When I moved into my first house and realized the walls would stay bare unless I actually put something on them, my next stop was my local IKEA, to purchase some wall décor. While there’s nothing wrong with mass-produced wall art (I will always love the pop-art Audrey Hepburn portrait I had in my childhood bedroom), my horizon has developed beyond IKEA—there’s something about intentionally selecting and owning an original piece of artwork created by an artist you admire.
Starting an original art collection can seem like an out-of-reach luxury. But when I asked art gallery owner and all-around art aficionado Ashley Mulvihill what she thought, she was quick to reassure me. “I firmly believe that anyone can be an art collector,” she said.
Mulvihill, 33, is the founder of Ninth Editions, a digital art gallery that sells limited edition prints and original works from emerging artists. Galleries like hers are transforming the art scene by making art more accessible to first-time buyers. It’s the perfect starting place for millennials hoping to build their own art collection on a budget.
Here, Mulvihill shares her advice on starting an art collection. Read on for tips on discerning your own artistic taste, where to start shopping, how to avoid choice overwhelm, and why she thinks it’s important to support local artists in our own communities.
Sometimes it seems like building an art collection is something only the wealthy can do. Why is that?
Being an art collector is simply owning artwork made by an artist. It sounds obvious, but that artwork could be something you’ve picked up on your travels in a market. If it means something to you and is authentic, it’s art.
The art market is one of the opaquest in the world, and most of what we hear in the news is focused on record-breaking sales of historic works. It can feel very inaccessible and reserved for elite insiders. There is such a vast array of artists creating work at every level, in every medium, and at many price points—it’s simply a matter of knowing there’s something for everyone. It takes commitment to find what’s right for you, but luckily there are more ways than ever to learn about artists and find affordably priced art on curated online platforms.
What are your general tips on starting an art collection on a budget?
Start slowly. Sometimes the urge is to have what feels like a full collection right away, but in my experience, buying thoughtfully and intentionally based on how you connect with an artwork is the best approach. It’s better to have bare walls than pay for a wall-filler you’ll grow out of quickly.
I will also always advocate for a quality frame, but it can be a substantial cost. If framing is a barrier, there are many creative solutions to hang a work without investing a lot (prefabricated frames, magnets, hanging clips, scrapbook corners). Buy real art now and invest in a better frame down the line.
An insider tip: if you love an artwork and it’s a little out of your price range, many galleries will accommodate payment plans to help you spread the investment out over a few installments.
Do you have any advice for an art newbie on how to discover one’s own art taste/preferences?
Look, look, and look some more! Like anything in life, the more experience you have, the more you can start to hone the skill of collecting art. Depending on where you are located, dropping into galleries, museums, or experiencing art in outdoor spaces can be a huge benefit to your educational process. Many museums have dedicated hours each week for free access, so be sure to do a bit of research to find the best time to go. I find Instagram an amazing tool for research, following profiles or galleries that share art or following individual artists I love. If you save artworks into a folder over time you can look back and start to notice trends in what you’re drawn to.
How do we gain the confidence to buy our first piece of art?
As someone who is very budget-conscious, I would say to start with how much you are comfortable spending. Assuming you’ve found THE ONE, ask yourself how you felt when you first saw it. If you had that gut reaction of, “Wow, this is incredible” or, “I love it,” trust that. Then, dig a little bit deeper. Who is the artist? Do you connect with what their work is about? Once you’ve done your own investigation and given it a moment to settle in your mind, the trick is not to overthink it. It’s a decision, but not one that has to define you. Buying art should be fun, so allow yourself to enjoy the process!
PSA: don’t worry about matching it to your furniture. The art in your home is a reflection of you, and you are multifaceted. It’s what makes your space uniquely yours; otherwise, you would be living in a model suite that anyone can replicate.
How do you dispel nerves in customers who feel hesitant to invest in art?
It’s so personal, but once someone has decided they love an artwork, I often find it comes down to two things: understanding value and preconceptions around discretionary spending.
It’s important to remember that art is very much a luxury good, so even when we speak about art as being affordable, it’s subjective. It might be an affordable piece of art only within the context of a market that goes into the hundreds of millions of dollars. An initial understanding of what you’re investing in is key because it’s not a poster or a mass-produced wall décor piece.
Putting the cost of an artwork into perspective has also helped people dispel nerves. Think about what you spend on dinner and drinks, a new outfit for a special event, or a hotel stay. These are all things that we know we spend too much on but because they fall within the “I need food/clothes/shelter to survive” category we allow ourselves to spend more freely on them. Quality art will cost more, but the returns are endless. It’s an investment in the feel of your home, the artist, and your collection (which one day could appreciate)—and you will get to experience it every single day.
What is important to remember about the worth/cultural importance of art?
Communicating with images is natural to us. The earliest dated cave painting is from the Upper Paleolithic Era (that’s around 40,000 years old!). Art is a universal language and often a commentary on our time, whether it’s abstract, humorous, political, etc. I like to think about artworks as a portal into someone else’s world—to be outside of my own experience is incredibly humbling and, frankly, refreshing. It’s why we read, watch movies, and listen to stories. Visual art can allow you to be an explorer from the comfort of your own home. It can also just be really nice to look at and in a world where we are increasingly disconnected from natural beauty, I’m very happy to come home and surround myself with artistic beauty!
How do prospective art collectors avoid becoming overwhelmed with the vast choice out there? Where do we even start?
Research the landscape a bit and see which galleries/type of art you are interested in. Traditional galleries are always a good place to start. The exhibitions are small, and when you’re there you can speak to the gallerist about the work.
There are also a number of highly curated sites, like Ninth Editions, that have experienced curators select the artists and artworks. This means you’re benefiting from a trained professional who has already looked at thousands of artworks to narrow down the choice. You can have the confidence that they are vetting the artists, materials, process, and longevity of the work so you know right off the bat that any of the artworks you love on the site are a solid choice.
If you go to a website, and they do not explicitly list who the artist is, it’s not a curator or platform that is championing artists. My advice is to steer clear.
What are some ways that millennial art collectors are changing the game? Is our generation collecting art differently?
I think there’s a greater awareness around sustainability and artist representation. Images are shared wildly on the internet, but there’s a growing etiquette around crediting artists properly. It’s also easier to find out the ethics of a company, where they’re producing the work, what materials they are using, how they compensate artists, etc. At Ninth Editions, we pay artists 60 percent of the profit, and it’s something I’m really proud of. Many higher-volume brands pay anywhere from .08 percent (seriously!) to 18 percent of the retail cost. Millennials are paying attention, they care, and they’re becoming more considerate about what they invest in all the time.
Do digital art galleries (like yours!) change the art collecting tradition/process?
They definitely do, and are slotting in to fill a huge gap in the market. The online model allows galleries to feature more emerging artists or works at lower price points so there’s a wider range of what’s available for collectors and would-be-collectors. The work was always being made, but operating a brick-and-mortar gallery is financially onerous, so most can only take on higher-value artworks. It’s democratizing art so that anyone can be an art collector, whether their barrier was financial or geographic, or even a perception of the art world.
Do you think tuning into our own local art scenes in order to support local artists is important? If so, how do we do this?
I think it’s a fantastic idea and something I really encourage people to do. Local artists bring a unique perspective to and about their community. So many emerging artists participate in grad shows at their art schools, artist-led fairs, and markets. It’s a great way to meet face-to-face with artists, hear about their practice, see the work in person, and buy very reasonably-priced artwork depending on where they are in their career. I would also encourage people to reach out directly if you’ve found an artist online that you like. Who wouldn’t want to hear from a fan, and most of the time you can buy directly from them. The more we invest in our communities, the better.