We won’t try to define art, except to say that original art—even if it’s just a soulful garage-sale find—fills a home with unmatched character and stories. But buying that first piece (or knowing how to mesh it with others) can be daunting. So we teamed with Iowa art consultant Liz Lidgett to assemble this guide, loaded with tips for building an art collection that’s within budget, thoughtfully displayed and, most importantly, uniquely you.
Chair courtesy of thirdlifedesigns.com
One and done Every collection starts somewhere. Displaying a single treasured work can be just as impactful as a gallery wall (and it’s easier on the pocketbook).
Form and function Art doesn’t have to hang on walls. The leather-and-walnut chair above—designed, carved and tooled by Jesse Elmore in Overland Park, Kansas—is a gorgeous object that offers far more than just a place to sit.
You’re not a museum curator. But it doesn’t hurt to think like one—just a little bit. Here’s how.
Look at art Mind-blowing, right? But the first step to figuring out what you like is exposing yourself to art. Take in museums, galleries, shows and festivals. The more you see, the more you’ll trust your instincts when you’re drawn to (or repelled by) a work of art. And that brings us to ...
Fall in love The art in your home should do more than decorate. It should resonate, reflecting your personality, experiences and values. So don’t second-guess a piece that brings you joy. If the color or style doesn’t seem to fit with your decor, just know there’s always a way to make it work.
Shop smart There’s another, more practical benefit to looking at a lot of art before you buy: spending wisely. Prices vary enormously, and you may encounter sticker shock. As you look at more art, you’ll gain confidence in gauging value, identifying deals and making strategic investments.
Check your inventory Art museums have all kinds of treasures hiding in their basements. You might, too. Periodically take fresh stock of the art you have displayed or stored. Knowing what you have will help you recognize a complementary piece and may inspire new display ideas.
Consider your space Lighting is key for preserving art and also showing it off; avoid dark corners and harsh glares. Don’t place 3-D works in narrow or high-traffic spots. Also, you don’t need to turn your home into a stark gallery, but certainly, neutral furniture and accessories can help art pop.
Be size wise We’ll talk more about math later, but as you venture out, keep two magic numbers in mind: 75 and 8. Art should be about 75 percent of the size of the furniture beneath it—whether it’s a single painting or the overall scale of a gallery wall display—and at least 8 inches away from it.
‘Round the bend Wrap a gallery wall around a corner, leaving open space on either side of the art. It’s OK for the grouping to grow asymmetrically as you add to your collection.
Ultimate shelfie Think beyond the wall. You can hang a small painting on the front of a bookshelf or tuck a freestanding canvas or small sculptural piece among books and other treasures.
3 ways to discover the next best thing
You can score a bargain (and possibly a great investment) by supporting emerging artists.
1) Many art fairs devote sections to early-career talent. You’ll find lower prices and artists eager to connect with audiences.
2) End-of-semester student shows— like an enormous November sale at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design—feature skilled artists, most of whom aren’t yet tied to galleries. (So prices aren’t inflated by gallery commissions.)
3) Look for local co-op galleries, where artists collaborate to rent a shared space. Other galleries make a point of featuring emerging artists.
Art of the deal
A chat with an artist is often the first step in a purchase. So work it.
Start a conversation “What inspired you when creating this piece?”
Stay curious Ask questions about process, medium and inspiration. Engaging with the artist builds rapport and may give you a story to go with your art. But steer clear of questions that pry into value, such as “How long did this take you?” Time doesn’t equate to quality.
Try it on Some galleries and artists let prospective buyers borrow pieces to try in their homes. Living with a work for a while can tell you if it’s “the one.”
Pick a payment If a piece is priced outside your budget, ask if the artist is open to a payment plan.
How to find studios
Check out events listings in your area for tours and open houses. In Cincinnati, for example, many of the eight-story Pendleton Art Center’s 200 or so studios open to the public on Final Fridays each month.
5 Great Festivals
Art fairs are a low-pressure way to discover new styles of art, get display ideas, talk to artists, grow your collection—and soak up a beautiful day.
Des Moines Arts Festival
Lakefront Festival of Art Milwaukee, June 21–23, 2019 This fest nurtures young talent by pairing emerging creators with more experienced artists as mentors. lfoa.mam.org
Des Moines Arts Festival Des Moines, June 28–30, 2019 Multi-year winner of a “best festival in the world” award, this event includes a film fest and interactive arts. desmoinesartsfestival.org
Uptown Art Fair Minneapolis, August 2–4, 2019 In a bustling urban setting, this fair also features culinary arts contests, a beer garden and youth art show. uptownartfair.com
St. Louis Art Fair Clayton, Missouri, September 6–8, 2019 Works include a wide selection of media, near some of the city’s best restaurants. saintlouisartfair.com
St. James Court Art Show Louisville, Kentucky, October 4–6, 2019 Proceeds from this festival, held in a historical Victorian neighborhood, fund local beautification efforts. stjamescourtartshow.com
We used Midwest art to produce this story pages (and fell in love with all of it!). Just in case you did, too ...
1 Yao Cheng Columbus, Ohio Watercolor print
2 Aly Ytterberg St. Louis Acrylic on canvas
3 Pam Killerlain Moorhead, Minnesota Acrylic on canvas
4 Kim Hutchison Des Moines Mixed media on paper
5 Bohemian Glass Art Detroit Stained glass
6 Missy Monson Excelsior, Minnesota Mixed media on canvas
7 Ben Schuh Des Moines Acrylic canvas on board
8 Hoffmanaart Shelbyville, Michigan Watercolor
9 Kristi Kohut Chicago Fine art giclée
10 Jenny Mueller Ames, Iowa Embroidered watercolor
11 Andrea Starkey Bellbrook, Ohio Woodblock print
12 Chris Dahlquist Kansas City, Missouri Mixed media photograph
See more featured artists below.
You’ve planned. You’ve explored. You’ve taken the plunge and purchased something special. (Maybe even a few somethings.) Now the fun really begins.
Frame of mind Many gallery walls on Pinterest show frames that are all the same color or even the same style. That works, but it’s not a requirement. You can mix it up. The wall below combines simple white, black and blonde wood frames, and we repeated each color at least once so there are no outliers.
3-D vision A great gallery wall can include much more than paintings or prints. Small sculptural pieces add energy and interest to an angular design.
On the mat Fake a custom framing job by pairing an inexpensive ready-made frame with a custom-order acid-free mat from your local framing shop.
13 Joni Tyrrell North Liberty, Iowa Photograph
14 Elizabeth Mayville Grand Rapids, Michigan Print of painting
15 Jaime Rovenstine Kansas City, Missouri Digital print
16 Amy Arnolds and Kelsey Sauber Olds Viroqua, Wisconsin Carved and painted wood
17 Gregory Story Chicago Ceramics
18 Hannah Beisang Arden Hills, Minnesota Acrylic on canvas
19 James Page Chelsea, Michigan Acrylic on canvas
20 Chad Wys Peoria, Illinois Paint on print
21 Joyce McCown of Moonshadow Press St. Louis Embroidered photograph
22 Tracey Capone Chicago Photograph
How to mix pieces
You can theme a gallery wall if you like (varied images of water, say, or art all purchased on trips). In general, visual variety is more interesting than having everything matching, but picking a color (such as pink, on our wall above) that recurs in a few pieces can tie everything together.
No need to guess where to hammer. Here’s the math.
Figure out where the top of the art should hit on the wall. Measure the height of the framed piece in inches. Divide by 2, and add 60. (Why 60 inches? This puts the center of the art at the sight line for most adults. On a gallery wall, do this for the central piece.)
Next, account for the wire. Pull the hang wire taut, and measure the distance between the taut wire and the frame top.
Now subtract. The first number minus the second number tells you where to put the nail.
EXAMPLE (20-inch-tall piece with a taut wire 5 inches from the frame)
20 ÷ 2 = 10 inches
10 + 60 = 70 inches
70 – 5 = 65 inches
Hammer the nail 65 inches from the floor.
Gallery wall install
1 Outline each piece of art on butcher paper.
2 Cut out each shape, then use painter’s tape to hang the shapes. Move the shapes around until you’re happy with the arrangement.
3 Measure between the frame top and taut wire for each piece, then hammer nails through the paper. Tear off the paper, and hang your art.