Herb and Dorothy Vogel made a pact: they would live on her (a librarian) salary while they spent his (a postal worker) collecting art. 45 years later they had amassed a collection of 4,000 works by Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and other contemporary masters that required five moving trucks when it was donated to the National Gallery of Art in 1992. While trading your couch for a piece of conceptual sculpture isn’t advised (the Vogel’s shared a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment) living with original art of your choosing is, and you don’t have to be Eli Broad or Charles Saatchi to do it.
As with purchasing most things, you could complete the process simply by walking into a gallery, pointing at the wall, and saying “that one” (while pulling out the Visa). But buying an original art work is an investment in your cultural future, an opportunity to explore a rarefied world, and if you choose well—with a little luck—a valuable financial asset. If you’re starting completely from scratch, consider hiring an art consultant, but know that they’ll probably steer you towards the trendy, and a big commission for themselves. Instead, surf the ads in Artforum and frieze magazines first for a snapshot of the bleeding-edge scene. Fill in some background with a visit to your local museum, and subject your taste to some rigorous testing: When you like something, ask yourself why.
As with fashion, don’t be afraid to stick to what you like and what works for your lifestyle. Plenty of galleries specialize in a particular medium or even time period (ie. photography, oil painting, Early-American, etc.), so go with what you know at first. But you’ll never acquire the next Koons by playing it safe: Some set aside space specifically for younger galleries. Try Frieze Art Fair’s Frame section for example, which this year features the hip likes of London’s Rob Tufnell (showing Joel Croxson) and Ancient & Modern (showing Paul Johnson).
Art fairs, still proliferating in variations from high-end (Art Basel) to rag-tag (Fountain—which is held on a floating bar), can be overwhelming but are another great resource—and an excuse for a December jaunt to Miami. Another strategy is to shop online; 20×200.com offers a fantastic and ever-changing array of limited-edition prints and photographs starting at an unbeatable twenty bucks. And sign up now for soon-to-launch art.sy, a customizable web portal to myriad top-flight dealerships that uses an algorithm like Pandora’s to direct you towards informed recommendations.
When you’re finally ready to pull the trigger, keep an open mind (that’s kind of the point here) but don’t neglect practicalities. Fragile materials may be a talking point but you want the piece to last, so think twice before saying “yes” to that sculpture made of cream cheese. Bottom line is, there’s no bottom line. Forget about buying strictly for investment or tracking the art market’s up’s and down’s—it’s always a good time to acquire art. Treat spectacle and hype with skepticism, and go instead for what sticks in your mind—remember, every major museum started as someone’s personal collection.