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February 21, 2019

“How do I build an art collection?” is one of the first questions many people wonder when they begin buying art.

What’s the right way to add pieces to an existing art collection?

How do you decide what art to buy when there is so much wonderful art that is easily collectable?

At its core, many people fear venturing into art collecting out of fear that owning art is not accessible, metaphorically or literally.

That doesn't have to be the case.

Recently I was fortunate enough to enjoy a Toronto-based art curator speak in her home about building art collection. She provided the audience with art collecting tips that made the process accessible, rewarding and fun.

The impact of a home decorated with art 

A home decorated with art makes a big impact and makes the home more inviting

Upon arrival it was obvious that a great deal of thought was put into the curator's design and décor. But it quickly became apparent that this was more than just an attractive interior: I was surrounded by a breathtaking, diverse-yet-cohesive and, at times, whimsical art collection that brought a genuine warmth and personality to the surroundings. In the curator's house, the art is as foundational as the bricks.

The reluctant “art collector”

Notwithstanding her impressive art pedigree – among other things, she served as the in-house art curator for a major financial institution and taught at University of Toronto – up until very recently she resisted calling herself an “art collector”, feeling the term collector too lofty and grown-up.

But with an art collection now comprising 100+ individual works collected over 25 years (and no more wall space to spare), she has come to accept that yes, she is an art collector.

12 Accessible Tips to Start an Art Collection

There is no wrong way to build an art collection

1. Understand there is no wrong way to build an art collection

The curator was very clear when it comes to collecting art, there is no wrong way to do it.

Every motive is fine, even if it’s for investment purposes. Her personal interest has never been for investment, although she became more knowledgeable about art as an alternative investment after her time as an institutional curator. 

2. Objectively analyze the pieces of art you already own

If you have already bought art, step back and ask yourself:

  • Is there anything that ties the art pieces together?
  • Is it colour? Subject matter? Medium (e.g. painting, drawings, photography)?
  • Does it echo my personality (calm, cool, vibrant, energetic)?
  • Is it something about the artists – are they all the same nationality? Gender? Age? (One attendee shared that, without even realizing, she had been consistently buying work from young, female artists. You may already have started a collection and you don’t know it!)

If you have broad taste, you don’t have to narrow your collection to one theme (note that Canada’s largest bank, RBC, has a single mandate for its art collection: art must be Canadian); however, doing so might contribute helpful discipline and direction for future purchases.

Examples of ideas for building collections around works of art

Collection ideas
Red Shoes, small painting by Lisa Litowitz
  • Smalls (think salon style wall with many pieces hung in a group)
  • Canadian artists
  • Women artists
  • Fashion
  • Personal items
  • Works on paper
'Beautiful Lanezi Lake' is an abstracted landscape by Canadian artist Donna Chudnow
  • Canadian landscapes
  • Contemporary abstracts
  • Nature with a twist
  • Canadian artists
  • Women artists
  • Large acrylics
Hunting Walrus with a Harpoon May Lonsdale Inuit art
  • Works on paper
  • Inuit art
  • Canadian artists
  • Women artists
  • Action art
  • Traditions


3. Get to know your theme

Once you’ve decided on your theme, start familiarizing yourself with the market:

  • Get to know the art you like (even if you can’t afford it), the artists you like, and the gallerists who represent them.
  • Find the galleries (or artists) who align with your taste and start building relationships.
  • Go to the galleries, sign up for the newsletters, go to the openings, go to the shows, follow the artists on Instagram, encourage their work.

Remember, gallerists exist for collectors. It is their raison d’etre to help art enthusiasts to become collectors.

There’s never been a better time than now to start collecting: you can research past prices, easily discover new artists on line. When you find a gallery with a number of artists that serve your tastes, it’s good to form a relationship.

4. Buy a multiple from a more established artist

The curator made her first art purchase just out of graduate school. She learned that many significant artists made multiples – prints or other items produced in limited quantities – thus making their art accessible and more affordable. 

The piece that started it all was a solid silver candlestick by an established artist. Even though it cost $1000, an extraordinary sum for a recent graduate, she knew she had to buy it when the desire to possess it was stronger for the art than for other things, like paying rent or buying food.

Which leads me to my next point.

5. Pay in installments

It's okay to ask if you can pay for art in instalments

Many dealers / gallerists will help you purchase works you love through payment plans. It doesn’t hurt to ask; you might be pleasantly surprised. See note above about gallerists.

6. Make thoughtful purchases

You’ve probably heard the art-buying advice “buy what you love.”

While the curator acknowledges that you should listen to your heart, she also advises that you should be mindful and thoughtful with your art purchases.

It’s very rare for her to get caught up in impulsive hysteria (although it did happen once in a frenzied scrum surrounding a Tokyo art dealer); most of the time she likes to sleep on it and discuss with her husband before committing. 

Suggestions for making a strategic art purchase:

  1. Ask yourself if this is the best piece by the artist you can afford
  2. Keep a wish list of the artists you’d like to acquire should the opportunity arise
  3. Sometimes waiting to see how an artist evolves pays off with a future piece you like even better
  4. Sign up for gallery newsletters: they will send an advance list of the works they’re selling at an art show, so no need to rush to the show for opening and wrestle a competitive buyer to the ground
  5. Think about the space it will go and how it will work with your existing pieces

7. Or maybe don’t have a space for it?

At the risk of contradicting point #5 above, it’s entirely likely you might buy a piece that doesn’t fit well into your home as it is.

The curator purchased a very large diptych without having a space to hang them. Three years the two works stayed at the gallery until they found their place in her home. She even renovated part of her house so that she could accommodate a 6-hour piece of video art!

Obviously, renovating your home is not a requirement to collect art. Part of the joy of collecting art is moving it around. It’s amazing the simple transformation moving an old piece into a new space can have.

A la Mari Kondo, it’s also a good idea to periodically assess your collection to see if the pieces still “spark joy.” Do you still love them? Do you even see them? If not, pass it on through gift, donation or, if you can, sale.

8. Get to know the artists

Artists are people too. Don't be intimidated to get to know them.

As a long time collector, the curator has been fortunate enough to get to know many of the artists whose works she owns, and some of these relationships have blossomed into true friendships.

While some people would prefer to neither know the artist nor the story behind the piece, for her knowing the person behind the work serves to enhance the art further.

9. Go to MFA student art shows

She makes a point of attending all the MFA shows, with a particular affinity for the University of Guelph MFA program, to purchase student work. (Tip – she suspects Guelph graduate HaeAhn Kwon has an interesting career ahead.)

University of Guelph MFA graduate HaeAhn Kwon

10. You may or may not get lucky, but that shouldn't matter

Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you don’t.

She bought six works on paper by a well-known sculptor without knowing they were a prelude to his incredible installation at the Venice Biennale. She’s also purchased art from artists who have stopped creating.

Regardless, if you love the piece – and you’ve purchased thoughtfully – that should be enough.

11. Shift to a new medium

 Out of wall space? Try a different medium.

The curator traditionally gravitated to works on paper like photography and drawings. When she visits art fairs she loves digging into the back rooms’ works on paper.

Unfortunately, her walls are now full, and although she doesn’t have every single work of art on the walls, every piece she currently has on display she still loves.

The solution? Change gears.

Now that her kids have outgrown the wrecking stage, she has turned her attention to sculpture.  

12. Work with your spouse

Trying to build a collection with a spouse who doesn’t share your taste can be tricky.

The curator offers the following suggestions:

  1. If your partner wants a safe, traditional landscape and you want something that is edgy and challenging, look for new artists who are doing fresh takes on traditional works. Take baby steps to bridge the gap.
  2. Go to an art fair: you show me your five favourites, and I’ll show you mine. See if there’s any commonality. Compromise is hard, but look for commonalities.
  3. Education can be the biggest component. At TD Bank she learned that people would become more comfortable with a challenging piece if they were educated on it. It’s also helpful to remind others that they won’t like everything, but often times the piece you dislike may ultimately become the one you grow to love over time.

Acquiring art is one of life's great joys. Building an art collection you love can bring a lifetime of joy, and is much easier to do than you think.

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