Don't just decorate; support artists

When collecting, experts say, be true to what you like and support local emerging artists.

By Elizabeth Bettendorf
Published July 13, 2007

So you have a new home, some blank walls to fill, or you're just tired of gazing at those Monet water lily posters you've owned since college.

Filling the spaces of your home with original art might seem intimidating, but it can transform any room into a one-of-a-kind space that blooms with individuality.

Whether you prefer watercolor paintings, ceramics, pastel drawings or funky folk-art sculpture, the choice is yours.

The best part is that if you follow a few tips from the experts you can pull together a collection of things you love for a song.

Where to start?

Make the rounds at student art shows, advises Katherine Gibson, a Tampa art consultant who helps clients buy original art that suits their budgets and taste.

The University of Tampa, Hillsborough Community College and the University of South Florida all have excellent student art exhibits, says Gibson, who recently paid $28 apiece for a series of five 8-by-11-inch original photographs by USF senior Stormy Karlosky you can see Karlosky's work at www.stormyautumn.com.

"They depict the day in the life of a cowboy and I like them because they're so imaginative," Gibson explains.

Collecting the work of local artists - rather than buying commercial prints at a local discount store - is especially gratifying, she says, because she is often able to meet the artist and learn more about the idea and process behind the work, something she enjoys.

"It always makes the whole experience a lot more interesting and meaningful," she says. "Plus you're supporting the arts in your community."

If you're collecting art on a shoestring, Gibson also suggests checking out "alternative spaces" that show the works of lesser known but often excellent local artists.

Tracy Midulla Reller, an artist and instructor who teaches printmaking, painting and sculpture at Hillsborough Community College, is one of the six artists who founded the collective 5 Art, www.five-art.com, which has two locations in Tampa, including gallery space at the West Tampa Center for the Arts, a former cigar factory at 1906 N Armenia Ave.

Midulla Reller says the organization is nonprofit, makes no money and the collective's founders sometimes have to pay the monthly rent out of their own pockets.

"We're just a group of artists working together to feed art and culture to the community," she says.

The group essentially rents "a small white-box of a gallery space" where they hold regular exhibits. Artwork typically sells for $20 to $2,000. They rarely take a commission from an artist's sale and raise money through donations.

It's a great way to pick up art inexpensively and good for the artist, too. "It encourages them to get their work out there," Midulla Reller says.

"It's also good for the collector. The emerging artist of today may eventually be the well-known midcareer artist of tomorrow. By collecting in the early stages you can get artwork that is still affordable."

Going from blank walls to a house filled with treasured art takes time but is well worth the journey.

Robyn Dunn of South Tampa started buying original local artwork 25 years ago while still in college. Her collection now includes works in oil, acrylic, pottery and mixed media - as well as photography and three-dimensional folk art.

"I like whimsical and bright things - no realistic stuff except for photography," says Dunn, an art director and graphic designer. "I also like works where I can really feel the artist."

Dunn regularly cruises art fairs, open-air markets and alternative exhibit venues.

"I find work when I travel or at places that are hidden away. I go to galleries, but not chichi galleries," she explains. "I like the kind of art fairs where I feel like the things I'm seeing are very real. I don't go to 'country craft' fairs."

Over the years she has picked up many pieces for under $50 or $100 and says that the few times she has strayed into buying really expensive art - once at the behest of an interior decorator -it didn't necessarily fit her taste or house.

"It doesn't feel right, real or authentic," she explains.

Part of the reason for that is that it was picked out to match the furniture - something she strives to avoid.

When buying art, she advises, go for what appeals to your heart.

"You have to go with your gut, with what you like," she says. "Don't worry about your house. The work will fall into place (in your interior design scheme) if you really like it."

Another good rule of thumb is to buy local art that reflects the region where the artist lives and works.

"Why buy a painting of the mountains from someone who has never seen mountains?" says Genia Ward, owner of the Alexandria Art Gallery at State Road 54 and Collier Parkway in Pasco County (www.alexandriaartgallery.com).

"You want something that reflects what the painter is seeing and where they are from."

The Alexandria also offers a "collective" gallery space where more than 25 local artists display work. It holds a gallery party from 6 to 8 p.m. the first Friday of every month.

"It's a great way to meet the artists," Ward says.

She also recommends talking to the artist about the best way to frame and mat his or her work and then taking it to a professional framer who can address issues like protective glass and nonacid matting.

And finally, Ward warns, make sure the emotional bond exists with the artwork before you plunk down your money.

"I can't stress enough that you ought to buy art because it appeals to you, not because it looks good over the sofa," she says. "Because that's all going to change someday. Buy something that you'll still love in 10 years."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.