Questions & Answers: Collecting

Four gallery experts answer the questions most frequently asked by collectors

By Norman Kolpas

Walt Gonske, Cleveland Farm Yard, oil, 16 x 20, Evergreen Fine Art.

Walt Gonske, Cleveland Farm Yard, oil, 16 x 20, Evergreen Fine Art.

This story was featured in the October 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  October 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

No matter how inviting the space or how welcoming the staff, an art gallery can sometimes feel like an intimidating place. Sometimes this prevents visitors—whether casual browsers, aspiring buyers, or serious collectors—from asking questions about the art on display or how to buy it.

So Southwest Art would like to assist you. We polled four respected gallery professionals to discover the questions they’re asked most frequently and the answers they happily provide to help collectors make smart decisions. Our distinguished panel is made up of Connie Axton, owner and director of Ventana Fine Art in Santa Fe, NM; Diane Waterhouse, co-owner of Waterhouse Gallery in Santa Barbara, CA; Doug Kacena, director of Evergreen Fine Art in Evergreen, CO; and Elizabeth Harris, co-owner of InSight Gallery in Fredericksburg, TX.

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From left: Elizabeth Harris, Doug Kacena, Diane Waterhouse and Connie Axton.

What can you tell me about this artist?

Requests for information on particular artists frequently provide gallery representatives with the first

chance to communicate with a collector. “If I see that someone is interested in certain artists, I start telling him or her everything I know about them,” enthuses Diane Waterhouse. “It really is a joy for me, especially if they’re a first-time buyer.” Says Connie Axton, “Our job is to encourage an emotional connection between the collector and the work.”

With that in mind, Elizabeth Harris keeps digital information on all of her artists at the ready. “So after we’ve had a conversation, I ask if they would like me to print out a biography for them,” she say. Often, galleries also offer copies of recent magazine articles, including reprints from Southwest Art.

In no way, however, do galleries view such conversations as mere sales opportunities. Rather, they stem from their love of the art and their own lives as collectors, and they genuinely enjoy providing information to help potential buyers find art that means something to them. “I remember one collector,” offers Axton by way of example, “who bought a big, colorful acrylic painting of Sitting Bull by John Nieto. She told me, ‘I just love waking up to that gorgeous painting. It makes my day.’”

Can I meet the artist?

Across the board, gallery owners aim to nurture the artists in their stable. That often means protecting their privacy. So instead of providing artists’ contact information, many galleries organize events that optimize the chance for artists and potential buyers to meet in a manageable setting. Each June, for example, Evergreen Fine Art holds its Weekend in the West show, which many of the participating artists attend. And on the third weekend of November, Waterhouse Gallery holds its annual Great American Figurative Exhibition, bringing together some 25 top figurative artists. “I so look forward to planning it,” says Diane Waterhouse, “because I love for people to meet our artists.”

Who is the best or the “hottest” artist in your gallery?

Lindsay Scott, Approaching Dusk, colored pencil, 30 x 30, InSight Gallery.

Lindsay Scott, Approaching Dusk, colored pencil, 30 x 30, InSight Gallery.

“If you sat at my desk for a day and asked 25 different people who came through the gallery what their favorite piece was, they would choose 25 different works of art,” marvels Waterhouse. As a result, her standard response to such a question, she says without a note of hype, is that “they’re all hot—you never know what a person might be drawn to.”

With that in mind, says Doug Kacena, “I’ll try to figure out what is going to be most relevant to that person. Are they looking for the established artist with the biggest name, like Quang Ho or Walt Gonske? Or might they be more interested in exciting up-and-coming artists like Kevin Weckbach or Robert Spooner, who I think have all the makings of virtuosos?”

Can I commission something directly from the artist?

Many galleries are happy to help facilitate commissioning works from the artists they represent. All a collector has to do is ask. Notes Kacena, “We would love to connect a buyer with an artwork that already exists. But almost every one of our artists will do a commission piece.”

The operative word, though, is almost. “We have certain artists who like commissions,” says Elizabeth Harris, “and certain others who do not.” Among the former, she includes wildlife artist Lindsay Scott and landscape painters Robert Pummill and Mark Haworth. But she notes that some artists, including many who were previously freelance illustrators, feel that their works “are only for sale once they put the paintbrush down, and not before.”

Can I have a different frame?

Most artists deliver works to their galleries already framed. That doesn’t mean, however, that the frames are always integral to the paintings themselves. “Different artists put different amounts of time and money into their frames,” says Doug Kacena. “Some have a custom frame built for each piece, and others use frames they already have on hand.”

In other words, gallerists are well aware that there can be an arbitrary nature to frames. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work right for the person’s décor, or even for the piece itself,” Kacena continues. Galleries across the board are more than happy to change a frame. “If you love the painting and don’t like the frame, you can buy it unframed, or we’re happy to change the frame to something you like,” says Diane Waterhouse. Connie Axton agrees: “We always try to help people make whatever adjustments are needed to match their own tastes and styles.”

Can we send the painting back if we don’t like it?

Angus, Study of Poms, Lemons and Poppies, acrylic, 12 x 16, Ventana Fine Art.

Angus, Study of Poms, Lemons and Poppies, acrylic, 12 x 16, Ventana Fine Art.

This is definitely a question any collector should ask a gallery before they complete the purchase, making sure they’re clear on the terms. The key here is a mutual understanding that the art is being bought “on approval.” That means, explains Connie Axton, “We give the collector three days to say yea or nay on a piece.” Once they get a work home and live with it for those few days, if they find that they don’t like it, they can send it back to the gallery. But, notes Axton, “They have to pay for shipping.”

How do you determine the price of an artist’s work?

Not surprisingly, this may be the question most frequently asked of gallery owners and their staffs, often with the questioner’s implication that galleries add hefty markups. In fact, however, the artists themselves typically determine each work’s price tag, which is influenced by several factors, as Doug
Kacena enumerates: “How long has the artist been in the game? What accolades has he or she received? And what price will the art market bear?”

With those facts in mind, remarks Connie Axton, “Those artists who have been working for many years and have had some success should and do command higher prices, while those who are just getting started are going to demand lesser prices.” Observes Elizabeth Harris, “The artists we represent are recognized on a national level. They didn’t start out at the prices their works are at now. It’s been a very slow build.”

That’s not to suggest, of course, that a savvy gallery won’t have some influence on pricing. “The artists who thrive with a gallery are often those who engage most with it,” says Kacena. “We’ll certainly have conversations about what works are resonating with collectors and why, and what price ranges we sell the most of.”

Can I pay for the art over time?

Robert Pummill, High Desert Storm, oil, 44 x 60, InSight Gallery.

Robert Pummill, High Desert Storm, oil, 44 x 60, InSight Gallery.

Traditional “layaway” payment plans are almost always an option. Says Elizabeth Harris, “We’re always happy to work with a client who is interested in a particular piece.”

“That’s a great tip for people who are just getting into collecting,” says Doug Kacena. “Every gallery takes payments, but some beginning collectors just feel too intimidated by galleries to ask these kinds of questions.”

Depending on the price, the gallery, and the artist, a payment schedule may vary from just two monthly payments to three, four, or even more. But it’s important to remember that the gallery will hang onto the artwork until the final installment has been received. “We have to guarantee,” says Harris, “that the artist gets paid.”

Will this art be a good investment?

The media loves stories about multimillion-dollar auction records set for the works of Old Masters and modern artists alike, but no reputable gallery representative will make any claims that the art they sell is a sound financial investment. “Nobody knows what’s going to appreciate. There’s just noway to figure that out,” says Diane Waterhouse. Adds Doug Kacena, “There are no guarantees.” And Connie Axton emphatically concurs: “We do not, under any circumstances, sell art as an investment for personal gain.”

Suchitra Bhosle, Platinum Blonde in Blue, oil, 18 x 14, Waterhouse Gallery.

Suchitra Bhosle, Platinum Blonde in Blue, oil, 18 x 14, Waterhouse Gallery.

Of course, some artists’ works may skyrocket in price, while others remain flat or fall. But there’s no predicting. Instead, gallerists advise that a combination of careful consideration and patience will generally help ensure that an investment in good art won’t lose money—as long as the collector chooses thoughtfully and hangs onto the work for the long haul. “Most likely it will retain its value,” says Kacena. “And you’ll get a lifetime of enjoyment.”

Ultimately, most gallery owners agree, personal pleasure—not profit—should be the point of collecting. “I always tell collectors that a work of art should speak to you and move you,” says Diane Waterhouse. “You have to buy from your heart.”

This story was featured in the October 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  October 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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