The Art of Buying

Come now, this isn't rocket science or even hitting a Roger Clemens fastball. Art doesn't have to be intimidating. All it takes to start purchasing that painting, sculpture or photography is practice, a good eye and a willing wallet.

Where to Buy

Click a location below to view galleries there, plus interactive maps!

Little Italy

Shaker Heights/ Larchmere

Cleveland Heights/ University Circle



Ohio City


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Now that you're all grown up, you know it's time to bag the posters and look for some real art. But if the word "gallery" invokes images of creaky pine floorboards and white plaster walls, you haven't been to our city's galleries in a while. There's no need to don a beret before entering. Cleveland is not Paris. Even if it were, buying art shouldn't be intimidating. Buying a couch or a car is not much different. You've got to do your homework.

But what if you have the will without the way? How do you find that place where what's good and what you like intersect? What you need is an "eye" for art. And you can't buy, borrow or steal it. You must train it. Spend a lot of time looking at a lot of art. Pay attention to what captivates you. You'll find that buying art is a lot less complicated than understanding baseball, and it involves a lot less time sitting on the bench.


If you're new to art, rest assured that you do not need a degree in art history to advance to the major leagues. Steve Hartman, private collector and owner of Contessa Gallery, says that an instinct for art is not necessarily developed though formal training, but can be fostered through passion and commitment. What it takes is a willingness to look and a willingness to part with some of your cash. Remember, the works you choose can't be rolled up with a rubber band this time.

Set a limit for how much you want to spend and stick to it. We recommend starting with $200 — even $100, if you'd like to begin with a small print or drawing. Once you've determined your budget, it's time to hoof it. No baseball player gets to the World Series without sweat. How much time did you spend combing Consumer Reports before you bought your McIntosh stereo? Your Lexus? Generally, one year is ample time to view the available models, but if you feel you need to pull the trigger sooner, then make the decision when you feel you've seen enough.

Start looking somewhere safe, somewhere you're sure to hone your eye without spending a cent: an art museum. What differentiates a museum from a gallery is its permanent collection. "Work that is selected in a museum has been preselected by a curator who was willing to put their reputation behind it," explains William Busta of HeightsArts (see "Q&A," page 159). The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and Cleveland Museum of Art are great places to start museum-hopping, and the latter is free.

Once you've viewed Cleveland's collection of cultural heritage, it's time to view works for sale — and those within your price range. Enter the galleries. (See "Where to Buy," page 152.) In general, and for the purpose of this article (give or take a few exceptions), a gallery, as defined by Marsha Hall at The Bonfoey Gallery, "has retail space open for business and shows more than one person's work."

If you're approaching a gallery storefront and notice no one else inside, don't walk away. Walk in! Don't feel bad if you have no intention to buy. People rarely buy the first time they come in, says Cheri Discenzo of Thomas R. Riley Galleries. In fact, more often than not, gallery owners are delighted simply to have your attention.

Keep in mind, however, that some venues are not white-walled boxes where art hangs neatly. Installation art, as it's called, is created for a space that won't necessarily fit over your sofa. In galleries that feature it, "people shouldn't walk in and automatically know what they're looking at," says SPACES director Susan Channing. That's why those galleries have patient staffers willing to narrate for you.

Ask questions in any gallery. Staffers can explain genres, describe technical aspects or styles and help you grasp the lingo. This is their job. Many curators and art collectors are wonderfully overeducated and will be happy to share their knowledge with you. Remember that gallery you walked into where you were the only visitor? Consider that encounter free tuition toward your self-directed degree in art. It will be a more memorable transaction for the seller, if you, the potential buyer, are engaged in the product. It's not a bad idea to keep a small notebook to help you remember details, prices, artist backgrounds and other things you learn. This will help you tremendously when the time comes to buy.

Gallery tours, such as the ones in Tremont, Murray Hill and downtown, offer an opportunity to take part in the scene en masse. These events offer the most social way to step inside the art park. Many galleries serve libations and all keep their doors open late during artwalks.

You also could attend an artist's lecture, such as those held by Thomas R. Riley, Contessa, SPACES, Thrive — an Artspace, among others. These spaces regularly invite artists or experts to give talks and Q&A sessions for exhibit openings or other occasions.

Part of your calisthenics should be perusing art publications. The Plain Dealer Arts & Life section includes reviews, as does the Friday! ArtMatters column. Angle, created by artists, poets and free-lance writers, is the most important arts magazine to come out of Cleveland. You should also pick up monographs, museum and gallery catalogs and art magazines such as ArtForum, Art in America, Flash Art and Frieze, or Work on Paper for prints, drawings and photography. Online, lists gallery showings by artist and offers a database of general information. Keep in mind, however, that when you look at a work of art on the printed page or even onscreen, all texture and brush detail disappears. Nothing beats seeing the object in person.

Another way to sharpen your artistic taste is to visit art fairs. They are great equalizers that engage both novices and experts; they also attract a high volume of selected works that run the gamut in price. For example, each October, CMA's annual print fair, run by the Print Club of Cleveland, displays thousands of prints, from Old Masters to contemporary works, as well as drawings and photographs. A print, whether it's an etching, silkscreen or lithograph, one of a kind or one of a series, is an original work of art and can be a great way to access a larger piece at a more reasonable price. (A word of caution: "certificates of authenticity" do not necessarily add value and, in certain circles, imply the work is bogus.)

Selecting the Roster

Think about the information on the back of a baseball card. It details the worthiness of the player — batting average, home runs, hits, walks, at-bats, stolen bases — as compared to his teammates and competitors. A painting, though a bit more cumbersome, is more subjective. The golden rule is to buy something you like, which is as simple as it sounds. What's harder is learning how to interact with a painting. Art is about reacting.

Matthew Garson, an art consultant who also runs an über-cool gallery in Larchmere, shares a favorite story from when he was the assistant curator for Progressive Corp., which has the largest corporate art collection in the country. One day, an employee approached him in the hallway and gave him a mouthful about a painting with which he absolutely disagreed. Matthew said, "OK, I'll tell the artist." "No!" the man cried, putting a hand over his mouth. "Please don't do that." Garson assured him that the artist would appreciate the feedback, since he put so much thought into it.

Conversely, Lissa Bockrath of The Bockrath Gallery notes that "My child could do this" is not a good reaction. The work of art should have something in it that grabs your attention or begs you to go back for a second look. "I look for an aesthetic, not just a conceptual message, such as recognizable imagery, light and texture," Bockrath says. Whatever draws you in, you will begin to make connections to other artists producing work because, as Brett Shaheen, owner of SHAHEEN gallery, says, "Good art doesn't happen in a vacuum."

It's OK to ask for other people's opinions. In fact, some of the best advice Lindy Barnett ever received has come from art dealers and curators. "It's not necessarily that they have to sell you something because more likely than not they didn't pay for the piece," says Barnett, a contemporary art collector formerly involved with MOCA and owner of Bello Design, a furniture showroom in the Ohio Design Centre.

More importantly, a good dealer will understand your tastes and be able to show you works that suit them. They understand that selecting art is a highly personal process. "Most people who buy a lot of art make two decisions," says Busta. "They want to buy a work of art by an artist and they know what piece they're going to buy. The time between the two decisions should be delicious."

Game Day

When Tribe GM Mark Shapiro sits at the bargaining table, he knows his reserve limit. The budget you scribbled on the first page of your art diary is almost guaranteed to be less than that of Omar Vizquel, who is a frequent shopper at Thomas R. Riley Galleries. To mentally prepare yourself to make an art purchase, it may help to consider a little cost analysis.

"The fallacy is that galleries raise their prices until no one can afford the work," says Busta. "From the gallery's point of view, although the pricetags are high, you only keep the stuff on the walls for a month. It's not like a regular store that deals with a high volume of inventory. If you put it in terms of sales per square foot, then [for a gallery] you're talking about minuscule amounts. It doesn't behave like Pottery Barn."

From the artists' point of view, many are happy if they cover their expenses, making just enough to "feed the art habit." Roger Welchans, an artist who shares a studio with Lee Heinen in Little Italy, breaks down his costs: To paint a canvas, say 48-by-36, including paint, brushes and a premade canvas, might cost $200. "You never walk into [an art supply store] and spend less than 100 bucks," he says. In addition to materials, consider the cost of education, time spent at the easel, wheel or, in the case of glassblowers, inferno. Factor in mailers, studio-space rental (Welchans' is $700), heating and installing proper ventilation for noxious fumes. Divide the total cost and time by the sticker price and it's easy to see why "starving artist" rolls off the tongue so easily.

Inside the gallery, prices may be listed on the title card next to the piece. If not, a list will be available in a folder or pocket discreetly hung on a wall or on a table. A red dot on the title card may signify the piece has already been sold, but you should always ask just in case. Some galleries may place stickers only to instigate sales.

It's important to remember that art is not an investment. Much as a new car depreciates when it rolls off the lot, art does not come with a guarantee. Most of the time it never sells for the same price again. That said, Busta notes that "good art — over a long period of time, irrespective of the artist's fame, only in the intrinsic quality of the work — tends to hold some value adjusted for inflation, given it maintains a good condition."

If you have narrowed the field to just a few artists, it's a good idea to visit them in their studios to see what other kinds of works they are producing and build a relationship. Artist Kathy Skerrett likens placing her art to finding a good foster home. Recently, she made an arrangement with a frequent buyer who wanted to purchase three pieces at once. Because she knows he often entertains, she factored into the price the exposure she would receive in his home.

You can also try bartering. Brian Schriefer, a CPA, has amassed about two thirds of his collection this way. Many of his clients are artists who file as "self-employed" and need his assistance to complete complicated tax returns. Currently, he's wrapping up five years of services for one piece, his longest transaction to date.

But too much bargaining is bad for business. "I would caution people not to try to get a special deal with artists who have an exclusive arrangement with a gallery because it's unfair. Remember that the galleries are having a hard time surviving," says Channing. With nonprofit galleries such as SPACES and HeightsArts backed by public funds, it's no wonder private galleries are struggling to stay open.

If you buy art through a gallery or a dealer, they may also offer payment plans or cash breaks. No dealer or gallery will turn down payment in installments. Keep in mind that once you establish a relationship with a gallery or a dealer, he or she may invite you into the proverbial clubhouse. If the dealer knows you'll come back, then it's to their advantage to be flexible.

If your salary cap is low, consider alternative venues. Younger and emerging artists, naturally, command a smaller price. Visit * (Asterisk Gallery), student shows at the Cleveland Institute of Art's Reinberger Gallery or the student-run space in the ARTcade. Galleries such as HeightsArts, Artefino Art Gallery Café, Buzz and SPACES host annual events where prices of $200 or less are intentionally adjusted to encourage reticent buyers.

Sliding into Home

Just as a freshly traded player needs time to adjust to his new ballpark, you may need time to think about how your work of art fits into your home.

Certain larger and established galleries, such as The Bonfoey Gallery, Contessa and SHAHEEN, offer services to help you place art in your home. Brian Schriefer hired what is called an "art installer." He also put in low-voltage halogen lighting, which is adjustable and directable. Another cost to consider is framing, which can sap $300 or more of your budget.

Ask the gallery about its return policy. Sale on approval means that the sale is final only after you bring the piece home and view it in its new environment. If in five years your tastes have outgrown your purchase, put it in a closet and save it for later. If your closets aren't big enough to store paintings you regret, says Busta, "There's always an auction."

Much like storing a car in the garage, protecting works of art requires care. Mary Suzer, registrar at Cleveland Museum of Art, whose job is overseeing the transportation of art into and out of the museum, works in an environment that is about 70 degrees and 50 percent humidity. If your home does not behave like a museum, however, then the most important thing to do is keep your art away from direct sunlight and heat. To prolong the life of a print or watercolor, Suzer suggests matting it on acid-free paper and covering it with conservation-grade UV-protection glass. The Bancroft Gallery charges $58 to mat and frame a 16-by-20 print.

Root for the Home Team

The best thing you can do for the sake of artists, dealers, galleries and your own stash of change is to buy art in Cleveland. "The problem with dealing high-end art is that collectors would prefer to say they had dinner with Richard Feigen in New York," laments James Corcoran of Corcoran Fine Arts Ltd. "It's less romantic to say they bought their piece in Shaker Square, even though they could have picked up the same work here for a third of the price."

Ann and Hugh Brown, who have been collecting for more than 40 years, buy regional art because it is less expensive. Her William C. Grauer, purchased for $275 in the 1970s, has been borrowed by museums twice. Despite the impressive lineup of works by Ken Nevadomi, Beni Kosh, Henry Keller, Masumi Hayashi and Grace V. Kelly, among others, their spending has not been extravagant.

Many dealers grumble about the "lack of collector base," meaning, aside from the Browns, very few people in Cleveland purchase art on a regular basis. One dealer gripes that "there are many people out there with the funds to collect, but instead they write checks to have their name associated with a fund-raising event."

Part of purchasing art is supporting the arts, much as buying season tickets shows your team spirit. Like catching the energy of the ballpark, though, visiting galleries becomes a habit. The good news is that art is always in season.

Play ball!

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