Fine art becoming more consumer-friendly

Whether as an investment or to fill a space above the couch, buying art has never been more accessible. The once-staid world of high-priced galleries is more than happy to welcome novice buyers with more entry level works and lots of information and advice.

Once-exclusive galleries more welcoming to new buyers

Aaron Kotick and his wife are looking to fill a blank space on their family room wall. (CBC)

The average consumer who wants to explore the rarefied, exclusive world of fine art may find that arcane market a bit more open and welcoming these days.

For the novice art lover, some galleries — with their sparse, silent spaces, lack of price tags and unwelcoming staff — can be a tad intimidating, says Susannah Rosenstock, director of Canada's biggest modern and contemporary fine art fair.​

"There may be one lovely girl sitting up at the front desk who doesn't want to talk to you. I've had that experience myself. But galleries that are here at an art fair want to talk to you. That's why they're here."

The Art Toronto fair that wrapped up Monday drew 105 galleries from Canada and 12 other countries to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where they nearly filled an exhibit hall.

There were hundreds, if not thousands, of works on display, ranging from pieces by up-and-coming artists to the Group of Seven.  

Almost all of it was for sale, and unlike in many galleries, most had price tags clearly visible for all to see.

"They have a lot of information for you. Sometimes the artists are here. They want you to ask questions, they want to tell you why they've selected this art works to hang in their booth at this time," says Rosenstock.

You don't have to be rich

That accessibility seemed to bring in crowds from a broad socioeconomic demographic.

While the show's preview night drew high-profile, power collectors with names like Mirvish or Weston, when the doors opened to the general public, in walked Aaron Kotick, casually dressed in a white T-shirt and blue hoodie.

A.J. Casson's painting Barns on Bayview, 1930 was one of the works available for sale in Peter Priede's booth at Art Toronto. (CBC)

"We've got a big space on our wall in our family room that's blank right now and we're looking at different artists and thought this could be a good place to experience a bunch of different artists," says Kotick. 

Neophyte art aficionados might find the $60,000 price tag for an A.J. Casson in Peter Priede's booth out of reach, but that doesn't mean he caters only to the well-heeled.

"Customers come from all walks of life," says Priede, owner-director of Hazelton Fine Art Galleries in Toronto's tony Yorkville district.

"We get the old school, the new school and the upcoming school. It's a broad perspective, everyone from corporate purchasers, private purchasers, beginners," says Priede.

Catering to first timers

With beginners, Priede says gallery staff will work to help determine their taste in art. 

"Do they like landscape? Do they like traditional work? Do they like contemporary? Do they like abstract?

"If it's a beginning piece, we usually try to bring several pieces to their home or their office. They get to try them on their wall on approval. To make sure the sizes are right, that the imagery is right, that they enjoy the painting — that's the key thing," says Priede.

Alongside several Group of Seven paintings, Priede's booth also featured works by emerging Quebec artist Eric Dupont. One of Dupont's paintings was priced at $3,500.  

Colourful, whimsical pieces by Jane Waterous were priced between $5,400 and $10,000. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

But the big seller for Priede one day during the fair Nassau-based, Ontario-educated artist Jane Waterous.

Priede sold about half a dozen Waterous paintings — colourful, whimsical pieces priced between $5,400 and $10,000 — in just the first couple hours of the show. 

The accessibility theme continued on the other side of the hall, where less-established galleries had their booths in the "Next" section.  

Artists in the Dopamine Collective, a group of artists from Owen Sound, Ont., have science backgrounds and day jobs: one is a dentist.They use their scientific training to create their art. Works in their booth started at $300. 

"One of the things to consider when you're selling art is who is that audience," says the Collective's James Fowler.  

"We're going to have someone who is your new collector, your young collector, someone who maybe has a little bit of money and has bought maybe one or two pieces and they want to broaden their collection."

It all adds up

It's hard to get a sense of the effect this newly gained access to fine art is having on the overall market.

According to the Canadian Conference of the Arts, total spending on works of art, carvings and other decorative ware was $930 million in 2008. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that market is growing. The Canada Council for the Arts, for instance, says it has seen a great number of galleries moving to bigger spaces.

The financial crisis in 2008 hit the art market hard, but values have increased since then, to the point where relative novices like Kotick, looking to fill that empty spaces walls, are also looking for a potential return on investment.  

"I'm at that age — mid 30s — where I'm starting to think about it. I've got a bunch of friends who are starting to invest in art. So I'm also looking at it as a bit of an investment as well, something to pass down to my kids," says Kotick.

Most consumers aren't going to get rich investing in art.  

Recent analysis from the Stanford Graduate School of Business suggests the true annual return on art as an asset class over the long term is about 6.5 per cent. That same analysis also found art had higher overall risk than the stock market.

But stock certificates don't look nearly as nice hanging above the couch.

And with galleries welcoming more novice buyers and showcasing more emerging artists with more entry level prices, many of the barriers for buying art are coming down. 

If you have a consumer issue, contact Aaron Saltzman.

5 tips for the first-time buyer

  1. Start small. Don't try to fill that two-metre-by-two-metre space above the TV. Large pieces are likely to be more expensive.
  2. Try starting with a drawing or a photograph or even a limited edition print. They're less expensive and can also help in discovering your taste prior to splurging on an original.
  3. Avoid big names. Look for younger artists who haven't made a name internationally and haven't had many shows. They may be just starting out, and often have lower price points.
  4. Do your homework. Visit lots of museums and galleries and even auctions. This will give you a sense of the type of art you prefer and a broad idea of the cost of that art.
  5. Buy something you really love. It sounds clichéd but it's true.  If the value happens to go down, at least you can still enjoy the way it looks in your room.

About the Author

Aaron Saltzman

Senior Reporter, Consumer Affairs

Aaron Saltzman is CBC's Senior Reporter for Consumer Affairs. Tips/Story ideas always welcome.