Real Estate: The art of buying good art

01/31/2011 7:35 PM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Paintings by Rich Fiedler hang in his Main Street, Greenport gallery.

The walls are freshly painted, the hardwood floors gleam and the granite countertops complete your dream house — almost. Something is missing: a painting, print or sculpture that will complete the picture. But good art, you’re told, is quite expensive, and you’re not an expert.

What should you look for, and where? And how do you know if you’re getting good art?

You’re in luck. From Riverhead to Greenport, you’ll find fine art everywhere — in hushed galleries, wineries, libraries and boisterous eateries. It’s a bit confusing for a new buyer or collector who wonders why this painting with a dot and a single line costs more than that local scenic panorama teeming with birds, sea, sky and grasses swaying in the breeze.

There is an art to buying art. But it’s fun — and easier to learn than most people think. It starts with self-searching.

Look at art. Walk through some galleries and museums. What do you like? Strong figurative works? Landscapes? Riotous color? Everything? Does one work grab your eye and refuse to let you walk away? Finding a piece of art you want to live with is like falling in love; the right one tugs at your heartstrings. For many, the search ends there. They buy what they love and live with it, happily ever after.

Others require a longer courtship.

“One couple looked at a painting for three years before they bought it,” said Hector DeCordova, who runs DeCordova Gallery in Greenport with his wife, Joyce. That kind of hesitation often signals caution on the part of buyers, who are as worried about making a “good investment” as they are about finding a piece they like. But targeting the next hot artist is like targeting the next hot stock. There’s no science to it. There is, however, reassurance in understanding what you are buying and what to expect from the dealer or artist who sells you the work.

There are different types of galleries. Traditional galleries are usually run by dealers with a background in the arts. Dedicating their space to a few carefully selected artists, they curate rotating solo or group exhibitions, install and advertise the art, print brochures and invitations, hold receptions and cover related costs. In return, they receive a commission on sales. They can explain artists’ styles and techniques and provide artists’ biographies and résumés.

A gallery director’s belief in a particular artist, and a willingness to invest in him or her with an exhibition, is vital to any artist’s career. It can be a stepping stone to recognition by a larger art audience — museums and collectors — and a chance to be reviewed.

Art Sites Gallery in Riverhead and The Sirens’ Song Gallery in Greenport are North Fork standouts, showing works that garner consistently good reviews and mentions in publications including The New York Times and national art journals.

Each North Fork gallery has its own distinctive character, and there’s a broad range of styles and prices. You’ll find mostly figurative works and landscapes at South Street Gallery in Greenport; a multimedia mix of realism and abstraction at DeCordova; edgy, contemporary work, from miniature to monumental, at Art Sites; and works on paper at The Sirens’ Song.
“Collectors today are buying smaller, affordable pieces,” said Amy Worth, director of South Street Gallery. “Many who cannot afford an oil costing thousands can afford an original watercolor or drawing where prices start at $150.”

Mr. DeCordova pointed out that works by emerging artists usually cost less than similar works by artists with established reputations, whose large pieces can command five figures. So don’t be put off by an out-of-my-range price tag; art dealers can usually find alternatives that suit your budget.

Some artists, such as Greenport’s Terrance Joyce and Rich Fiedler, represent themselves in storefront studio-galleries. Jacqueline Penney, at age 80, paints and sells her own works from her landmark Cut­chogue barn-studio. These artists continue the tradition of the plein air Peconic School that flourished at the turn of the 20th century. Artists of that school — Whitney Hubbard and Caroline Bell, among them — weren’t that interested in modernism or in achieving national fame. They became local treasures who captured a sense of time and place. Today’s local scenic artists follow in their paths.

Original watercolors and large oils and acrylics by local artists today range in price from $300 to $17,000. Many sell reproductions in the form of giclées, digital reproductions of a painting done on paper or canvas. Though they may be signed and numbered, these multiple copies are not original works of art (there are some exceptions), as are etchings, lithographs and woodcuts. Giclées may be good choices for buyers who want a specific image but can’t afford the original. Always ask a gallerist to explain what kind of “print” you’re looking at. If you’re thinking of investment value, you may wish to consider an original fine-art alternative.

Many art-studio gallerists rent space to other artists, in lieu of commissions. Some, such as Winter Harbor Gallery in Greenport, also show the work of a variety of jewelry and craft artisans.

Other alternative art venues include libraries, restaurants, wineries and other establishments where art selections are often made by non-art professionals; some offer free wall space while others rent it or take commissions. It’s fun perusing these spaces, where works vary wildly in artistic quality and price, the two often unrelated.

East End Arts Council in Riverhead, an important community resource since 1972, offers all artists, from emerging and self-taught to well schooled, an opportunity to show their work in juried exhibitions. They pay an entry fee to submit pieces for consideration in a given show. The submissions, which must comply with a theme determined by gallery director Jane Kirkwood, are judged by an outside art professional who selects works to be shown and designates prizewinners. Visitors to EEAC have access to an artists’ registry containing sample images of hundreds of artists. This year, the organization has adopted a theme, “Art and Passion: Year of the Collector, 2011,” that covers a broad range of programs dealing with the art of collecting.

Auctions and studio tours, often part of charitable fundraisers, are great opportunities to meet artists and purchase their work at a fraction of its usual cost. But a word about bargains: Except for these fundraisers, serious artists tenaciously maintain their pricing; it is essential to their credibility in the art market and to their relationships with the galleries that represent them. It also helps ensure the value of what a collector buys. Beware of artists whose prices rise and fall with local temperatures.

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