Art Collections Calling

What first-time art buyers should know, and feel, before taking the plunge.

Photography by Curtis Comeau

Buying art may be a response to the insipid glare of blank walls but, for some, collecting art is a passion-driven pursuit, a reflection of their interests, ideas, tastes and travels. The rewards of an art collection are many, from providing creative stimulation and beautifying your living spaces to adding to your assets. But for folks who can’t tell a Rembrandt from a Renoir, the very thought of buying art can be intimidating, potentially expensive and risky, especially if what they buy doesn’t exactly reflect their tastes.

A lot of questions can overwhelm first-time buyers: Is this good art? Will I like it in 10 years? How do I know if the price reflects its value?

So, how does one build an art collection, one that pleases the eye, has depth, longevity and maybe even investment value? (Hint: The big-box store where you pick up socks is not a good place to start.)

For avid collector David Candler, it all started with a trip to Mexico, to celebrate the completion of his medical school exams in 1989. Oaxaca, a city brimming with galleries and expressive murals, prompted the purchase of a watercolour and gauche abstract, his first piece of original art.

“It was almost like a neurological change,” Candler says. “My heart, my brain and my eyes were opened at the same time.”

He began reading extensively about art and meeting young, local artists. He followed auctions in New York to learn as much as he could before collecting more work.

Candler, a doctor at the Cross Cancer Institute, describes his collection as “evolving, eclectic, purposeful.” After purchasing from various sources, including galleries and auctions in the U.S. and Europe, along with local and online fundraisers, his collection includes abstract and representational art – watercolour, print, mixed media, drawing, sculpture, photography and blown glass – by artists who are established or emerging, local or international.

“The important thing when starting to look at art, is just look,” says Candler. “Go out and see as much as you can. Even if it makes no sense – if it moves you in some way, even a little tingle, then it’s worth exploring.”

Though purchasing a piece that increases in value is a nice bonus, Candler’s choices are driven by the “spirit of a piece.” He says, “The worst insult I can imagine for a piece of art is for the audience to feel ambivalent, for them not to think something.” In other words, your art should pack a bigger wallop than your wallpaper.

Candler’s advice to novice collectors? “Don’t buy art to match your couch; don’t feel like you have to buy anything, just learn about it; buy original art; and support local artists. Original art is a privilege.”

Once you decide to start an art collection, whether as a hobby, decor or investment, there are no strict rules. You can start with any budget.

Edmonton has a highly respected community of artists and is home to many private, public and member-run galleries, as well as public events like the Works Art and Design Festival, Gallery Walk along 124th Street and Jasper Avenue, and Whyte Avenue’s Art Walk. Some collectors focus on a specific medium, genre or artist; Candler buys pieces with which he wants to live.

Keep in mind that your tastes will evolve and shift dramatically over time, just as your musical tastes would change. Initially drawn to “big, gestural, macho abstractions,” Candler’s appreciation for subtlety and emotional content found in representational art has grown. Above all, he is interested in quality, which is where a reputable art dealer can lend a hand.

Doug Udell, owner of Douglas Udell Gallery in Edmonton and Vancouver, still works with some of the same clients after 40 years, a testament to the importance of trust between dealer and collector. His quest to find his clients a specific piece might take him to international art hubs.

“An art dealer is vital, I think, in being able to establish those parameters for a collector so they can make wise judgements,” Udell says.

Acting as the middleman between the artist and client, the dealer’s role is to educate buyers, introduce them to current ideas and different artists, and explain pricing, which is usually a reflection of an artist’s contribution and status in the art world.

“You try to move people forward in their ideas slowly so they can learn and enlarge their scope of what art is,” says Udell. “Somebody will come in here and say, ‘I know what I like,’ and what they’re saying is they like what they know.”

He suggests you “go and look at as much stuff as you possibly can, so you can develop your own tastes.”

Renting art is another way to test the waters before investing in original artwork. The Art Gallery of Alberta’s Art Rental and Sales offers a continuously changing inventory of over 1,300 works, from contemporary abstract to traditional landscape, sculpture and photography, including several pieces from provincial artists.

“We have clients that have been renting from us for 15 to 20 years,” says Heather Hamel, manager of the AGA’s Art Rental and Sales.”The experience of having a multiplicity of work moving in and out of their space at their discretion is very pleasing. They become their own curators.”

Renting an abstract painting for a month or two will give you a chance to see how it feels before committing. “People have to give their eye some time to absorb this art object,” says Hamel. It is a loaded object that they need time to unpack.”

While the initial impetus to buy art may be to fill up the walls, some people get what Hamel calls the “art bug” and that’s when the real fun begins. “It’s not just about possession anymore. It’s about understanding and knowledge – and that’s what really, really excites us.”

Corporate Collections

The workplace is an ideal setting for art, and the right pieces can go well beyond simply beautifying the space. Original art can stimulate the mind and lift the staff’s spirits, and it says something important to clients. “The immediate message is one of success,” says Leslie Hunter,owner of Central House Art Consulting Incorporated, a company that sources art work for corporate or private collections, and offers curatorial advice. “People connect good art to a higher level of thinking and a higher economic level.”

She says that art can help to communicate a company’s core values, image and mission statement. But she emphasizes that the art must be good, strong in technical skill and composition, and its visual impact should reinstate the corporate identity.

As a consultant, Hunter searches for pieces that support a company’s vision while complementing the workspace. Central House Art also installs the art and helps to keep buyers informed about the artist’s career and upcoming exhibitions. She organizes an art vote where a company owner can preauthorize three groupings of art and employees can vote on their favourites.

She says there is a human factor in original art, which elevates not only morale within a company but communication with customers.

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