Art Shopping

Before you can bring it home, you need to know where to shop and how to haggle--and whether you're allowed to haggle at all.


Open year-round, galleries have owners and staff who offer vast knowledge on artists, the market and signs of quality or skill. There can be a wide range of prices within each gallery. The way prices are determined varies from gallery to gallery, but established artists normally set their own prices—whether based on the difficulty of creating the work, on previous sales records, or even on the square footage of a piece. Gallery owners work with emerging artists to set prices, which are lower than those of artists who have gained a reputation and following. Most gallery owners discourage price bartering, although some will give a volume discount or reduce costs on non-artwork aspects such as framing, says Jack Garver, owner of Fanny Garver Gallery.

Buyers shouldn’t be afraid to tell gallery staff exactly what they want. Garver says he sees nearly as many shoppers from the “match-the-sofa” camp as those who want to collect great works of art. Brian Farrell, co-owner of Milward Farrell Fine Art, says shoppers should inform staff of their size, cost and color-scheme limitations and desires, but remain open to a variety of media and styles.

Most galleries allow pieces to be loaned out, usually for a few days, says Karin Ketarkus, owner and director of Grace Chosy Gallery. This allows a buyer to take a work home to ensure its compatibility with a room and get approval from a spouse, kids and friends, she says.

Art Fairs

Madison offers two major art fairs, both on July 14 and 15. The Art Fair on the Square showcases the work of 470 artists, while the adjacent Art Fair Off the Square features 140 artists and craftspeople.

Jack Bradway, coordinator of last year’s Art Fair on the Square, says fairs are ideal venues for novice buyers. “Here, you get to speak to the artists themselves,” he says. Through this communication, shoppers can not only get an under-standing of how a work was created, but also learn the story behind a piece or the artist’s inspiration for making it.

Sharon Redinger, publicist for the Art Fair Off the Square, says interaction with artists also helps buyers understand prices, which are generally but not always lower than those at galleries. Artists’ credentials (degrees or organization affiliations) are not strong determiners of price. Again, the artist’s reputation and difficulty of work matter most.

Art fairs are not flea markets and organizers often officially discourage bartering, but the rules are usually not as strict as they are in galleries. Not every artist will allow discussions on cost, so proceed with discretion if you would like to ask for a better price, Bradway says. “It takes a very tactful person to do it well,” he adds. Your best opportunity to barter, he says, is as the fair winds down, when artists may be more willing to drop prices.

And whether you buy a work of art or want to mull a piece over, Bradway recommends collecting artists’ business cards. That way, shoppers can contact an artist about a piece they regret not buying, inquire about works that may better suit their tastes, or purchase or commission additional works.

Studio Tours

Typically held in a specific region over the course of a weekend, studio tours allow shoppers to visit local artists where they work and buy from them directly on site. Madison Area Open Art Studios has been held annually in October since 2003. Roughly one hundred artists from throughout Dane County have participated in past years, and one hundred fifty are lined up for this year’s event on October 6–7.

Because the tours do not take commission on the works sold, prices are sometimes half those of galleries, says past organizer Cate Loughran. As with art fairs, price bartering is dependent on the artist.


Most galleries and many art fairs and open studios also have companion websites. Shoppers can preview what kind of work is carried, get ideas of styles they like and keep up with artists they have discovered.

E-galleries, on the other hand, exist entirely in the ether. Without the overhead costs and space limitations of a physical gallery, they can offer a limitless range of work. “One of the main advantages of buying art online is the wide selection. One of the drawbacks is the web can’t always do the artwork justice,” says Toni Sikes, CEO and founder of Madison-based, one of the leading fine-art retailers in the nation.

And shopping for a sculpture isn’t exactly like shopping for an iPod, especially if you’ve never seen the artist’s work in person. It’s hard to judge quality from an image on the web. “The cardinal rule is to make sure that the company you are buying from is well-established and reputable,” Sikes says. Buyers should also make sure they are able to return any artwork they don’t like, Garver adds.

Expert advice

More than anything, take your time. Experts recommend visiting as many museums, galleries and websites as possible; it will help you recognize your likes and dislikes.

When you’re ready to make a purchase, come armed with fabric swatches, dimension measurements or family members so that you can buy confidently.

Above all, follow your instincts. If you don’t like a piece of art in a gallery, you won’t like it in your home. Only make a commitment to art that speaks to you, recommends Farrell.

“One should really never buy something just because it matches,” he says. “You should buy something that strikes a chord with you.”

After all, you’ve got to live with it, so you had better love it.

Katie Vaughn is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.

Madison Magazine - May 2007


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