How to Buy Contemporary Art

May 6, 2021

Buying contemporary art can often make people tense up. Because it is new, it can be difficult to understand what price is truly fair, what artist is going to go on to be a big name, or if it is going to age well.

But there is another way to look at it. Contemporary art is the cutting edge. It’s what is happening now. For that reason, you can often buy artworks at a more reasonable price, and you can find new voices and styles that you’ve never seen before.

Buying contemporary art is an adventure. And if you go out on this adventure with the right motives and the right perspective, you’ll return with treasure.

So What Is Contemporary Art?

Before you open up your wallet and start doling out money, let’s begin with the basics.

Contemporary art is art being made in our lifetime.

Thought it was going to be more complicated than that, right? Well, don’t worry. Things get more complicated from here.

The art world uses the term contemporary art to set aside all work that is, well, contemporary with us. Modern art was an art movement that began in the late 19th century and ran to the 1970’s. Unfortunately, when most people say “modern” they mean the same thing as “contemporary,” and often non-specialists will say “modern art” when they really mean “contemporary art.”

Modernism broke with so much tradition, choosing abstraction and experimentation over narrative and standard materials. By the end of the modern era, the postmodernists pushed for views and approaches that preferred juxtaposition over one dominant cultural narrative.

All of the contemporary art scene lives in the aftermath of those two revolutions in the way artists create art and specialists think about it.

Add into the mix the fact that we live in a highly connected world, with a kaleidoscope of niches, subcultures, and emerging forms. Contemporary art starts to look like quite the exciting — if confusing — realm.

Rule #1: Buy What You Love

Luckily, when you are looking through the contemporary art scene and trying to find something to buy, you can keep the same guiding principle that serves you well no matter what kind of art you are buying.

Buy what you love.

Whenever you are buying art, this rule should always be first in your head. Always buy work that moves you, that grabs you and simply has to go home with you.

The truth is that art buying is at its most rewarding when you have a deep, personal love for the work. No amount of research or potential profit years down the road should talk you into buying art that you don’t really feel for.

Even if you are unsure of the artist’s future prospects in the market or if other people will agree with your tastes, you must still follow your heart. Why? No one has a crystal ball, and you will drive yourself to distraction if you try to predict the future of the art market. And as for the tastes of others, they don’t have to pay for the artwork and live with it in their home or office.

It is always better to buy a work of art that you love — even if it never makes you a dime or if it makes the in-laws scratch their heads (after all, that’s part of the fun of art, isn’t it?).

Finding What You Love

Of course, it is hard to fall in love with a work of art you never see. So the first phase of buying contemporary art is always research.

It’s never been easier to research art than it is today. Your smartphone alone is probably the most powerful research tool at your disposal. Using image-based social media platforms like Pinterest can give you endless content related to images you already like. Instagram goes further, allowing you to potentially get in touch with artists whose work you adore.

You can also use platforms like Artsy and artnet to discover the details of an artist’s career and the prices their work has sold for in the past. And of course, when it’s safe to do so, get out and see as much art as you can by attending art exhibitions and art fairs.

The more you explore contemporary art, the more of a feeling you’ll get for major trends and emerging voices. You’ll also begin to appreciate just how vast a field contemporary art can be. As art lovers, we live in the best time to buy art so far — with almost every imaginable combination of techniques, materials, and subjects available.

Fine Art Prints: When You Love Something You Can’t Afford

Let’s say you find a painting that rocks your world, but the price more than rocks your bank account. Consider purchasing fine art prints.

Fine art prints have improved greatly over the previous decades, with the cost of reproduction steadily dropping and the availability of archival paper and inks increasing.

While a print isn’t the exact same experience as a painting, they can still be stunning works to put on your wall. And if you are smart about buying them, they can retain and appreciate in value over time. The secret is:

  • Purchase from a limited edition
  • Make sure to have a detailed receipt that proves provenance

Limited edition prints are prints made all at once and numbered. It is limited because the artist will have a set amount, say 100. It is very hard for an open edition print to appreciate value, because more can always be printed. So, when you can, buy limited editions.

As for provenance, being able to prove that the print comes from the artist and from the exact edition you say it does is of utmost importance for the value of a print. Make sure to get proper documentation for this.

Taking Home the One You Love

Finally, you have to take care of the work that you love enough to buy. While this seems obvious, many new art buyers don’t consider this. They quickly learn this important lesson the hard way.

Many works of art are fragile, and no artwork is impervious to damage. Take care whenever you are handling, shipping, or storing your work.

Every form will have its own special needs, and the artists and gallerists you purchase from will be happy to give you pointers, and many galleries even have professional delivery services.

Once it is home in one piece, you still need to make sure you don’t expose most works to excessive UV light. Some work needs to be protected from high humidity areas like bathrooms.

The good news is this: if taken care of, most art will be a beautiful addition to your home for decades, if not generations, to come.

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