The Savvy Guide to Finally Starting an Art Collection

The Contemporary art world need not be daunting if you’re prepared to dive in, ask questions and be honest about what you like.

(Multiple values) PHOTO CREDIT: Celeste Sloman/for New York Observer

(Multiple values) PHOTO: Celeste Sloman/for New York Observer

Contemporary art affords an opportunity of expressing something about ourselves that our choice of sofa can never convey. Despite promises to create signature environments, many interior designers skip the authentic character, history and tastes of their clients for the latest trends. Yet there is one obvious way to imprint personality.

In a city infused with it, there are still many sophisticated New Yorkers who simply have never gotten around to really embracing the idea of art.

A painting by Gibb Slife (left, title as above) and a wall sculpture by Jill Levine (Double Talk) (seen through door) PHOTO: Mark C.O'Flaherty

A painting by Gibb Slife (left, title as above) and a wall sculpture by Jill Levine (Double Talk) (seen through door) PHOTO: Mark C.O’Flaherty

Buying art is not as easy as buying a sofa of course; the systems by which art of any kind is valued are highly subjective, the pricing opaque, the variety daunting and the gallery assistants scary. The stakes are high, both in terms of damage to wallet and social standing—there’s nothing like the raised eyebrow of an art snob as he peruses your prized acquisition to decimate your intellect, aesthetic taste and hip credentials. Be serious though, how many people like this do you actually know? Far better to blow up the myths and jump in.

First off, dispense with the idea of making a fortune from identifying the next big thing. According to art economist Don Thompson in The $12 Million Stuffed Shark (Palgrave Macmillan), even Charles Saatchi “loses money on two purchases out of five, earns a moderate profit on two and makes a large profit only on the fifth.” If this is the best that the world’s most noted collector can do, what hope is there for the rest of us?

With those headline-stoked expectations out of the way, start looking at as much Contemporary art as possible. Suspend the skepticism, anxiety and fear triggered by something new or hard to understand—this is the first step to falling in love with an artwork. Embrace a range of Contemporary disciplines: Look at video art, light sculptures, 3-D wall sculptures. Consider a series of watercolors or prints to hang in grid format rather than a single large canvas.

Wall decor in the home of Jason Pomeranc

Wall decor in the home of Jason Pomeranc


The right artwork will take up residence in the heart and mind before it takes up wall space.


There is also an array of professionals ready to advise, including dealers, gallerists and consultants (full disclosure: I’m one of them). It’s perfectly fine to ask, “What’s it about?” Or even, “What is it?” When it comes to exchanging money for art, deep responses count for a lot. The right artwork will take up residence in the heart and mind before it takes up wall space. Don’t forget, many artworks are available to take home on approval—well worth the cost of transport and installation to discover if a new art purchase still works the next day.

A Richard Serra chair on display in the living room of Alice Roi 

A Richard Serra chair on display in the living room of Alice Roi

Another question is how to combine other wall art in all its many forms that accumulates in a home through the years: Posters (teens), framed posters (student), framed impressionist prints (first job), perfect couple black-and-white framed photos (move-in relationship) and so on. A trend for homes that look like art galleries has given us fewer examples of interiors that balance Contemporary art with the kind of un-curated lives that most of us live. The answer is to take a leaf out of Bunny Mellon’s book. The doyenne of unforced interiors mixed her Rothkos with her collection of wicker baskets, her Diebenkorns with chintz. She bought what moved her without deference to fashion or context and pulled it together in a uniquely personal palette through the sheer force of her taste and personality.

This is not to say that anything goes; a little consideration is definitely required. There is magic to mixing up art: It has a presence that goes way beyond the ability to simply fill a space on a wall. A small oil painting can make a louder noise in a room than a whizz-bang pop art sculpture. Accommodating art amongst other possessions requires sensitivity to the balance, color, shapes and themes that are inherent in the various objects.

AHW Ryan Korban PHOTO: Emily Assiran/New York Observer

AHW Ryan Korban PHOTO: Emily Assiran/New York Observer

Adjustments to framing, installation and lighting can make all the difference. Experiment with unconventional hanging—higher, lower—and try introducing artifacts and other collectables into the mix. Judge how different interventions change the atmosphere in the room. Does it feel relaxed, convivial, dramatic? If it feels crowded, it’s gone wrong. Then look at lighting. Before booking the electricians and alerting your building of a rewiring remember, plug-in spotlights and wireless picture lights can make all the difference.

The process of acquiring, learning about and living with Contemporary art should be an adventure that opens doors and that doesn’t end with a single work being hung on the wall. There are many reasons that Contemporary art exerts a hold on collectors but, for the best of them, it is the thrill of engaging in a process that is both mysterious and profound.

From the moment an artist begins to create alone in his or her studio to the point where the work is hung in the home to be appreciated by the owner, a subtle thread of communication is established. To live with any kind of art is to be part of that creative cycle—a thrill no sofa can provide.

Elaine Ronson is director of ArtKapsule