Starting an art collection on a budget

It’s a pretty common desire to fill one’s home space with artwork that ‘speaks’ to you. But starting an art collection might seem overwhelming. You might have concerns about how to take care of the piece, or how to conserve or repair it. Or you might wonder how to know if you’re paying a fair price for artwork. You may worry about where you’re going to display it, how to properly hang it or if it needs a frame. Maybe you’re just not sure where to start or how to decide if a piece of art is right for you. And maybe you think you can only collect art if you have a lot of disposable income or a BA in art history. The good news is anyone can collect art, no matter where they live, what they like or what their budget is. If you’ve been wondering about starting an art collection on a budget, this is what you need to know.

How do I know if I’m buying good art?

I think this is one of the biggest factors that stops people from starting an art collection (especially if they’re on a lean budget), so let’s get this out of the way immediately. Art is subjective. The appeal of a piece is 100% in the eye of the beholder. Yes, some pieces of art are widely regarded as being superlative examples. Often these works meet objective, technical criteria that make them “good”.  Even more often, these pieces commonly evoke an emotional response that sets them apart.

But at the end of the day, a piece of art is only as “good” as you, the viewer, as you think it is. You may be unmoved by a painting that leaves someone else breathless. The merits of a modern sculpture may be lost on your, while someone else finds it brilliant and provocative.

Listen to your gut. If you look at a piece of art and you immediately feel that you love it, listen to that. And vice versa. I firmly believe that if you pick art you really, truly love you cannot go wrong.

And remember, it doesn’t matter if someone else doesn’t like the art in your collection. They can’t see it from their house.

Learning about art for your collection

There is, however, something to be said for cultivating deeper knowledge of art and art forms, and of actively working to expand your own tastes and perspectives. Loving art is a journey, not a task you check off your list. Visit museums, especially those with very broad collections from diverse cultures. Go to art galleries. Read art books. Scroll online auction listings.

The more you look at art, the more you’ll dial in your own tastes and preferences. And your understanding and appreciation will increase, which will help you feel more confident in your choices.

And remember, you can appreciate a piece or an artist without loving it. I acknowledge and appreciate a huge amount of artwork, but I don’t want to LIVE with most of it.

How to start an art collection

The open stairwell in our home was perfect for creating a gallery of larger pieces. But it took nine years before we were able to fill it. Some of the pieces are work by my husband, a fine art photographer. Others are painting we’ve purchased. It will take time for your collection to grow, regardless of your budget.

But collecting art costs so much money! It can, sure. But it is possible to find meaningful art no matter what your budget.

How do I start collecting art on a budget?

I think it’s easy to view art collecting as a hobby only for the wealthy.  Yes it’s true that works by old masters or hot new artists can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. Art work on that level is unattainable for the majority of us, but that’s ok.  There are artists creating new work all the time, and old work by unknown or relatively under the radar artists available. It is possible, easy even, to purchase pieces of art you love for very little money.

Remember, too, that the sale price of a piece of art does not determine its appeal. Don’t make the mistake of conflating expensive art with ‘good’ art.

Starting an art collection on a budget

My budget for art collecting is slim, frankly. But I have managed to build a small collection over the years and every year, I add something to it. These are the strategies I use to build an art collection on a tight budget.

1. Buy work directly from artists.

The internet and social media are full of amazing artists and many of them are selling their work directly. This might include artists who offer pieces via their social media accounts, a website or storefront sites like Etsy and Ebay. Many artists sell their work at art fairs or festivals, too.

When you purchase work directly from an artist you’re not just growing your own collection, you’re showing support for their work. There’s also something truly wonderful about adding an original work of art directly from the artist to your collection.

You can also commission artwork, if the artist accepts commissions. Investing in a commissioned work of art will likely cost than purchasing a finished piece but it’s a really special experience.

2. Use online auction sites to buy artwork.

Ebay, Etsy, Everything but the House, Ruby Lane, and many other online auction sites are full of art work. Some is contemporary, and may be listed by the artist directly. Some of it is older art that has been in someone’s collection. Pieces can be relatively new or centuries old. They may be unaccredited or works by amateur or minor artists.

Expect to sort through a lot of chaff to find your wheat, simply because there is very little curation on these sites. Some online sites make it easy to filter art by medium, size, style, age, etc, which can be helpful in narrowing down the offerings.

Be wary of a piece attributed to a significant artist unless the seller has excellent documentation to support the claim.

Check the shipping costs for larger pieces of art before you buy. It can significantly increase the cost of your art.

3. Negotiate.

If you’re buying from a third party seller (ie, not the artist), you can attempt to negotiate the price. The worst that can happen is the seller says no. But often, especially for unattributed pieces or pieces that need repair or framing, the seller will be willing to make a deal.

4. Purchase prints, castings or other replicas

It’s really cool to own an original piece of art. But it can be just as cool to have a beautifully produced copy. Artists have been creating replicas of their work for centuries and this remains a fabulous way to enjoy a work of art when purchasing the original is not possible or practical. You can buy directly from the artists, if they offer prints of their work. You can also buy second hand prints and facsimiles.

Like original works, prints and other replicas come in varying qualities and price points. Etchings and prints can be numbered and signed by the artist or simply mass-produced copies. Expect to pay more for limited runs, signed editions or pieces associated directly with higher profile artists.

an original mixed media painting by Ashley Brossart

This was one of the first paintings I ever bought. It was painted by a local artist who had the booth next to mine at a local Maker Fair. I watched her create the painting over the course of the day and fell in love with it. It was amazing to take home an original work whose creation I’d witnessed.

Time is your friend

You may look at your empty walls and your modest budget and feel like you’ll never be able to fill your home with art you love. The good news is….you’re not on a deadline. If you’re bitten by the collecting bug, you will likely be a collector for the rest of your life, no matter how much art you have.

Buy art as and when your budget allows and I promise one day your concern will be ‘I love this painting but I’m not sure I have room for it’ instead.

If I’m getting started collecting art, what do I do with it? How do I arrange them?

This isn’t a budget concern but it is a barrier for some aspiring art collectors, so I want to touch on it.

For most people, the purpose in acquiring art is to display it somewhere in their home. That might be on the walls, or on surfaces, or even in book or folio form. Many people, however, hold off buying artwork because they can’t quite imagine bringing it home and putting it up. They’re not sure where to hang it or how to display it. They worry it doesn’t “go” with their decor or that it’s too big or too small.

These are reasonable concerns. If you contemplate a painting and you love it but you truly can’t picture it anywhere in your home space (now or in the future), it’s ok to say no. On the other hand, if you love it, it’s ok to bring it home without a definite plan. Sometimes you need to have a work in your home for a little while before you know where you want to display it.

Bare walls and the lonely art

When you’re just getting started with an art collection, you might find you don’t want to hang just one piece on an otherwise empty wall. It’s ok to buy a piece you love and wait until you have some other pieces before you hang it. It’s also ok to hang it alone immediately and enjoy it.

Most of us cannot go out and buy an entire room full of art in one go, so don’t be afraid to build up slowly. No matter what your budget, your art collection is a going to be a lifelong work in progress.

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Art collecting on a budget – other areas of concern

The purchase price of the artwork itself isn’t the only number you need to worry about.

Art that needs to be repaired, restored or framed at the time of purchase

When you have a tight budget for artwork, it’s important to consider these points before you make a purchase.

Repairing or restoring damaged art

Art restoration is a meticulous skill that can save even very damaged pieces from ruin. And like all specialized skills, art restoration doesn’t come cheap. Many art restorers will provide an estimate for repair or restoration work based on photos but be prepared for the fact that they may need to see the piece in person before giving you a firm quote. Knowing that, you might want to pass on artwork that has significant damage if you’re not sure your budget can stretch another $500-$2500 for repair or restoration.

A damaged painting or drawing will only degrade further. At some point, it will need to be fixed if it’s going to survive for another generation. It pays to be brutally realistic about both your own interest or ability to pay for art restoration and, honestly, whether the piece itself is worth a pricey repair or restoration.

Torn canvas on an old painting

While this 18th century painting was out of the frame, the art restorer examined the sides of the canvas and stretchers to advise us on future repair and conservation work.

So how to you collect art and also afford to frame it?

First, consider starting your collection with work that doesn’t need a frame. There’s a lot of contemporary artwork that is meant to be displayed without a frame. Look for pieces like that and find those that speak to you.

Second, consider artwork that is already framed or otherwise ready for display. You may not like the existing frame, but you can always plan to reframe the piece in the future. A lot of older and antique paintings are sold in frames, for example. The frames themselves may need repair or replacement at some point but as long as they’re functional now, consider buying the art.

And finally, you can prioritize pieces of art that will fit into pre-built, standard frames. As previously mentioned, newer artwork is much more likely to be a standard frame size.

You can also purchase work that you love and save up until you can afford to frame it. I held onto the Jim McNeil watercolor portraits, below, for FIVE long years until I could have them framed. It was worth the wait and now they’re protected so they can be enjoyed in the future. It’s also a great example of the artwork itself being inexpensive (less than $100 for both pieces) and the framing being….substantially more.

watercolor portrait at the framer
Framing artwork on a budget

Framing is an important way to display and preserve art. It’s possible to purchase pre-built frames inexpensively, as long as the artwork in question is a standard size and doesn’t require a custom matte or specialized glass. Most contemporary drawings, paintings, prints, etc are created on standard sized canvas, paper or boards, which makes it easier to just buy a frame and insert them yourself.

If the piece of art is an unusual size (and most older or antique art is), be prepared to spend a serious chunk of change to have a custom frame created. Open frames (no glass) can easily start at $500 and the cost increases with the size of the frame and quality of the frame stock. Glass, whether standard or protective museum glass will increase the cost significantly.

It is shockingly easy to spend more cash on repairing or framing a piece of art than purchasing it. That isn’t necessarily a problem but it’s something you should be prepared for.

These Jim McNeil watercolors spent five years waiting for frames. The portraits were purchased on ebay from one of Mr. McNeil’s former students. Purchasing the actual art was inexpensive, the custom, archival framing was significantly pricier. 

Starting an art collection on a budget

The bottom line is, there remarkable art available for everyone, no matter what their budget. The joy of collecting art comes from connecting with the work not the price tag. Use the strategies I shared here to start collecting art on a budget and you will ultimately find yourself living with a unique, profound body of artwork.