Collecting Art 101

You don't need big bucks to collect art. Five experts explain how anyone can do it.

When I bought my first Spiderman comic book, at the age of 8, I became a collector. My passion for visual images has only grown since then, and a few years ago, I became serious about collecting visual art. This article was prompted by my curiosity about who collects art, why they collect, and how one grows as a collector. The following individuals helped satisfy my curiosity and provoked other, equally interesting questions: Allan Kollar (A.J. Kollar Fine Paintings), Greg Kucera (Greg Kucera Gallery), Paula McArdle (arts councils manager, Seattle Art Museum), Harry and Alison Moody (collectors and art dealers), and Carolyn Staley (Carolyn Staley Fine Prints).

Do you have to be wealthy to collect art?

Allan Kollar (Kollar): Absolutely not. There's affordable art for everyone who has an eye. If you're passionate about it, you'll find a way.

Paula McArdle (McArdle): Herman and Dorothy Vogel—a post office clerk and a

librarian—were passionate collectors with a superb eye for emerging artists. The National Gallery in Washington, DC, has just accepted their collection, and SAM's Contemporary Arts Council is bringing them in February 1999.

Carolyn Staley (Staley): Beginning collectors don't need a lot of money. You can start in a small way—there are original prints less than $500, or even $250.

Greg Kucera (Kucera): People want to start at the top when they collect, but they can't always afford it. You don't have to purchase a well-known artist to be a collector, and galleries can set up a payment plan to fit your budget.

Alison and Harry Moody (Moody): You don't have to be wealthy to appreciate the quality of beauty—the real investment is in educating yourself.

How do I know what to collect?

Staley: The most important thing is knowing what pleases your eye, and you need to see as much art as possible to find that out. Visit the galleries on First Thursday and see what attracts you.

Kucera: Read the arts listings in the daily and weekly newspapers. The capsule reviews are good summaries of the exhibits, and you might find an artist that intrigues you. You can also learn a lot by looking at a good poster reproduction. Gallery Frames, at the corner of Second and James in downtown Seattle, has thousands of art posters for sale from $20 on up.

Kucera: I encourage people to buy artists of their own generation—their art tends to be about concerns and issues that you can relate to. If you want to find artists that aren't represented by dealers yet, the Tacoma and Bellevue Art Museums and COCA put on "annuals"—exhibitions of new work by young or less established artists.

Moody: Beginning collectors might consider joining SAM's arts councils—you can continue educating yourself about art, with other people who share your interest. You also have a chance to influence museum programming, visit private collections, and even travel with curators on international art tours. Around Seattle, check out the art in bars and coffeehouses—you can sit in comfort and study it for a long time, and it's often very affordable.

Moody: You can find out the price range of art by subscribing to the Sotheby or Christie auction house catalogs—it's relatively inexpensive.

Let's say I'm thinking about buying from a gallery. What do I look for in a dealer?

Kucera: Check out the different galleries in town—each one has its own flavor. Seattle dealers are friendly and easy to talk to; see who you're most comfortable with.

Kollar: Find a dealer that's eager to share their knowledge and scholarship with you. If they can't or won't do that, walk out. They lack the passion and commitment—they're just selling art.

Staley: I used to be a teacher, and education is a large part of my business. I don't assume that visitors to the gallery are familiar with the work I sell. I make reference books available to help answer their questions.

Moody: A dealer should be able to explain how an artwork is valued and priced—based on the materials, technique, and historical context.

Kollar: A dealer should help you avoid risky purchases—for example, advising you on the difference between an original print and a less valuable off-set print lithograph.

Is art a good investment?

Staley: Over time, the value of an artwork can increase substantially—and it generally will not decrease. One local couple started buying prints some years ago by 20th-century French masters like Bonnard. They bought the prints for less than $1,000, and they're now worth between $40,000 and $90,000.

Moody: An art collection is like a stock portfolio. Over time, your collection should include both artwork of established value and art which will appreciate in value later.

Kollar: I've seen artwork appreciate tremendously—but it all comes back to why you collect. Collecting is primarily an investment in yourself: in your self-education, your emotional intellect, your visual awareness. When you buy a piece that has meaning for you, your experience of it will become richer and deeper over the years. Paintings with great compositions tend to do that, by the way—paintings with complex space and interesting geometry will increase in interest over the years.

Why do people collect art?

Kucera: Most people in the Northwest collect for comfort—they want to surround themselves with beautiful objects, things that give them pleasure.

Kollar: For a lot of reasons, but the most sincere is personal intrigue and appeal—the art has to move them. Once people identify emotionally or spiritually with an object created by a gifted person, then you can't stop them. They buy books about the artist, they travel just to go to museums or galleries, they make sacrifices—in clothing, in their living quarters—all to live with a wonderful work of art.

Moody: Collecting art is the exercise of appreciating the quality of beauty, and it fills your daily life with beauty. The word "art" literally means something that's one of a kind. The art people collect is an expression of their unique selves.

Kucera: Jasper Johns said that there are people who look, and people who see. Becoming a collector is a way of teaching yourself to see.

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