Walls that talk: how to buy real art in lockdown, from budget finds to custom commissions | Art and design

You’ve been locked down and staring at the walls for months. It’s time for a change of scene.

But galleries are closed. You don’t know anyone who works for one. You don’t run with an art-savvy crowd. You’ve never been invited to an exhibition opening. And let’s say you’ve got $500 to spend, tops.

Sure, you could fill the empty space with a big Ikea canvas print of stags in the mist or wind-blown sand dunes. But you want something original, something made by actual human hands.

So how do you get some real art on your walls in lockdown without breaking the bank?

Think before you buy

Consider your space, says Sarah Johnson, a Sydney-based interior designer.

“If you are on a tight budget, start with a collection of smaller art works, such as a photographic print, a painted plate, colourful ceramics, or a small set of prints, and make a mini-gallery hang of them,” she says. “Lots of small pieces bring personality to a space.”

If you prefer a more minimal vibe, “choose one big impact piece that really tells a story or transports you to another place”, Johnson says. “Photographic artworks can make affordable big statements.”

A gallery wall of family portraits along a stairway wall
‘Lots of small pieces bring personality to a space.’ Photograph: Katie Fiedler/AP

Art can go in any room, Johnson adds, so go ahead and put art in your kitchen if you want. “Fill those funny little spaces above the coffee machine or next to the door. It’s important to have a bit of fun in the practical hubs like the kitchen or bathroom.”

Can I buy art online?

You can! Whether your budget is $100 or $100m, the entire art market is yours to browse at any time and without a gallery assistant at your shoulder quietly assessing your net worth.

The Australian art website Bluethumb is a good place to start browsing, refine your ideas and see what is available in your price range. A startup in 2012, it’s now one of the big players in the local market and caters to all tastes and depths of pocket. You can search more than 230,000 listed artworks by artist, style, size and orientation (landscape or portrait), and price bracket.

A limited budget doesn’t necessarily mean you are confined to postage stamp-sized works. You can buy big, colourful paintings 150cm wide or more, for less than $500.

Artfinder is a venture-capital backed marketplace based in London and Miami, Florida. Again, you can refine your search by size, style and price, with several pages of work by Australian artists available for $100 and up. It also has a no-questions-asked returns and refund policy.

Sydney-based site Art Edit offers magazine-style content (home design inspiration, expert advice, and so on) and a saleroom, searchable by price. It also offers free shipping.

State of the Art Gallery is worth a look, too. Founded in 2014 as a showcase for recent art school graduates, each piece is selected by a “curatorial panel” and works on offer begin at $95. There’s also an interesting selection of South African works (the site’s creator hails from Cape Town).

Just about every commercial gallery will have a website you can browse, though many don’t display prices. Chances are, if it says something such as “price on request”, it’s out of most people’s range. Art Guide Australia and Art Almanac have comprehensive nationwide gallery listings.

I want a work of Indigenous art. Where do I go?

It is possible to buy a visually arresting traditional Indigenous artwork or craft piece at an entry-level price, but there are some things you want to get right.

Firstly, you want to ensure that the artists are being paid properly and promptly for their work. The exploitation of Indigenous artists has been widely reported over the years and, though much of it has been stamped out, it still goes on.

Indigenous artworks in a studio
When buying Indigenous art, look for galleries that have signed up to the Indigenous Art Code. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Secondly, you want to be certain that the work you are buying is authentic and not something made in India, Indonesia and China.

Look for online galleries that have signed up to the Indigenous Art Code. If it costs more than $250 and it’s the real deal, there should be a certificate of provenance with details about the artwork and its author. Insist on it.

Community-owned and operated art centres are a great source of information and inspiration, for example the Arnhem, Northern and Kimberley Aboriginal Artist (ANKA), the Aboriginal Art Centre Hub of WA (AACHWA) and Desart.

What if I’m afraid of commitment?

Artbank has been renting out artworks to the corporate sector and individuals for more than 40 years and its collection has grown to more than 10,000 works. Annual rentals start from as little as $165 per work (with a minimum annual spend of $550, which includes delivery and hanging). You can browse the entire collection safe in the knowledge that, if you change your mind about an artwork, you won’t have to live with your decision for very long.

Can you contact an artist directly?

You sure can, says portraitist Tom Christophersen. Visual artists have embraced Instagram as a shopfront. “I love it when people get in touch,” he says. “Right now, I sell a lot more via Instagram than any other channel, through my stories and people messaging me.”

Portraitist Tom Christophersen
Portraitist Tom Christophersen: ‘I love it when people get in touch.’ Photograph: Laura Du Vé Creative

If you have a specific idea – a sketch of a loved one,a particular view or landscape, even a larger-than-life portrait of your cat covered in glitter – you can commission an artist, says Christophersen. “But for less than $500 with an established artist, it will be on the small side, an A4 or A5 size. Again, check out the artist’s bio and that will give you an indication of the rates they accept. Personally, I always find it a bit of a thrill when someone gets in touch with an idea of their own.”

Above all, don’t be nervous, he says. There is no such thing as a silly idea and most artists aren’t the garret-dwelling loners of popular myth. “If an artist is on social media, it’s because they want to be social.”

Before you commission a work, “do as much research as you can”, says Christophersen. “Talk to the artist, look through their portfolio and be as sure as you can be before you hand over your money.”

You can even ask for a mock-up during the commissioning process, he adds. “It’s a bit like getting a haircut. You go into the salon with an idea of what you like and then everything else is negotiation.”

Will my artwork appreciate in value?

This isn’t something you can bank on. Treat your purchase as an investment in present-day contentment rather than future financial security. Buy it because you like it – that way, you might find you’ve got a friend for life.

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