Home & Design

Art 101: Beginning a Collection

Four local art dealers demystify the process of gallery shopping, from overcoming the intimidation factor to establishing a sense of trust.

Gallery owner George Hemphill. 

You’re interested in purchasing art, but you’re not quite sure how to begin. How do you surmount the sense of intimidation—which nearly everyone feels—in a gallery environment? How do you find a gallery that’s a good fit, and what should you expect once you’re there? We asked four of the area’s most respected dealers to take us inside art acquisition and demystify the process. While all agree that a budding collector’s guiding mantra should be “buy what you love,” the paths to art enlightenment are many and as varied as each individual collector.

The Learning Curve of Collecting
George Hemphill, Hemphill Fine Arts, Washington, DC
“Everyone is initially intimidated by the process. There’s a perception that there must be a ritual involved in buying art—like in buying a car—and usually, people are trying to figure that out. This is art. It is supposed to elevate us, inspire us; there should be gentility about the business. My greatest ambition is to make people feel comfortable; my objective is to ‘learn’ the client. We like to slow down the process of collecting—collections are built one piece at a time and there’s a learning curve for everyone involved.

We make an effort to see where clients live, what they’ve acquired in the past, and to listen to their manner of talking about the work. Some homes are public; some are extremely private. Some reflect their owners’ aspirations; others, their sense of welcoming. Does the work need to have an intimate feeling, does it need to read across a room, or from down a hall? We’re trying to put paintings into living environments, so we should be paying attention to the different elements.

“Great works of art are receptive to our moods, the time of day... They have the ability to adjust to who we are as we are living our lives.”—George Hemphill

We go in with a stack of 80 reproductions of artwork. To a certain extent, this is a bad sales technique. If I want to sell you something, I should show you the one thing I think you want to buy. I shouldn’t confuse you.  But we’re educating ourselves, getting a feeling for where people want to go, what they want to look at. These visuals allow us to start a dialogue without words about what people respond to.

People should come to a gallery because they believe and trust the dealer will guide them toward

objects of quality. I don’t expect them to come to me to replicate my personal tastes or the tastes of someone else. I want their collections to be their tastes.

I tell clients: Buy something that speaks to your heart. You’re building a collection—it’s going to be a reflection of your relationship with your wife or husband, how you feel about your family, or who you are, or whom you want the public to see.

Great works of art are receptive to our moods, the time of day. Every time we look at them they’re telling the story a little bit differently. They have the ability to adjust to who we are as we are living our lives.

The idea is [that] at the end of the day you’re living in a place that is in dialogue with you. It’s saying the things you want to say publicly and privately; it’s asking you the things you want to be asked.”

Building a Long-Term Relationship
Adrienne Lewis, Trowbridge-Lewis Galleries, Middleburg, Virginia
“People need to understand that just looking is totally fine. Most galleries expect people to come in and browse; even experienced buyers and collectors visit a gallery—or a specific piece—a few times before making a decision. We have a number of regulars who continue to come in, looking and learning about the art. A gallery visitor recently said, ‘I bet you wish I’d just hurry up and buy something.’ That’s not the point. Running a gallery is not about selling paintings; it’s about building long-term relationships. My very first customers have become repeat customers, and they are referring their friends.

It is important to familiarize yourself with different techniques, color palettes, and mediums—oil on canvas or board, acrylics, watercolors. This will help you begin to identify the type of art you respond to and may want to purchase. Most gallery owners/directors love to talk about the art they represent and to share their knowledge. A gallery that’s a good match should carry art that appeals to you and is within your budget. It’s important to take the time to look around the gallery. Sometimes the ‘signature’ pieces in the window are the most expensive pieces in the gallery. Most galleries offer works within a fairly broad price range. It’s okay to ask.

“People need to understand that just looking is totally fine. Most galleries expect people to come in and browse.”—Adrienne Lewis

It’s important to find a gallery that makes you comfortable as well. They should make an effort to understand your taste, respect your budget, and work with you to buy what you want and make sure it works in your home.

The George Hemphill Gallery.
Photo by Anice Hoachlander

I usually spend 15 minutes with everyone who comes in. I give them the room to look around on their own, observing what they respond to. I offer information when they pause and spend time with a work. Once they develop an interest in specific works, I’m happy to take the potential pieces to their homes so they can see and experience them in in a realistic situation, as well as offer my opinions and advice. A good gallery will get to know you and what you want. I’m willing to look for pieces for clients. Many galleries offer some extended payment options to help you acquire the work you truly love. It’s okay to ask. Discounts and negotiating prices, however, are another matter. Most galleries feel it diminishes the art, making it a commodity.

No one wakes up and says, ‘I’ve got to buy a piece of art today, or I’ll die.’ I spend more time telling people not to buy art than to buy it. If you’re not 100 percent sure, you should not buy a work.

Clients should be direct with the dealer about their budget and their level of experience—it will help them help you. Buy what you love—it’s the only reason to buy—and buy the best piece you can afford. A small piece by an artist you love is a great choice.

Unless you’re a very experienced collector, do not buy art as an investment. If the value of a piece increases, consider that a bonus. Keep an open mind. Contemporary pieces can be mixed with traditional pieces. Colors and frame styles do not need to be alike. Good pieces will always stand up to the work around them.”

Focus Your Collection
Cheryl Numark, Numark Gallery, Washington, DC

“Art is an intimate thing. You go into your clients’ homes, you relax over a drink, you talk about what art could work where. When the relationship really works, I become close to the collectors I work with. The client-dealer relationship is all about creating a rapport and dialogue with someone you trust about what you like, but also being exposed to things that give you a better idea of what you’re drawn to. The more you see, the 
closer you’re going to get to art that is right for you. You learn a lot from working closely with dealers who are able to share their specialized knowledge. Once I know your taste level, I can expose you to a whole range of things to help you articulate and express that inner vision inside you.

The Trowbridge-Lewis Galleries.

It’s a creative and evolving process for budding collectors to come to terms with what they like. Taste is always evolving and changing. Today there are so many galleries, so many art fairs. To have someone to help you navigate all that and advise you on what to look at can be invaluable. When you’re engaged, they can actually locate what you want.

Looking at gallery Web sites is a good way to begin looking for a gallery, and it’s a medium where most of us are now comfortable. When you identify some galleries that appeal, go see a few of their shows. Magazine features on the collections of particular gallerists are another good way to familiarize yourself with their work. The many art fairs that now exist are a good way to see a lot at once and they give you a chance to familiarize yourself with galleries and artists. Once you have an idea about who you might want to work with, give the gallery a call.

I don’t want to be too forward with gallery visitors. We’ve found people want their independence; they want to shop around.

A big part of the advisory aspect of what we do is represent buyers who have interest in acquiring art by specific artists. With the booming art market, there is a great demand now for the most sought-after artists. It’s important to have someone who registers your interest and can lobby for you in the pursuit of work by a particular artist. We also explore secondary market material—when collectors are trying to resell work back into the market—to find what our clients are after.

Think early on about a direction for your collection. Some people are guided simply by what they like, and that’s fine. But there are other questions you can ask yourself. Do you want to support Washington artists? Are you concerned about secondary market value, which would make you more interested in acquiring work from established contemporary artists like Richard Serra or David Hockney? Are you interested in the cutting edge of contemporary painting? Do you have architectural interests that would lead you to develop a collection on architectural photography? It’s important to articulate where you want to go with your collection and what you want to do with it.”

The client-dealer relationship is all about creating a rapport and dialogue with someone you trust about what you like, but also having them expose you to things that give you a better idea about what you’re drawn to.”—CHERYL NUMARK

Cheryl Numark with her husband Neil.

Overcoming the Intimidation Factor
Carla Massoni, Carla Massoni Gallery, Chestertown, Maryland

“I started collecting at 19; my husband and I are diehard collectors.

Going to galleries we had a running joke: How long could we be there before someone acknowledged our existence, just a hello? There was the kid dressed in black behind his desk, the hairy director in the back who’d just as soon not talk to you. It was very intimidating, even for us, and we were determined to collect art.

People have to know how to trust themselves more than they do. They really do know what they like, their aesthetic; it’s all there. They have to get past the mindset, ‘I don’t understand art.’ The first thing I tell people is to just relax. All the principles you respond to in daily life are in abstract art—forms, colors, spatial relationships. Finding these relationships is fine—however you enter a work, bravo.

“The first mistake we see people make is going with what’s safe, maybe following what they know, what their parents collected.”—carla Massoni

The shelter magazines are a wonderful way to begin to understand your eye. Look at rooms, look at the art you like in them. Look at the art your friends have. What colors, shapes, and forms do you respond to at a museum?

The first mistake we see people make is going with what’s safe, maybe following what they know, what their parents collected. Their choices often aren’t about who they are as much as what they’ve been exposed to. My parents had Audubon prints and traditional pieces, and when I was first buying art I immediately thought that’s what I’d go and get.

Don’t worry about buying when you go into a gallery. Go to look, and look at a lot of galleries. Discover how the landscape is being reinterpreted, for example, if you like landscape. Don’t be afraid to go to that next step with the artist. Once I figure out where clients are comfortable, I like to lift things up a bit, create a challenge. Once I’ve established trust, we can really have a lot of fun with that.

Yuriko Yamaguchi's work at the Numark Gallery.

Let’s think about what you’re looking for, think about your collection, your house. Finding a painting to go over your couch has become a joke but the fact of the matter is that work does need to fit in your house. That is perfectly okay.

It’s wise to work with one or two galleries to start with. Once you begin collecting you will see a unity, a progression of thought. My own collection works wherever we live because the art is about my evolution as a person.

Discover a few artists you identify with, and stay with them. You will often find you’re growing in the same direction. And if you find any that resonate with you, they’re going to keep on developing new work that will touch you.

I want people to come into my gallery and have an experience, to be changed. Artists give you another set of eyes; you experience their perspective, their relationship with their subject through their work. You will see differently, and it will affect everything you do.”

Judith Bell is an art historian, features, and fiction writer based in Washington, DC.

An exhibit of work by David Shapiro, at the Numark Gallery.

Carla Massoni, owner of the Carla Massoni Gallery.

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