tapped her for advice on, well, the art of building an art collection when you don’t know where to begin or have very little to invest. In anticipation of the rollout of Salon 21’s own gallery wall-building service, which will offer guidance in buying and creating an arrangement of pieces in a home, Bass shared her best tips for starting a collection without millions of dollars. Hopefully you’ll benefit from these fresh ideas, and you can see them at work in Bass’ own apartment — and her art collection — below.

Figure out what you like to hone your eye

“Start by asking yourself, ‘What work am I gravitating towards?’” says Bass. Sure, you could begin this discovery process by flipping through art books or browsing on galleries’ websites, but hat might be even more helpful as a jumping off point is doing a self-audit of what you’re already drawn to. “Go through your camera roll, go through what you save on Instagram,” says Bass. “If you don’t know what you like, learn what you subconsciously like.”

Maybe you’re noticing certain colors always pop up in your saves or that you’ve taken a lot of wall murals or graffiti shots when you’re out exploring. Perhaps it’s landscapes that do it for you. Whatever trend you’re seeing, use that as a basis for search terms when looking for artists’ original work. “You should start by collecting pieces you want to live with and love the story behind, whether it comes from Artsy or a friend who’s an artist,” says Bass.

Invest in art — but don’t worry about “investing”

Worried about buying something you like because it’s not trendy enough or may not appreciate over time? Don’t even go there. Let the art you choose to invest in, no matter what it costs, be personal for you and not about somebody else. “I’m never one to suggest buying something that is ‘a good investment’ unless it’s a piece you really love,” says Bass. “Art is an investment, yes, but it’s also something that’s meant to be admired, enjoyed, and lived with in some cases.” 

Broaden your definition of “art”

You probably knew this already, but collecting — and decorating — with art isn’t just restricted to painting, drawings, or even traditional sculpture. Think about ways to make your everyday objects more artful, both in terms of what they’re made out of and how you display them. “I have a cabinet of vintage pharmaceutical bottles in my kitchen and lots of other limited-edition art objects like skateboards,” says Bass, the latter of which (pictured below) she actually won in an Instagram giveaway! “A friend of mine recently started making ‘fake cakes’ out of plaster that can hang on walls. Vintage ceramics and tapestries are a really cool way to dress up your wall as well.”

For Bass, it’s all about how your objects relate to one another in your space. “The possibilities are endless,” she says. “I also love displaying my film cameras on a shelf; it’s practical, and I like the look of them, plus, it’s a reminder for me to go outside and use them!” Another one of her most treasured pieces of “art?” An Ettore Sottsass Ultrafragola mirror. “It makes me happy every single day,” says Bass. “I live in a studio, so it’s placed strategically where I can see it from every angle.”

Don’t be afraid to commission a piece

If there’s an artist you already know and love but is very expensive, use that as a springboard for getting something bespoke that’s in budget. “Looking for references you love from the greats in new and emerging artists — even artists around you — is a great place to start!” says Bass, who actually commissioned the piece you see above her sofa from artist Lindsey Basile, a friend, former classmate, and now Salon 21 artist. “You’d be surprised how turnkey it can be to commission a piece. By finding something that feels referential without infringing on original art, you can have the style you love and support a newer talent. Plus, it will be original and authentic to your taste.”

In addition to finding artists on Instagram and through friends, Bass suggests spending time on Etsy to scout for talent. There, you can find makers who are in your budget and often are eager to work on custom pieces for not much more than their average selling prices. Another pro tip? If you have a tight budget and like a certain artist, reach out and ask if they offer prints of their works versus originals. “Offering prints, something I focus heavily on with Salon 21 artists, gives collectors the opportunity to purchase art at an entry-level price point,” says Bass.

Forgo the frame from time to time

“Framing can sometimes be even more expensive than the actual work!” says Bass. “I’m all about supporting local framers, but sometimes that’s not doable on a budget. I suggest getting multiple quotes when reviewing dimensions and type of material before pulling the trigger [on a frame.]”

Also, Bass notes that not all works need to be framed. “If you have a painting, the canvas often looks more interesting hung directly on the wall,” she says.

Ultimately, it’s best to factor in how much you paid for a work when deciding how much to spend on framing. “If you bought a fun poster for a reasonable amount of money, consider using a site that ships you a custom frame,” says Bass. “You’ll achieve a high-quality look for a good price.”  

Consider asking for art as a gift

Not saying you should beg anyone to buy you a Picasso, and selecting art for someone else can be as polarizing as picking out a fragrance for a stranger. But if you have a big birthday coming up or an anniversary, consider commemorating the occasion with art (even if you help select your own gifted piece). All of the same rules above apply; it’s about the meaning behind the piece versus the price tag.

“Some of my favorite pieces were gifts, something that makes them even more special to me,” says Bass. “A few to note are a Sam Haskins photograph, a Robert Farber photograph from his Deterioration series of deteriorated negatives, and a print by Chris Rivers in my entryway.”