You have blank walls. You like fine art. You’d like to combine those two things, but your household doesn’t pull in an astronomical amount of money. That’s a pickle. How do you upgrade your mass-market poster of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss to an original print, painting, or drawing? (By the way, no judgement! I had one of those posters, plus a Jackson Pollock and a Georgia O’Keefe, all proudly mounted to the wall with tape.)
The fine art market has the well-deserved reputation for being the realm of the rich. On the heels of Art Basel, which ended last week, that’s even more apparent. As Scott Rayburn of the New York Times reports, numerous multi-million dollar works of art were sold by galleries over the course of the show. Rayburn even quotes the New York dealer Paula Cooper, who says, “It’s all about power and money.”
It seems like every couple of years, the price of something at auction breaks a record. In May of this year, Picasso’s Women of Algiers sold for $179 million* and became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. The previous record-holder was Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which sold for a mere (cough) $142.4 million back in November, 2013. That means that in less than two years, the record-breaking price increased by about 25%. The New York Times reports that from 2009 to 2013, “average fine art prices increased by 82% and 100%, respectively, in Britain and the United States … far outpacing the growth rate of many professional salaries since the 2008 financial crash.”
Sarah Thornton sums it up in the introduction to her book Seven Days in the Art World:
As Amy Cappellazzo of Christie’s told me, “After you have a fourth home and a G5 jet, what else is there? Art is extremely enriching. Why shouldn’t people want to be exposed to ideas?” … In 2007, Christie’s sold 793 artworks for over $1 million each. In a digital world of cloneable cultural goods, unique art objects are compared to real estate. They are positioned as solid assets that won’t melt into the air. 
That was in 2007. Wondering what Christie’s sold in 2014? Not less. According to Bloomberg, in 2014, 870 of Christie’s lots exceeded $1 million and 86 exceeded $10 million.
It’s tempting to think that the pieces fetching these prices are all old masters or the works of seminal, dead game-changers like Picasso, Warhol, or Bacon. But no, the dead artist cliché isn’t exactly true anymore, because living artists are fetching high prices too. In this post from May, 2015, Sotheby’s indicates that a 1992 Gerhard Richter painting sold for over $28 million, one by Christopher Wool sold for almost $30 million, and pieces by Mark Bradford and Mark Grotjahn sold for $4.4 million and $6.5 million respectively.
For the purposes of this article, let’s not get into the fact that none of the artists mentioned in the linked Sotheby’s post are female. In fact, none of the artists I’ve mentioned so far are female. So far, women in this article have been the subjects of art rather than the makers of art. *Sigh* However, let it be known: the dearth of female artists in the top-grossing lists has been noted.
Why are living artists fetching such high prices nowadays? Let’s turn again to Sarah Thornton, who states, “… as [Christopher] Burge [Christie’s chief auctioneer] explains, it is also a question of supply: ‘We are running out of earlier material, so our market is being pushed closer to the present day … The shortage of older goods is thrusting newer work into the limelight.’” 
So here’s what we’ve got: Global recession, lots of billionaires, record-high fine art sales. I still want to support artists and put something eye-catching and interesting on my wall, though! And I definitely don’t have a spare million bucks.
Enter the online art market. In May, NPR reported on online sites that “aim to fill the gap between Etsy and Sotheby’s.” The article discusses sites like Paddle8, Artsy, Amazon Art, and others that market art to the middle class. And you know what the co-founder of Paddle8 says about their prices? They average $5,000. Oh, okay. I guess that’s a heck of a lot less than $1 million, but is that really affordable?
If you’re looking at art as an investment—as it’s clear that’s what much of the fine art market does—then sure, I guess $5,000 is, ah, reasonable. Maybe. If you’ve got that to spare. Will that art piece become your retirement fund, then?
Will that art piece become your retirement fund, then?
As you may have guessed by now, my spouse and I have put quite a bit of art up on our walls. Artist and art history major … I think we’re just destined to nest our home with art. I first started collecting art during my junior year in college when I bashfully asked Kate Copeland, one of my department’s graduates, if I could buy one of her large linocut prints. A year later, I was finally able to afford to frame it (which cost about four times as much as the print), and it’s been on my wall ever since. When I look at it, I remember my friend, the art department at my college, and stashing tips from my waitress job in my underwear drawer until I had enough to pay for the frame. It’s been downhill from there, but at least I don’t keep my “art savings” in my underwear drawer anymore. I swear.
And now, here are my tips on finding affordable art.
Note that for the purposes of this article, I’m not going to discuss mass-market posters or prints. There’s nothing wrong with those, and you should get them if they make you happy, but this article isn’t about that.
Because everyone’s definition of “affordable” is going to be different, the key factor to finding art that is affordable for you is to look in a place that has a wide range of prices. How do you find that? Read on!
Get to know your area art scene. Part of finding art that makes you happy is looking at a bunch of art. Therefore, get out there and do some looking! It’ll be fun, I promise. Check out your local galleries, open studio events, college art shows, art fairs, farmers markets, art centers, and print shops. Watch prices and styles and begin to get a feel for how much your favorite kind of art will cost. Once you’re familiar with that, you’ll know it if you run across a great deal. I’ve only bought a piece from a gallery once, and I did so because a) my spouse and I love the piece, and I’d literally been thinking about it for a full year; and b) it was sold at a really good price.
Get to know your area artists. This is an extension of the first tip. Go to open studio events and art fairs as often as you can. Chat with the artists. Get to know them, get to know their style, ask questions, have fun. I love supporting artists; the overwhelming majority of the pieces my spouse and I own were purchased from the artist directly.
Watch prices and styles and begin to get a feel for how much your favorite kind of art will cost.
As far as affordability goes, artists will often have items for sale during studio events, and because (in most cases) there’s no gallery cut, the prices aren’t always as steep.
To be perfectly honest, I live in an artist studio building, and a lot of the artists I’m supporting are my neighbors, so I’m really lucky there. I feel fortunate to know so many great, artistic folks. However, well before I lived in one of these buildings, you could find me frequenting open studio nights, shyly talking to artists and leafing through their stacks of artwork, bills raided from my underwear drawer practically burning a hole in my pocket. Open studio nights really are ever so much fun.
Check out artist prints. Naturally, the one-of-a-kind objects that take the most work will often have the highest price point: paintings, drawings, monotype prints, etc. Artist prints (etchings, woodcut, linocut, that kind of thing) will generally sell for less and the artist will still have had a hand in making it. Photography prints, too, can be very affordable. Also, sometimes an artist will sell signed digital prints of original paintings, drawings, prints, or digital work, and I think these are a great way to support an artist and fill up your walls without overburdening your budget.
Do some online shopping. Despite the $5k average sale from Paddle8, the NPR article I linked to above does include sites that offer a variety of prices. I poked around the sites mentioned—Artsy, Saatchi Art, Amazon Art, Ocula, and yes, Paddle8—and found art under $500 on all of them, although it was harder to find on Ocula than on the others. (For instance, see the screencap above from Artsy, which through no manipulation of my own includes a piece for $250 alongside one for $800.) It did seem to me that these sites are mainly catering to those who maintain an art-as-investment mindset or who at least consider that they might resell the artwork someday.
Etsy, though: I love Etsy, particularly when I’ve seen some of the artist’s artwork in person somewhere else. I snag business cards from art fairs and other venues, then track down the artist’s Etsy store if they have one. If I’ve seen the work in person, I know the quality firsthand and don’t have to rely on the artist’s camerawork to convey the textures and colors. If you want some really affordable prints of digital art, check out DeviantArt.
One online site that I wish NPR had mentioned is Every Day Original. It features original artwork by illustrators, many of whom happen to illustrate fantasy and science fiction. There are a lot of paintings, a lot of the work is framed, a ton of it is under $500, and a lot of it is under $200. If I could, I would spend all of my money there and be damned if I run out of wall space—which would actually be hard to do, as all of the work on the site is small. (And boy do I love small artwork. Looking at it is like having an intimate conversation.) Anyway, I drool over that website. If you look it up, don’t say I didn’t warn you when you find your bank account balance has shrunk.
Go to cons! I saved the best for last. Nerdy, geeky folks reading this, I doubt you’ll need any encouragement. You probably know this already. Conventions are wonderful places to buy art! Walk your cosplayed self right on over to the Artist Alley and start browsing. Chat with the artists if you’re so inclined (having been there myself, believe me, most of us would love it if someone would talk to us!). Pick up business cards for later online browsing or snag yourself a print or five right then and there. Keep an eye out for original drawings and paintings, too, because convention prices are hard to beat.
So there you have it! Fine art market, you can keep your Francis Bacons and your Takashi Murakamis and your Damien Hirsts. There are plenty of other, more affordable options out there for those of us who just want to enliven our blank walls using art with a personal meaning. Now get out there and have fun exploring the art world!
*Prices are given in US dollars.
 p xiv. Thornton, Sarah. Seven days in the art world. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009.
 p 6. Thornton, Sarah. Seven days in the art world. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009.