On the Town         Section 7        Page 1



Don't be intimidated (and measure your walls)

By Jenn Q. Goddu
Special to the Tribune
Published September 9, 2005

First-time art buyers are often told to "buy what you like." But what if you don't know what you like?

This weekend is a great time to find out, with the launch of the fall gallery season and Wicker Park/Bucktown's annual Around the Coyote Fall Arts Festival. There's no substitute for getting out and looking. "People don't really often know what they like, they just like what they know," said Byron Roche, owner of Byron Roche Gallery (750 N. Franklin St., Suite 105). "The more you can get out there and really see what artists are doing, it actually changes what you like."

More than 50 Chicago art galleries are opening new shows this weekend, and more than 200 visual artists show off their works at Around the Coyote (ATC), now in its 16th year. Festival executive director Allison Stites says the event aims to make art accessible to everyone. Most of the work on display is under $2,000, she said, "so it's a good place for people to start their collections and start getting involved in the arts."

Here are a few tips for venturing into the art world and buying some original work.

FACE YOUR FEAR: Don't be intimidated by your perceived lack of knowledge about art. The more you know and the more you see, the deeper your reaction might be, but that doesn't mean you can't connect with something on an initial level, said Natalie van Straaten, executive director of the Chicago Art Dealers Association (CADA).

Galleries have a reputation for being cold or intimidating spaces, but van Straaten points out gallery workers know "most of the people who come to see the work are not coming in to buy something, and they're not coming in with any particular knowledge. They're coming in to learn, to see, to experience whatever is on the walls."

You can read books about art and visit galleries and museums to get a sense of your taste, but ultimately there's no homework required, said Susan Aurinko, director of Flatfile Galleries (217 N. Carpenter St.). "Truthfully I think they're better off if they just walk in with an open mind."

TAKE STOCK OF YOUR HOUSE: "You want to buy something and you want to be so excited about it that you run home and can't wait to get it up on your wall," said Amy Brandolino, director of educational programs at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art (40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston) and an ATC board member. But measure the wall first. Brandolino recommends having an idea of six different places, both big and small, in your home where you might hang art.

"Leave yourself room to be moved by any kind of piece," she recommends. "I know a lot of people go in saying they're looking for a landscape and fall in love with a figure drawing because it reminds them of their first love. So go in with an idea, but be ready for the unexpected."

Roche points out you are starting a collection and decorating your home at the same time. "Rather than compromising and getting a bunch of stuff to fill your walls, I'd rather get one piece I really like," he said. You needn't establish your collection overnight. Instead, do it over a lifetime.

TAKE YOUR TIME: At a street festival, Stites recommends seeing as much of it as possible and avoiding rash decisions. "The downside of course is that you may miss out on getting a piece that you really love, but I think it's how you learn what you do like, and how you sort of hone your eye, if you give yourself time to listen to what you really like."

You might even ask an artist to put a work on hold for an hour while you keep walking around. Brandolino also recommends bringing a notebook or a folder to take notes and collect artists' business cards, statements or postcards of art.

GO ON TOUR: The ATC offers guided tours this year (see On the Town's guide for schedules). And the CADA hosts free gallery excursions throughout the year in the River North gallery district. The Saturday morning outings depart from a neighborhood Starbucks (750 N. Franklin St. at 10:30 a.m.; 312-649-0065 or www.chicagoartdealers.org). For an overview of gallery openings this weekend, visit www.chicagogallerynews.com.

TALK TO THE ARTISTS: One-on-one contact with artists is a big advantage of buying at ATC, Brandolino said. "Knowing that this isn't a gallery and this is a festival, and things are a lot more informal, really helps the buying process be a little less stuffy and less scary."


ATC focuses on emerging artists, local unknowns who are still discovering what their place is going to be in the art world. So why buy an emerging artist's work?

It's less expensive, for one, Stites said. "What makes it enriching is that it's exciting to sort of be there at the start of someone's career and to help foster that in the community. To be supporting young artists is a really profoundly great thing."

Emerging art can even be a financial investment. "Really the best way to increase the value of your collection is to get in early on someone's career and as their value goes up, your collection goes up in value," Stites said.

Yet determining value is difficult with art, said Roche. "The more you collect and the more you find out about [art], the more value you see in it. Value doesn't have much to do with money. It has more to do with how you treasure something."

PRICE THE ART: Negotiating is par for the course at festivals, less so at established galleries. (Know that galleries charge a steep mark-up, but also are offering some expert evaluation on what art is worthwhile.)

Also know that the artist is charging not just for the materials that went into the piece but also their time and creativity invested. "There are a lot of unquantifiable things that go into the pricing of a piece of work," Stites said.

Van Straaten bought her first painting for $75 when she was 15 years old. "You know it was a terrible painting, but it really was important to me," she said. Don't buy art because it's expensive or established, she said. "Even if you have the money to spend, it's not necessarily the appropriate thing to purchase if it's not something you relate to and you don't understand why you want it."

LISTEN TO YOUR HEART: "The first thing has to be that you love the piece of work and that you want to live with it. I think if people start there they'll never make a mistake," Stites said.

Roche has art he's accumulated over decades hanging throughout his house. Even though he is now interested in different artists than he was when he began collecting, there is a commonality to every piece in his collection: "I love everything I have," he said. "If you look at that stuff you liked a long time ago, it's like a diary of your life. It reminds you of who you were."