Monday, November 28, 2011

Why Do People Buy Art?

This past weekend, Timberline Gallery held it's first-ever-in-its-26-years sale.  Most of the 31 artists were selling all or part of their work at 50% off.  Throughout the weekend, artists were in the gallery chatting with visitors, telling stories about their art, giving mini-demonstrations.  And, of course, there were the requisite cookies and snacks.  From most perspectives, it was a successful sales weekend but at the end of the weekend, the walls were still full of incredible art that was not sold in spite of the sale prices.

It makes me wonder:  why do people buy art ... at any price?  The first response when we think about these things is to blame the economy, and there's no doubt that disposable income is limited these days.  However, if people are pepper spraying each other for a half-off Xbox and this year's Black Friday set an all-time record, obviously the economy isn't the only answer.

When I think about what sold this weekend, there are some patterns:  
  • the jewelry makers did well
  • photos, prints and paintings of Yosemite were popular
  • sculptural items sold better than wall art
This is only one sale but I think there are some inferences that can be made:  people buy what they understand and are comfortable with.  Everyone understands jewelry:  they know how to wear it, what they like and what will go with what they wear.  They have a history of purchases and a range of prices they are comfortable with.  They instantly could see what a great value the jewelry was in this sale.

They also buy "connections."  Most people who live or pass through this area have a love affair with Yosemite.  Buying a print or a painting of Yosemite keeps that love affair with them in their homes or offices.

Perhaps one of the most dominant reasons for buying art, however, is story.  When we buy something like art or furniture or jewelry, we are buying a story ... the story of the item itself ... the artist, the media, the process ... but we are also buying the story we will tell ... where we found it, what we paid for it, the experience we had while buying it, what it means to us.  This "future story" plays itself out in our heads as we contemplate a purchase, even when we're not aware of it.  If it's a compelling story, we make the purchase.  If not, we don't.

I would love to hear from you about what prompted you to buy the last piece of art you purchased.


  1. Interesting to me that sculpture would do better at the sale than art to hang.

    People also might have been buying the jewelry because it's easily portable and it's the gift-giving season. It's often an impulse buy, especially if the price is low.

    Artists are in a tough spot, and have been for a while. Having to put a half-off tag on a piece of artwork can't be easy. So few people realize what goes into art-making or have an appreciation not only for the costs of supplies, materials, and time but also for the value inherent in something finely hand-crafted.

    I was reading this morning a Q&A with the Rubell family in Miami; they're well-known, huge collectors of contemporary art. Asked what artwork they wished to own, they replied, "The next one we're going to collect"; and when asked what they'd do to get it, they said, "Remain open to new ideas." They are, of course, in a different league from you or I, but I think their responses are telling. They cannot imagine not looking at, talking about, art; art, including collection, is their passion. Anyone passionate about art, even if that passion is limited to looking only, understands.

  2. I love what Maureen wrote -- makes sense.

    the last piece of art I bought was by one of the clients in the art studio at the shelter. And yes, it is the story that connects me to the art piece and the art maker.

    Interesting question.

    I think sometimes, it's easy to 'unjustify' buying a piece of art because, unless finances are limitless, it's easy to talk oneself out of the acquisition. It does take passion, and a belief in the intrinsic value of the creative process.

  3. The last piece of art I bought is a small watercolor with ink, by Timberline artist Carolyn's called Ancient Dwellings. I bought it because it has a sense of peace and mystery and it's other words it spoke to me...filled some place. The next piece of art I hope to by is one of yours joyce...the Water Goddess...a small one...Love that piece. xoxo

  4. Julie ... let's trade some time ... having one of your pieces is on my wish list. Maybe the KPFA show will be such a success we can celebrate with a trade.