Time was, not so long ago, that collecting art was the exclusive realm of a rarefied, jet-setting elite. That’s still largely the case — see: Frieze New York, a sprawling high-end art fair taking place this week where $50,000-plus pieces are so many as to be generic — but the playing field has leveled.
Between scrappy young galleries showcasing hungry up-and-comers and a growing field of low-price art fairs like this weekend’s Love Art in Toronto, the casual hobbyist can get into the game with modest investment and a little discretion. Even the auction realm, famous for sky-high bidding wars, offers the occasional find, and its season starts at the end of the month with the Heffel auction on May 28.
Toronto, in my opinion, has never been better in its offering of art for sale, in variety, price and, most importantly, quality. It still won’t be cheap, but the sacrifices required to buy it — a new LED TV, or art? — are a little more within the reach of the many.
So how to begin? That’s what we’re here for. Herein, some helpful tips and things to see on gallery walls over the city, right now, to get you started. But first, some ground rules.
1. See a lot. And I mean a lot.
The only way to get a handle on the kind of art on which you might want to shell out your hard-earned money is to spend as much time as you can seeing out the art you don’t want to buy. It’s a process of elimination: The more you see, the closer you get to narrowing down the kind of things you want to live with. So join the Art Gallery of Ontario, head down to the Power Plant, check out the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. Read the weekly gallery listings — canadianart.ca is a good bet — and get out there. Absorb. Take notes: Painting, photography, sculpture? Wander the better private galleries for a sense of what’s happening at the upper end of the Canadian market.
2. Don’t worry about the experts.
I can tell you what to buy. But don’t listen to me. Like anyone, I go with what I like, and I’m the only one who truly knows what that is. The best advice is: Buy it if you love it. This thing will be in your life for a long time — ideally permanently. You should feel it in your bones.
3. Don’t buy art as an investment.
You’d have better luck recouping your money by throwing it down a wishing well. The international press overflows with astonishing auction results, sure, but that’s at the far top end of a market that’s dominated by billionaire hobbyists, many of whom have big enough holdings to manipulate the market themselves. You’re not in that game. Decide what you can afford, take a deep breath, and live with it.
4. Start small
Not that artists necessarily price work by the square inch, but size matters. The bigger the piece, the bigger the price, based strictly on everyday things like labour and materials. In Toronto right now, Kelly Wallace’s show at Georgia Scherman Projects starts at $4,500 for a hauntingly beautiful 9-by-14-inch piece, and goes up to $16,000 for an intense work that’s 36-by-57 inches. Similarly, at Diaz Contemporary, Elizabeth McIntosh’s paintings range from $7,000 for a 24-by-20-inch work to $16,000 for the remarkable piece, Girl, at 73-by-49 inches.
5. Don’t haggle.
Buying art isn’t like buying a car. Most galleries will typically offer a small discount without being asked, but don’t expect it. The best artists pour their souls into their work, and buying one of their pieces, ideally, is the start of a relationship between you and that artist. Don’t sour it at the outset.
So now what? There are plenty of places in Toronto to see art for sale of all kinds and price ranges. Here are a few things happening right this very minute:
In this camp are Diaz Contemporary with its Elizabeth McIntosh show, and Georgia Scherman Projects with Kelly Wallace. Nicholas Metivier, who shows a number of name-brand photographers, is currently showing photos by legendary shooter Gordon Parks; a famous portrait of Muhammad Ali is $13,000.
At Jessica Bradley Projects, one of the city’s pre-eminent dealers, a current show of photographic works by Toronto artist (now Berlin-based) Jessica Eaton ranges from $4,500 to $12,000. Susan Hobbs, long one of the city’s best-known dealers for museum-quality works, a current show of paintings by Shirley Wiitasalo range from $8,000 to $18,000. Daniel Faria, who represents a range of both younger and established artists, has a show by the up-and-comer Nadia Belerique on right now that range from $1,800 to $5,000. It doesn’t sound like a bargain, but on an international circuit where works of equal quality and professionalism sell for three or four times as much in a heartbeat, Toronto art is absolute steal. Take it to heart.
The Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition is a long-standing free-for-all of things like knitting and pottery, and a surprising amount of interesting art. It takes place every July long weekend in Nathan Philips Square. One of the better ones in recent years was a booth from photographer Maureen O’Connor, who’s showing at Alison Milne Gallery all of a sudden this month. In any case, you can buy some of her prints at a site called Art Interiors for as little as $150.
The outdoor art show every September in Trinity Bellwoods Park is part of the Queen West Art Crawl. With the same mix in a smaller, nicely treed package, you’ll find painting and sculpture amidst the foliage at sometimes surprising prices. People move up from there, too. Nora Deacon, who made remarkable facsimiles of child’s dresses from wax paper, started selling her pieces for $800 here; now, they’re several thousand.
Wondereur: An online project with the weight of the AGO and the Canadian Film Centre behind it, Wondereur is an art magazine/online marketplace particularly good at providing depth, selling emerging artists on the strengths of their stories. And it looks great.
Art Bomb: A daily email appears in your inbox with the work of the day, all of it Canadian and most often in the highly affordable range. Occasionally a piece will pass by your screen that crests the $2,000 mark, but under $500 is a common price tag here.
Eye Buy Art: The Toronto-based site helpfully offers price ranges on its front page, at various tiers: $35, $60, $250, $500 and $1500, meaning you can tailor your browsing to your budget. The rules still apply: Buy what you love. But for 35 bucks, the break-up hurts a lot less.