Why More People Don't Collect Art

It's our own damn fault more people aren't collecting art
Editorial by Lisa Boumstein-Smalley
Gallery Director Chicago Art Source Gallery


Finding encouraging news about the number of people collecting art (even when the economy is good) is comparable to finding a Chicagoan without an opinion on pizza. So when the economy is screwed up, even more galleries close and artists scramble to pull their resources together. My question is, and I am not the first person to ask it...Why aren't more people collecting art?!

As a person who lives for theories to evolve into epiphanies, here are a couple of ideas:

Pure intimidation---Most people get their information from TV and movies. Gallery owners and
artists are portrayed in movies, flighty space heads, or maudlin self-loathing social dweebs. I will be the first to say that there is some truth to those caricatures, but it's the art community's responsibility to say bullshit to this and behave differently. Fact is, if you want your work to be a part of a private collection, then you have to SELL it --THAT means it's a (gasp) business!!! When I am put off by a jerk at a restaurant, clothing store, or nail salon- I DON'T GO BACK. It's real simple, really it is.

Recreational Research!?!!---If a good-standing citizen woke up one day and realized that they couldn't live any longer with the white walls in their home, and they wanted to do a little Google research on how to start collecting art, here is what they might find:

1. Get on gallery mailing lists so you'll be invited to openings and special events. *
2. Attend National and International Art Fairs and Art Expos whenever possible. *
3. Talk to people in the art business to learn how to decipher genuine and fake works of art.**
4. Read art magazines and art history books to increase your knowledge. **
5. Never purchase art on impulse. Do your homework first! **

Seriously, no wonder people shop at IKEA for wall décor. I mean, people should do some research like anything else - compare digital cameras, cars, houses- but we shouldn't impregnate the idea of buying art (which should be fun) with fear because it is just wrong and counterproductive. Warning people of fakes and forgeries builds mistrust, which honestly keeps people away from galleries. And pushing the social agenda isn't what someone is looking for when they want to BUY art; it's only a possible byproduct.

It's our own damn fault that more people aren't collecting art. I choose to embrace the fact that it's not easy for some people to get over the intimidation hump, and that truly they want to have cool/beautiful/smart/evocative artwork on their walls without getting roped into a huge involvement of the artist community. I am confident that we can do better as a community because when a pedestrian turns into a first time collector, everybody wins. That's a beautiful thing.

Lisa Boumstein-Smalley
Gallery Director Chicago Art Source Gallery


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  • Yep, it is scary dipping a toe in. But, I saw something on line that caught my attention, and now it is in my head. I liked one painting (and it is probably not painting, but I don't know what else to call it) so much that I offered to proofread for the artist in trade... It was worth a try! But I am going to spend some money I don't really have for something I really like. I can make a sacrifice of fast food lunches for a while to make the investment in something that really affects, and has an effect on, me.

  • Its scary, and, it does take an investment of time to learn about what you are buying. Its easy enough for someone to plunk down 10k for a couch because they know the couch will fit their lifestyle, but to buy art (real art, not posters, not kitsch) to put on your wall is a whole other ball game. If you don't take the time to learn about what you are purchasing, it will be an empty, and unsatisfying experience.

    But I agree that the art community, art world makes the learning process difficult. From snooty gallery dealers (and staff) to a pretentious attitude--and really this is not at all most of the people in this business, but its enough to taint everyone--to environments in galleries that are really not that people pleasing (don't touch, don't ask stupid questions, be quiet, be cool, look cool...i could go on). We also, in the last 15 or 20 years have created a community, a literature, and a culture of self-referential, coded and impossible to 'read' art for the layman, only rarely does something break through and connect with everyone.

    So yes, we need to do a better job of reaching out to an audience that I know is there, but certainly needs to be better educated. With art programs shutting down in schools, fewer class trips to museums, we are in a losing battle. The internet provides a potential source of new learning, but until critics, writers can create a positive environment, and a broader range (not just us talking to each other) it won't be effective. With our major local papers not covering the art scene, not letting a wider audience in on whats going on, we lose more of the positive reporting we need for our community. By positive I mean critical writing that gives clarity to the work and contextualizes it for a much broader audience than its reaching right now.

  • A visit to an Art Gallery can be a learning experience. How do you know what you may like unless you go look? Motorcycle Art,Landscapes, Photographs,Oil Paintings, so much to see...go look. Also, you can buy some canvas and try to make something yourself it is relaxing and maybe you will discover an inner talent as I have.

  • Terrific! People need art... and should have what they need.

    Two great reasons are: art makes people think, and represents their happiness, losses, relationships, their religion, their beliefs, their politics and more and has been the main source of education on morality and religion and every day life for generations, two, and buying art keeps an artist you like in business.

  • Thank you all for chiming in! Great comments.

    Let's not forget that people also buy art to decorate their homes. The huge statistical majority of the art market is ultimately for that purpose. And as anti-high art as that may seem, it's where 90% of all collectors start. So I think embracing the idea that they "just want something over their couch" shouldn't be shunned, everyone has a right to start somewhere, and Joyce, as you say, it puts money in the pocket of an artist.

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:

    I'm going to get all Greenbergian on you here Kathryn, but we have to distinguish between art and kitsch; what most people buy to decorate their homes is kitsch. Pretty landscapes, colorful, safe, abstract work, pictures of cats or dogs or whatever is popular and doesn't contribute anything to the meaningful visual dialogue that artists participate in. And so, the challenge is, how do we get these decorators, (not all of them, just even a few!) to become more invested in, more interested and more informed about art. How do we get them to read about, look at and understand more about art? I don't know if its possible! Maybe art should be elitist, should be special and off limits except to those who take the time to figure it out. I go back and forth on this one, but when you think about what you gain from collecting art, as Joyce mentions above, I wish more would, it makes for a better society.

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:

    You go, Mary, get Greenbergian. I think there's kitch, stuff-in-the-middle, and high art. And I agree, for kitch folks, the more conceptual art may never be their bag. But the middle ground group, that I'm more sympathetic to now that I have a home. Lots of conceptual art would look like poo in the home. I always say I want two art collections someday: one for my walls and one in my file cabinet. I love dematerialized work - the less there is, the more I like it - but that's a mental thing. Lots of stuff in River North is good, works in the home, but not dogs playing poker either, right?

  • In reply to KathrynBorn:

    A great conversation to start, Lisa! I'm after my own friends on this one regularly. A major reason that many people buy wall decorations (or furniture) at Ikea (really just fill in the blank here: Crate & Barrel, Pottery Barn) instead of buying unique art (or antiques or unusual furniture) in part because there's a comprehendable price that is listed (in a store or in a catalog.) And everyone who buys that item pays the same, established price.

    Buying art can be scary to newbies because prices can seem arbitrary; they're not sure if they're being taken for a ride, if they could do that work themselves, or if they'll make a choice they'll soon regret (or that will embarrass them in front of those who they think know more.) And buyers are so intimidated they don't even ask about why it costs X. There are a lot of leaps of faith involved in buying art - people just need some (educated) pushes to take them.

    Not to mention that most people aren't aware that many galleries do work out payment plans with collectors to soften the blow of prices that are beyond the every day for most people. Plenty of collectors have stories about starting out and paying a gallery $25 a month for a couple of years to own something they fell in love with.

    But when people buy these common things with a standard price that makes sense to them, they don't realize that value goes down as soon as it's off the lot, just like a car. Mass market stuff isn't ultimately worth much - monetarily or emotionally. But on the other hand, some people don't want to think about what they buy - but those people will never be the art buying audience (as you've all said!)

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