Remember Freshers’ Week? Probably not – we put it down to too many brightly-coloured alcopops and the dependable passage of time – but we’ll assume yours went a little something like this. You arrived, day one, to a blank, prison-cell-esque hall room. You can’t really remember day two (all those alcopops). Day three, you raided the campus poster sale. You gathered up your Audrey Hepburns, your world maps, your Che Guevaras, and – sure! – your wall resembled everyone else’s, but it was yours. This was your very first art collection.
And then you left university, and entered the rental race, where you’ll take a very minimal interior “look” over the wrath of an uncooperative landlord any day. Or maybe you own your own home, but you’ve no idea where to spend your hard-earned, not-quite-as-disposable-as-you’d-like income. And so, your collection has become a mix of prints you’ve picked up from local independent shops, hung (or propped up) in mismatched frames, which will “do” because you aren’t a millionaire or a professor of fine art. But actually, you don’t need to be.
Susan Ferguson, an art enthusiast and hobbyist collector, is “someone who hasn’t got any money, and lives in a tiny apartment with limited wall space, but still collects art.” (Her words.) She says that the first thing to remember is that art is still a business. “If you’re buying from a gallery, they’ve got a mark-up,” Ferguson explains. “So if you’re on a budget, you’re better off buying from the artist themselves – it’s easier to negotiate on a price.” That means attending art fairs – Manchester-based Ferguson suggests Buy Art Fair – and seeking out new artists and graduates at degree shows and open studios. And cheap art isn’t necessarily bad art. “You can’t go wrong buying something for the price of a bottle of wine, if it’s something you like,” she says.
Don’t get too hung up on sticking to a coordinated, cohesive “look,” either. “It’s something that you’ll have on your wall and look at every day. It can be challenging, something you see new things in every time.” Ferguson’s favourite pieces consistently have a great story behind them, and are almost always purchased spontaneously. There are the pots that she found in Spain, made by a former boxer (“They were angry looking pots”), a sketch bought for £100 after a life-drawing class, and a limited edition print by Claire Brewster that she picked up at a paper cut exhibition, which is now worth significantly more than she paid.
There’s no guarantee that if you’re buying art to make money, you will. But if that is the end goal, and you don’t know how to start? “You want to buy what other people are buying,” Ferguson tells us. “When an artist is exhibiting at a gallery, they’ll often have limited edition prints available. They have some gravitas because they’ve come from a reputable gallery.” This is also the only instance where it’s safe to shop online. “You can’t get an idea of scale and colour without seeing it in person,” she says. We’ve all been there – just think of those mustard-midi-skirt-that-ends-up-being-a-chartreuse-maxi scenarios. “But if you know what an artist is worth, and you know it’s an important piece, you may not feel the need to see it.”
So, where to begin? Ferguson recommends reading A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art by Erling Kagge. “The first piece of art he bought cost €50,000… so he’s not exactly what I’d call poor. But it’s an interesting book, because it’s all about how the art market works.” And keep your eyes peeled. Visit local art fairs. If you spot something you like in a café, ask where they bought it. Contact artists you’re interested in. And, most importantly, start buying what you actually like.