10 ways to find real art for a bargain
For only a bit more than you would spend on mass-produced “art” at HomeGoods or IKEA, you can buy originals — and support local artists.
1. OPEN STUDIOS
Stepping into a hushed gallery for the first time can be intimidating. But open studios — usually held once or twice a year, in spring and fall — offer neophytes an easy entry point to the art world. They let you interact with artists in their natural habitat and can be a boon to the pocketbook, since there’s no gallery middleman. “Prices are generally lower if you’re going directly to an artist,” says Abigail Ogilvy, whose namesake gallery is in the South End.
Ogilvy participates in the popular South End Open Studios — to be held next on September 24 and 25 — and the SoWa Art Walk every May. Both include hundreds of artists and galleries to choose from and offer plenty of work in the $100 to $1,000 range. Other large open studios include Jamaica Plain’s (September 17 and 18 this year), Fort Point’s (October 14 through 16), and those in Cambridge, Newton, and Somerville (all in April or May). For lists of open studios, check cityofboston.gov, massvacation.com, and artnewengland.com. Flux-Boston.com also lists happenings and blogs about various arts-related topics.
2. GALLERY WALKS & EVENTS
Many towns and artists’ co-ops combine art shows and open studios with a party atmosphere once a month or more, serving up drinks and hors d’oeuvres along with paintings, sculptures, installations, and sometimes live music. “That’s the time to walk in and introduce yourself,” says Annie Longley, communications manager at the Province-town Art Association and Museum (paam.org). “Because everyone is there for the same reason, and it’s to look at art — and to get a glass of wine.”
As with open studios, you can often see works by many artists in one place and make connections that might lead to more great finds down the road. Good places to start include Third Thursdays, from 6 to 9 p.m. at East Boston’s Atlantic Works Gallery (atlanticworks.org), and the weekly Friday Gallery Stroll in Provincetown, where “the party really starts around 7,” says Longley. You’ll find similar gatherings in Boston’s South End and in Lowell, Framingham, and Pittsfield, among others.
In artsy communities like P-town, the South End, and Jamaica Plain, many eateries and gift shops act as satellite galleries. “Any restaurant hanging work by a current artist will be very eager to connect you,” Longley says. In JP, for example, try Ula Cafe (ulacafe.com), which also showcases works on its website.
And remember, artists and even galleries tend to set prices with some room for negotiation. “You don’t want to completely undervalue a piece, like offer $100 for a painting that’s $500,” says Katrina Ellis, who worked at galleries in New York and is now the alumni relations and special events coordinator at the Rhode Island School of Design. “But collectors know to say, ‘Can you give me a better price on this?’ ” Ellis says you can save as much as 15 percent if you clearly love a piece but it’s just a little too rich for your blood. Or, she adds, “the artist might say, ‘I can’t, but stay in touch and maybe we can work out a deal.’ I know a lot of artists that sell on installment plans.”
3. ARTS CENTERS
Almost all of the art you’ll see at Greater Boston’s two dozen or so arts centers is for sale every day, sometimes starting at as little as $50, and the selection at the low end of the price scale can be even wider during special exhibits. To name just a few: the Concord Center for the Visual Arts’ Holiday Originals sale (December 1 to 20, concordart.org); the South Shore Arts Center’s Small Works show, where nothing is more than $500 (November 10 to December 18, ssac.org); and the Holiday Sale at the New Art Center in Newton, where everything is $200 or less (December 9 and 10).
Many arts centers, co-ops, and galleries also participate in ArtWeek Boston, a twice-yearly creative festival, next held September 30 to October 9. It’s not just for visual arts — the 100-plus events include dance, theater, music, and more in and around the city — but there are buying opportunities for just a few hundred dollars. Check artweekboston.org for a list of events and artsboston.org to keep up on exhibits throughout the year everywhere from small cooperative galleries to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.
4. STUDENT ART SALES
At student art sales, “the public can come and see works from the next generation of artists,” says Lisa Tung, director of the Bakalar and Paine galleries at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. MassArt (massart.edu) has spring and holiday sales — the next is December 4 through 10 — with more than 10,000 works available at each, including blown glass, ceramics, jewelry, drawings, photos, and watercolors. With some pieces going for just $1, the sale really draws a crowd, so get there early for the best selection. The School of the Museum of Fine Arts (smfa.edu) has a sidewalk sale in the spring that also has low-priced items, ranging from maybe $5 to $200.
Check out springtime thesis shows, too, for the works of graduate students, who are generally more polished than undergrads — though, Tung says, “you never know when you’ll find a diamond in the rough” at a graduating seniors show.
5. FUND-RAISING AUCTIONS
There are two kinds of auctions in the art world: traditional auction-house auctions, which usually sell older works, and fund-raising auctions, which sell some older donated works but focus on new works by living artists. For example, MassArt’s annual auction, in April, has had a piece from alum William Wegman sell for over $20,000, but it also offers lower-priced works by students, staff, faculty and other alumni. Last year, the lowest-priced item sold for $142.50.
6. TRADITIONAL AUCTIONS, ESTATE SALES, & FLEA MARKETS
Anyplace that deals in resale will be “a little behind the times in terms of artists that are new,” says Robin Starr, director of American and European works of art at Skinner Auctioneers (skinnerinc.com), based in Boston and Marlborough. “But if that’s the stuff you love, there are deals to be had.” Dan Elias, executive director of The New Art Center in Newton and a former host of Antiques Roadshow, goes even further, calling older pieces “a real buying opportunity” because contemporary is the current fashion. “For a few hundred,” he says, “you can get a beautifully made, well-executed work of art.”
Skinner and other auction houses don’t offer newbie collector events per se, but you can find sales featuring decorative works that Starr says “are worthy of being collected” for as little as a few hundred dollars. Check out online previews so you know which auctions and estate sales have works you covet. There are many places to start: Coyle’s (coylesauction.com), Boston Auctions and Antiques (bostonauctionsandantiques.com), Grogan & Company (groganco.com), Copley Fine Art Auctions (copleyart.com), Trudel’s (trudelauction.net), and, for estate sales, estatesales.net/ma/boston.
Or you could avoid leaving the house altogether by checking out ebth.com, which bills itself as “the premier estate sale marketplace.” With more than a dozen art categories and pieces starting as low as $1 and being bid into the low thousands, you’re bound to find something that appeals.
If you really like to poke around, the thrice-yearly Brimfield Antique Show is the biggest outdoor antique sale in the country, stretching a mile in length and far into the fields on both sides of Route 20. The Cambridge Antique Market, with 150 dealers in one building; the 18,000-square-foot Canal Street Antique Mall in Lawrence (canalstreetantique.com); the Somerville Flea in Davis Square (thesomervilleflea.com); and the SoWa Vintage Market (sowavintagemarket.com) all sell artwork, too.
7. FAIRS & FESTIVALS
Street fairs have become so ubiquitous in the past few decades that the wares sold at some of them have gotten a little, well, junky. But the Paradise City Arts Festival (paradisecityarts.com), held every spring and fall in Northampton and Marlborough, gives artists and artisans a venue in which to sell paintings, photography, sculpture, jewelry, textiles, and more for prices ranging from as low as $20 to the tens of thousands. “We wanted to do an arts festival that had quality objects,” says cofounder Linda Post, “but also understood we needed a wide variety of prices and aesthetics so people didn’t walk in and think, ‘This is like being in a museum, but I can’t afford anything.’ ”
Other higher-quality shows around the region include the Melrose Arts Festival in April (melrosearts.com) and the Coolidge Corner Arts Festival (coolidgecornerartsfestival.com) and Cambridge River Festival (cambridgema.gov), both held in June. You just missed the Berkshires Arts Festival (berkshiresartsfestival.com) in Great Barrington but can still catch the Craftsmen’s Fair (nhcrafts.org) in Newbury, New Hampshire, August 6 through 14. For the holidays, CraftBoston (societyofcrafts.org) comes to the Hynes Convention Center December 2 through 4. Check artfaircalendar.com and artscraftsshowbusiness.com for more.
Like everything else in life, original artwork is moving online in a big way. The online art market was $3.27 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach more than $9 billion by 2020. And (relative) bargains can be had: 2 out of 3 online sales are between $100 and $5,000.
“Art is one of the products, if you will, that has migrated to online a little later,” says Jordan Milne, a cofounder of Zatista, a curated online gallery of about 10,000 pieces ranging in price anywhere from $100 to $20,000. Zatista accepts only about 5 percent of the artists who apply; sites like UGallery, Vango, and Saatchi Art are more liberal but usually still require artists to be vetted before exhibiting on them.
For buyers, most sites let you search on style, medium, price, size, and predominant colors, and some offer guidance in the form of online advisers, magnified views, and virtual rooms. “On most of these sites, like Etsy, for example, you can put in a keyword and the next thing you know, you’re lost in possibilities,” says Nikki Dalrymple, owner of Acquire, a design service. “You start looking at one thing and their algorithms lead you to 50 other things. So often it’s just going far enough down that wormhole that you find something you’re inspired by.” Most sites also allow returns within a certain period of time.
9. ART SHARE
An unusual program put together by the Cambridge Arts Council lets you buy a share of original art as you would food shares from local farmers. Here, though, “CSA” stands not for community supported agriculture but community supported art. Nine artists — listed on csartcambridge.com — each contribute 50 works that get packaged and regularly doled out to those who pay annual “dues.” There are three levels: You get three works a year for $150, six for $300, and nine for $450. If you like the element of surprise, this is definitely for you.
10. STREET-CORNER ART
In big cities like New York and Vancouver, you can’t miss artists hawking their work directly to shoppers on the streets. There isn’t as much of that in Boston and Cambridge, but you can find some artists selling direct. Martinas Andrius, for example, once offered his moody marshscapes for $40 to $1,000 on Newbury Street, and can now sometimes be found in Harvard Square. “I’m cutting the gallery out and asking about half of what you’d pay there,” he says.
And remember to keep your eyes open when traveling. Interior designer and artist Vani Sayeed is always on the lookout, whether in a Paris flea market or a New Delhi bazaar. “You might spend $2 on a piece, but it will have tons of sentimental value for you,” she says. “As long as you love it, it’s visually appealing, and you connect with it. It’s all about visual joy, right?”