A buying guide for starving art lovers

Fox By: Alexis Maguire

LIKE A LOT of folks, I almost never buy art. Yeah, I'm cheap. I also find the process totally intimidating. There have been times when I've spotted something I like, but when I take a glance at the price tag I immediately go into a Michael Jackson-style moonwalk, backing right out of the gallery.

Yet there comes a time in your life when your tastes evolve past generic, mass-produced stuff that you could pick up at Target. You hunger for one-of-a-kind pieces that would make your chest puff up with pride - even if they didn't match your sofa.

Seeing as how it's student-art-buying season, ushered in by the annual Art Unleashed Exhibition and Sale at the University of the Arts, which previews Wednesday night and runs through Saturday, now's a great time for neophytes such as myself to brush up on our art-buying skills.

After all, not only can you scoop up oil paintings, photography, jewelry and sculpture by emerging artists at the UArts and other sales, you can also purchase art made by professors and alumni - among them award-winning illustrator Jerry Pinkney, who graduated from UArts in 1960. Prices for pieces start as low as $50 and go up to $75,000.

I asked some local artists, gallery owners and teachers for tips on adding to your own personal art gallery. Here's what they told me.

Be methodical

"I would recommend looking at everything, doing a kind of survey of everything that's in the room. . . . If there's a lot of work there, it's really easy to pass stuff," said Shelley Spector, an artist who teaches sculpture and business practices at the University of the Arts. "Then, maybe meet the artist."

That's one of the advantages of these kinds of sales, Spector said. "Very often, the artists are in close proximity. It's a really good opportunity to meet the artists and ask them directly about their work."

Follow your instincts

As you talk with the artist and absorb information about the piece, gauge your interest. It doesn't have to be love - maybe you just find yourself drawn to something.

"The most interesting way to have art affect you is not to know why you are drawn to it," Spector told me. "I don't even know that I would use the word 'like.' It's more [about finding] the kind of thing that touches you. It's something that you want to keep looking at. And then, if you're lucky enough, you can meet the artist and find out what their intentions are with the work."

And if what they intended isn't what you're seeing, no worries!

When Spector creates, "I have an idea what I'm doing [but] somebody else can get something totally different out of it."

Can you live without it?

So, give yourself time to explore a show to see everything on display. But once you've found something you think you like, ask yourself: Do I have to have it?

"Buy the art that speaks to you. It has to speak to you. It has to speak to your spirit," said Florcy Morisset, owner of the Vivant Art Collection in Old City. Because it's "not [about] what people tell you to buy."

Get the details

If you do purchase a piece, make sure you take home more than the artwork itself. Get anything you can about the artist, such as a bio, résumé, an artist statement and, definitely, the title of the piece. "Five years from now, you're not going to remember any of that," Morisset warned.

Don't act impulsively

"I don't buy immediately," said John Ollman, owner of the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, which is moving to 12th and Arch streets from 16th and Walnut. "Impulse buying might be OK at the grocery store, but it's definitely not OK in the art world."

Have a budget

"Sit down and seriously think about what you can spend on a piece of art in a given time," Ollman said. "What I recommend people do is to buy the best singular piece that they can do with that amount of money. Don't go out and try to buy 20 pieces . . . because you are going to cut corners."

No investment buying

Don't be tempted to make a purchase because you think its going to be worth enough someday to put your kids through college - even if it is tempting, considering that some of the students you see at shows like Art Unleashed may become big stars.

"The likelihood of that happening is about the same percentage of your winning the lottery - it's very, very unusual," Ollman said. "If you're buying something that you respond to, and you like it, and you hang it in your home, then you're going to reap the benefits of living with that piece of art."

Pay list price

OK, maybe this last tip is more for the artists.

"Negotiating is definitely something that happens more in the art world than it does in a shoe store - unfortunately for us artists," Spector said. "If you can afford a work, there's no need to negotiate. Just buy it."

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: philly.com/HeyJen