I want to build a home art collection. Where do I begin?

Paula Wallace, founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design, shares 6 tips for getting started
one use_Courtesy of SCAD
Magnolia Hall, a SCAD guest house

Photo courtesy of SCAD

one use_courtesy of SCAD
Another room of Magnolia Hall

Photo courtesy of SCAD

As a young girl in Atlanta, I vividly remember watching my father hang a pair of prints that my mother found at a second-hand shop. The prints, mirror images, depicted a lemony and a red parrot with a verdant tropical background. These birds followed my parents everywhere, and eventually landed in Savannah, Georgia, where my mother and father moved in 1979 to help me create the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

In the nearly 40 years since, I’ve experienced enough magnificent art for a dozen lifetimes, overseeing exhibitions, curating the university’s permanent collection, and selecting art for more than 100 academic facilities around the world. “Where do you begin?” one recent university visitor asked. “How do you know what art to choose?”

So I wanted to share a few guidelines that have served me well in selecting art for my home and for the 3 million square feet that comprise SCAD’s global campus. Whether you’re a new homeowner or are simply ready to make a striking visual change, here are six steps to building a home art collection you love.

A quick word on price: When building a collection, think of the cost of art in terms relative to the cost of furniture for the same room; great art, like good furniture, will become part of family history. If you’ve budgeted $2,500-5,000 for living room furniture, consider an equal budget to furnish the walls.

  1. Gallerists are people, too First, find a few galleries in your city. Gallerists are to contemporary art as booksellers are to new literary fiction. In the same way you ask bookstore clerks what new novels they recommend, do the same with gallerists. Who made this piece? Where is the artist from? Curiosity is far more hip than pretension. Artists, like writers and filmmakers, are working in an established tradition and perpetually asking questions about the human condition. Conversations with gallerists help you engage in those questions.
  2. Art is where you find it Second, search out antique shops, estate sales, and flea markets. (My very first art purchase for my first home was a diaphanous panel of stained glass I rescued from a local market.) One of the great secrets of finding affordable, high-quality contemporary art is to attend student exhibitions at local universities. The intimate atmosphere of these student shows—which often feature exuberant experimentation and diverse perspectives—also affords you time for a tête-à-tête with emerging artists. Check university calendars for MFA thesis shows, which often occur near the end of each term.
  3. Listen to your eyes Identify your personal aesthetic. Some art, you pass by; other works arrest you midstep. Maybe it’s a favorite color or an abstract pattern that reminds you of a childhood bedspread. Maybe the work features an iconic image that connects to something deep inside you. For my mother, that pair of exotic birds, I think, represented a kind of Edenic paradise beyond her Depression-era experience. Did my mother know this, consciously? Maybe not, and that’s okay. A Psychology Today article posits, rather unsurprisingly, that extroverts flock to art with “sensational elements” like those in Pollock’s drip paintings, whereas introverts focus on form rather than expansive gesture and expression. Who are you, and how might your art reflect that? Abstract, figurative, bold, or subtle: there’s a place, a time, and a collector for everything.
  4. Art is a guest everybody remembers Think of your art like a great dinner guest—a conversation starter, a question asker. Contemporary art invites us to decode meaning. Emerging artist Jon Moody created Dear America, a work that adorned the walls of the Obama White House, as part of an initiative for National Youth Justice Awareness. A painting of a young African-American boy with what appears to be blood cascading down his face, it’s a gut-wrenching sight, but one that fuels important discussions about black lives and their importance in America. One colleague of mine has a painting over his mantel of what looks like a male figure running across a field, away from the viewer, in the dark. “The painting is almost too dark,” he told me, recently. “It makes visitors a little uneasy.” Guests want to know why the boy is running, he says. They want to know who the figure is and what the painting means. “It’s perfect,” he said. “I like to ask guests what they think about the piece. They end up telling me as much about themselves as about the painting.” He paid $450 for the work, he said, at a SCAD Open Studio night.
  5. Make a life with the art you love (for now) Build your home art collection by returning as often as you like to the galleries, shops, exhibitions, and artists you love. Time and again, I’m drawn to the haunted self-portraits of Monica Cook and intricate fibers works by Pamela Wiley, the gestural landscapes of José Parlá and the cultural hybrid of photographs and mixed media by Hank Willis Thomas. But life changes, and so should your art—not every piece will have that “forever” feel. You can break up with your art: give it to a friend, trade in or up, or move art around. Every realtor has walked into empty homes with permanent shadows on the walls where faded works sadly hung in perpetuity. A photograph that starts in your living room might move to the breakfast room; a collection of objects might be gathered from your desk and installed on a wall in another room.
  6. Don’t forget about placement Often, people buy art that’s too small for their spaces. Collectors are advised to go big. Art shrinks when you install it. While most works usually shouldn’t be crowded cheek to jowl, you can group smaller works together in a large space for visual impact and balance. Or, you can select fewer but larger works. Tiny works hung on big walls look lost.

In its totality, your art collection will create its own sense of meaning and allow you a new way to look at the world. As with the pair of avian paintings that followed my parents everywhere, their art became a veritable symbol for their home: Wherever those birds were, that was home. So may it be for your art, too.

Paula Wallace is the president and founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her forthcoming book, SCAD: The Architecture of a University, illustrates the history and built environment of the internationally acclaimed art and design university.