Art to the Power of Ten: Advice on Acquiring Art

Rene at the McNay.jpg

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who once said, “Every artist was first an amateur.” The same is true of every art collector. It all begins with that one special piece that sings to the soul, and you don’t have to be an expert to hear its siren’s song. So why is buying art so intimidating to the neophyte?

“People are hesitant to take that initial plunge because they are so scared of making a wrong move,” says René Paul Barilleaux, Chief Curator and Curator of Art after 1945 at the McNay Art Museum. “To me, there is no wrong move when you are buying for your home,” he adds. “Don’t be afraid to take the plunge and just buy something you like and want to live with.”

Art to the Power of Ten, hosted at the McNay on Friday, Sept. 19, will give everyone from the newbie to the seasoned collector a chance to take that proverbial plunge by showcasing art in all its forms from the visual to the culinary. Described by Barilleaux as a “one night art fair,” it will showcase primarily regional living artists, delicious foods, wines, and Bohanan’s signature crafted cocktails.

Affordable Art

With more than 30 years as a curator under his belt, Barilleaux has spent his career working with artists, collectors, and dealers, immersing himself in the art world at large. Over the years, he has heard a myriad of misconceptions regarding art collecting. One of the biggest is that you have to have an excess of disposable income in order to get started. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there are many beautiful works of art available for the buyer on a budget if you know where to look.

One way to acquire an original work at an affordable price is to purchase a multiple. These are original prints created as etchings or lithographs with a limited number produced. Typically, the prints are signed and numbered, and there might be a slight variation in each one. The prices are often much less than a singular work by the same artist, but it is still an artist’s original.

While the work of living artists tends to be more affordable, there are also ways to procure an investment piece at a fraction of the cost by exploring the works of artists from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.

“Works from artists of these eras are more affordable because the market is still developing and it hasn’t caught up to them yet, or there may be a large body of work available,” says Barilleaux. Henry Botkin, for example, was a part of the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York. While he was a prolific artist, his work was not as well known as that of his contemporaries. Therefore, pieces of Botkin’s work range from a few hundred dollars to the thousands.

“He had the same historical connections but he wasn’t in the top tier price wise,” explains Barilleaux.

If you fall in love with a work that is simply out of your budget, don’t despair. Talk to the dealer and find out whether the artist has other, smaller works that might be more affordable.

“An artist may have an entire collection that is not being shown in a gallery,” says Barilleaux. “Develop a relationship with a dealer or gallery owner and he or she can keep you abreast of works that come in that will meet your monetary requirements.”

Finally, don’t be afraid to barter a little. There are some dealers that will accept a payment plan.

“If you really want to collect something, you want to find a way to make it work and many dealers are sympathetic to that,” says Barilleaux.


Accumulating Art

Another common misconception surrounding the purchase of art is that you have to know exactly what you want to collect. Again, this is not the case.

“Some of the most interesting collections I have seen are the ones that have well-established artists mixed with some that are just under the radar,” describes Barilleaux. “They texture the collection with a whole range of things.”

If you really don’t know a Monet from a Matisse, then do your research. Frequent galleries and art fairs, look online at auction houses and sites like, and read trade magazines such as Art in America and Artnews. Get a sense of what is available, what it costs, and most importantly, what appeals to you.

“Remember that you are curating a collection for your home, not a museum,” advises Barilleaux. “As such, your collection should be personal and filled with things that you respond to.”

Once you start acquiring art and your tastes becomes more sophisticated and your eye becomes more refined, you will begin to “trade up” and improve the quality of what you own, but that doesn’t mean that you have to abandon your “starter pieces.”

“Mix materials and styles,” advises Barilleaux. “If you love it, it’s perfect.”


Displaying Art

A final myth in the world of art collecting is that you should only buy pieces that complement your décor. On the contrary, you should purchase the art that you love and want to live with without focusing so much on the cohesiveness of the collection.

“It’s not like buying a piece of furniture for a particular room,” explains Barilleaux. “You are responding to the art. You will find a place for it when you get home.”

Where should that place be? Preferably somewhere that allows you to see it often and enjoy it. Try it in a few different places in your home and live with it before you settle on a permanent spot. Just make sure that you keep it away from extreme heat or light, and try not to place it in a high traffic area where it can easily be bumped or knocked over.

“The condition of a work helps establish its value and the way that you care for it establishes its condition,” says Barilleaux.

Finally, remember that even a traditional home can be filled with contemporary art and vice versa. The bottom line is that art should move you on some emotional level—not just serve as an accessory. It should express your vision and personality and you should be excited to talk to others about it.

“When the owners can tell you stories and personal memories surrounding the purchase of a piece of art in their home it makes it much more rich and meaningful,” says Barilleaux. “There is more passion than simply buying a piece to fill a particular spot.”