Coming to Art Collecting: a Case Study About Moving from Souvenir Art to Fine Art

Lisa Boumstein-Smalley

I have had experiences talking with new home owners who are at the point of considering a purchase of real artwork for the first time. They feel like they are dipping their toes in the ocean of art collecting. These are murky waters, where price points are elusive and the species of artwork are vastly undiscovered. The only thing this Chicagoland couple knew was the scale of a piece they needed and a sense of budget.

The scale of work is concrete, a physical limitation, but what is a budget based on when we are willing to splurge on clothing and accessories for a friend’s wedding, or imported tile from Italy for a backsplash, or hell, that new Bianchi fixed gear bike that all the hipsters ride around town? 

The woman was holding a Gucci purse as she explained that they wanted a large piece of artwork (4′ x 6′) and their budget was $1,000 or less.

If I was having a bad day, I might have actually smirked at this naïveté and baseless financial perimeter. It would have been really easy to kick them in pants and tell them to do some research and come back when they have gotten a grip on how ridiculous this price point was.

Instead I asked them a series of questions that I hoped would get to the core of this request

First, I asked, did you see a piece recently at this scale and price point? They answered yes, so obviously I needed to know where that might have been. They said that they had gone to a street fair while traveling and had seena piece that would work well in their space, the price was reasonable, and they loved the idea of supporting a local artist.

But because they were traveling, the task of purchasing and shipping overwhelmed them. Unfortunately that experience left them bogged down with a feeling of “the one that got away.”

At this point I start to really feel like I had my work cut out for me. I felt compelled to tell them that street fairs are commonly filled with artists whose work is decorative, thin, and crafty. But this would be an insult and certainly wouldn’t get me any closer to the goal of educating them on the difference between what they saw on vacation and what they will find in contemporary galleries.

Instead I ask them if they have attended other street fairs here in Chicago. They say they have, but they have been disappointed and they are growing tired of the hunt. I told them a little bit about the mission of our gallery, , explaining that we work with local emerging artists whose work is strong, thoughtful and at a reasonable price point.

As a jumping off point, we started looking around the gallery, the works in the current show, pieces in our backroom, and flat files. I engaged them as they looked at the works urging them to discuss their likes and dislikes.

Gaining trust with new collectors is the first priority. Deciding on the piece that will start their collection will follow naturally.  Purchasing artwork falls somewhere between buying a bra and a house: It’s intimate and close to you, but at some point you get so comfortable with it that on a tipsy night you forget it’s even there.

After we spent a bit of time perusing the gallery, I offered to take their contact information so I could send them images and information on the works. I assured them that the process of starting a collection can take a little time, but we will get there without a doubt. I also let them know that this should be fun, not work. I want them to look forward to the adventure. Over the following two weeks I emailed them images of works, bios, and material processes and framing quotes.

When I got them to whittle down the options, we brought a few pieces into their home. Seeing the works in their space, having a glass of wine let their guard down enough to allow them to make a great selection and a fine start to their collection. They loved the process, the guidance, and overall experience.

Climbing a uphill battle, I did my best to educate them on costs of original artwork, the feel good-ness of supporting local artists, and I cheek kissed them into the gallery scene.