Here's How to Buy and Display Fine Art for Your Home
Think buying art is intimidating? It doesn’t have to be. We talked to a trio of local experts in the art world to demystify the process of learning about, acquiring, and displaying fine art at home.
By Laurie Yarnell
Interior design by Barrett Oswald
Photo by Tim Lenz
Even the most tastefully designed home can seem flat without art. Whether paintings, prints, photography, sculpture, drawings, ceramics, video, neon, or multimedia installations, art provides a finishing touch that helps transform a house into a truly personal space.
But the thought of choosing that art can be daunting. Fortunately, “there’s no right or wrong way to acquire art,” says Karen Hauser of art salon EdelHaus. “Whether you want to buy a few pieces to hang on your wall or put a sculpture in your foyer to enjoy, what makes it so much fun and interesting is that it really is a personal journey, very different for each of us.”
Janet T. Langsam of ArtsWestchester likens the process of acquiring art to “a journey of looking and opening your vision to ideas that you may like or be intrigued by or discovering something that has some magic for you.”
To assist you as you embark on that journey, we asked experts to debunk some common misconceptions about fine art.
Founder of an eponymous Larchmont gallery that focuses on emerging and midcareer investment-quality artists, Kenise Barnes was formerly a specialist in charge of contemporary art at Christie’s East. She represents 50 artists from across the country.
What is art? “It’s the beating heart and lifeline of the home and the single-most bespoke, unique thing that speaks to people. Art is absolutely essential.”
Personal collection: Figurative art by female artists with a feminist point of view.
Karen Hauser of Scarsdale is partners with Debbie Edelman in EdelHaus Modern Art, an art salon offering art advisory services. She has a master’s in contemporary art from Sotheby’s and worked at both Cooper Hewitt Museum and Sotheby’s.
What is art? “Art is the soul of the home. The more you engage, personalize it, and make it your own, the more you’ll enjoy it.”
Personal collection: Small to medium figurative sculptures, video, repurposed art, and tzedakah (Jewish charity boxes).
The longtime CEO of the premier Westchester County art nonprofit, ArtsWestchester, located in White Plains, Janet T. Langsam is a painter who was New York City’s first deputy commissioner of cultural affairs. She has also served as president and CEO of the Boston Center for the Arts and is a founder of the Queens Museum of Art.
What is art? “It’s the soul of the home. It personalizes [a space] in a way that a couch or table can’t. I put art in my home that I love, am attracted to, and has meaning for me.”
Personal collection: Vintage lamps, midcentury ceramics, work by women.
Room designed by Di Biase Filkoff Architects, Photo by Durston Saylor
You need to be an expert to select art.
How many times have you heard someone say about art, “I know what I like, but I’m not an expert”? Guess what, everyone is an expert in what they like, what appeals to them, and what they are drawn to. If you want to learn more about art, you can take a course at a local college or adult education program. But the best way to learn about art and develop your personal preferences and aesthetic, says Langsam, is to look at a lot of it. “You can train your eye and look for things that speak to you.” She suggests going to museums like the Neuberger at SUNY Purchase; the Katonah Museum of Art; Hudson River Museum in Yonkers; and Peekskill’s Hudson Valley MOCA, known for its really edgy works. “Try to look at art that rocks your world,” adds Hauser. “Ask yourself what’s different about this artist and why am I drawn to the work?”
Framing should be suitable to a particular piece; not all artwork should necessarily have the same frame, even if pieces are displayed together. For a shabby-chic look, frames can be different and eclectic. For a cleaner, contemporary look, consider using the same or similar framing materials.
Work with a framer whose materials are 100 percent archival, also called preservation or conservation. Such materials, like mounting and matting board, are designed to protect the artwork long term.
Use high UV-filtering conservation or museum glass to prevent a piece from fading.
Be aware that many contemporary paintings don’t need framing; ask the artist or gallery for guidance.
If possible, use a professional fine- art framer; ask the gallery or artist for a recommendation.
Framing should protect the work and not detract from it, so don’t overframe. The art should be the main event, and the frame should disappear. Kenise Barnes uses a very clean, basic whitewash, natural wood frame with a simple profile in her gallery.
If possible, ask the artist for input on how he or she envisions the work framed.
Hanging & Installation
Consider waiting until you have a collection to hang your pieces. A good art handler will move pieces around to determine their best placements in relationship to one another.
Hang your pieces at museum height: 60 inches from the floor to the center of the artwork. If you or your spouse is taller than 6 feet, adjust that measurement up. If the work is primarily seen while sitting, as in a dining room, consider adjusting it down.
Crooked artwork is infuriating. Hang your piece using two D-rings rather than picture wire. It’s a little more difficult to do, but once the piece is up, it will never be unlevel.
Be flexible. Install art in your home where it looks best. If a painting you bought to hang over your couch looks better in your bedroom, hang it there instead.
Consider using a professional fine-art hanger to install your pieces. Ask the gallery or artist for a recommendation.
With abstract pieces, know the orientation of the piece — either vertical or horizontal — and which side is top.
Don’t place photographs or light-sensitive work in areas that receive a lot of sunlight unless you have protection on your windows.
Play video art on one TV in a continuous loop.
Neon art installation is particularly complicated. Don’t try to do it yourself: Enlist a professional.
Before hanging heavy or unwieldy art, make sure your wall can hold it; the wall might have to be reinforced.
Interior design and photo by Melissa London, artwork from Towbridge Gallery
You need to spend a lot of money on art.
Not so, says Kenise Barnes of the eponymous gallery. “Yes, it’s an investment, but it doesn’t have to be particularly expensive,” she says. “If you’re really buying what you love, it’s not ever going to wear out like furniture; no one’s going to spill juice on it.” People often wait to buy art after their furnishings, she says, “and then they say they ran out of money. Budget for art as you’re making your room design.” And “don’t be stingy when it comes to buying art and supporting artists,” Langsam says. “Some people will buy a $12,000 couch and put a $100 painting over it. Make the same investment in art that you do in your furnishings.”
How do you know you are paying a fair price? “Go to people who are reputable,” says Barnes. “It used to be that galleries didn’t post prices, but I’m a firm believer in transparency with pricing. My pricing is on the website, and it’s based on an artist’s previous sales records and reputation. There’s a real formula.” Finally, should you negotiate for a piece of art? “It is done, but I think it’s a terrible, outdated practice and very poor form,” says Barnes. “We set a fair price. Instead of negotiating, you might ask for free delivery or installation, or if you’re buying two or three pieces from the same artist, you might ask for a price reduction.” If you’re looking for more reasonably priced types of art, consider prints, suggests Hauser. “Prints are often an accessible entry into acquiring art,” she says. She adds to look for small editions that printed less than 25 total.
Living Room by Barrett Oswald, Photo by Tim Lenz
The Do's and Dont's of Buying Art
Most importantly, buy what you love and want to live with long term.
Spend time looking at art and educating yourself about what you like. Instagram is a great way to see a lot of art, but nothing beats the experience of looking at art in person.
Be flexible. “As you become more attuned to looking, you may like things you didn’t think you would,” says ArtsWestchester CEO Janet T. Langsam. “Art should speak to you like a poem, a film, or an experience.”
Go into every gallery you can, and when you find one with an aesthetic that matches yours — you really respond to its edited selection — befriend the owner. He or she can keep you informed about new works or artists that might appeal to you.
Ask questions of the dealer or gallery director. They generally love talking about their artists.
If you see something you like in a gallery, ask to see more work by that artist. The artist probably has much more. “It’s like a favorite dress designer,” says gallery owner Kenise Barnes. “If you like their style, chances are you’ll like everything they do.”
Make sure a gallery you purchase from is reputable and will be around for a while. Do your homework or have an expert do it for you.
If you buy a work from a gallery, ask to meet the artist in person. He or she can give you more insight into that piece and may recommend others whose work you may enjoy.
Do your research about an artist and ask for a resume. He or she should be steadily hitting benchmarks in their career, like residencies, grants, exhibitions, and other distinctions.
If possible, live with a piece before purchasing it; inquire about an approval service. “You should see it with your morning coffee and evening wine and in all kinds of light to make sure you will love it all the time,” says Barnes.
Expose yourself to different mediums (prints, painting, ceramics, photography, etc.) and types of art (abstract, representational, figurative, etc.). Is there one you are particularly attracted to? “Part of the fun is digging deep and learning about a time period, movement, genre, or medium,” says EdelHaus co-founder Karen Hauser.
Always buy original work. If your resources are limited, think about one-of-a-kind prints — monoprints — or prints with small editions under 25 total.
Ask for a formal letter of evaluation of your piece for insurance purposes. Check with your insurance company, but generally if an item is appraised for $10,000 or more, it should be listed on your insurance policy.
Interior design by Barrett Oswald, photo by Tim Lenz
You need to go into Manhattan to buy art.
Westchester is an art lover’s paradise and offers an abundance of local galleries and other places that sell art. These include local art groups — like Rye Arts Center, Pelham Arts Center, Mamaroneck Artists Guild, the Armonk Outdoor Art Show, and ArtsWestchester — that host great shows where the art is generally for sale and you can often meet the creators, who are many times emerging artists from the Hudson Valley region. Plus, there are many open studio events where you can see the art and talk to artists; check the ArtsWestchester calendar. Where shouldn’t you buy art? Avoid chain home stores like Home Goods and furniture showrooms: They will not have original work. “There’s a real difference between art and wall decor,” Barnes says.
Your Art Questions Answered
Everything else you ever wanted to know about fine art but didn’t know whom to ask.
Does the old axiom “buy what you like” still hold true? Yes. Whatever happens in the marketplace, you’ll have something you enjoy looking at, says Karen Hauser of EdelHaus. She recommends that you “buy with your eyes and not your ears.”
Should the architectural style of your house dictate the type of art you buy? If you’re putting together a period home, like a Colonial farmhouse, and your aim is to keep it period, then yes, says gallery owner Kenise Barnes. “But a more dynamic combination is mixing it up,” she adds. “We have so many old homes here in Westchester, so rather than having it looking like your grandma’s house, it’s far more dynamic and punchy to use contemporary art.”
Is art cyclical? To a certain extent, yes, Hauser says. “Right now we are at a pivotal moment when the art world is reevaluating the canon of the white male artist,” she says, “and a big trend now is collecting the work of artists that were previously overlooked, like African Americans and women.”
How are art trends influenced by what’s happening in the world? The contemporary emerging market was very popular for a while, Hauser says, but because the economy is a little shaky now, people are going back to blue chip artists. “And when our world and society is in a period of uncertainty, like now,” she says, “artists are creating more figurative work to reflect that upheaval and be more relevant.”
Artwork from Kenise Barnes Fine Art. Interior design by Jessica Jacobson, Photo by Oliver Bencosme.
Buying art and collecting it are two different things.
Not so, says Barnes. “Once you own one piece of artwork, you are an art collector. I don’t like that distinction; it’s unnecessary,” she says. “When you buy art, some go down this road with an intention to collect, and others land on pieces in an organic way.” If you’re collecting blue chip old masters as an investment, “that’s a more serious pursuit,” Langsam says. In that case, she recommends soliciting guidance from a dealer or museum curator. And don’t assume you have to have a theme when building an art collection; let a theme develop organically. “The first theme can simply be art you like,” says Langsam.