The Frugal Art Collector

The right artwork can enhance our homes, but many would-be buyers are put off by pricey paintings. But if you know what you’re looking for, and where to look, you can easily find a good deal. 

You may not be in the market for a Renoir or Rembrandt, but purchasing original work by contemporary artists is more accessible than you think. We could give you numerous incentives to buy—supporting gifted artists, adding colour and beauty to your home—but the most compelling reason should be because you love that painting or sculpture. So whether it’s for your home, office, or a friend, here’s our guide to art collecting on a budget.

  • Before you begin your search, decide how much you want to spend. Some art purchases require paying the cost of shipping—particularly if you order online. You may also be asked to cover the cost of the frame. Decide, too, what you’re looking for: are you in the market for an oil painting or a watercolour? Prints, photographs, or sculpture? Be prepared, though, to keep an open mind—you may think you want a watercolour, then fall in love with a black-and-white photograph.
  • Next, visit art galleries in your area—and not just the high-end ones. Look at funky, up-and-coming neighbourhoods for new galleries, too. Check out listings in daily newspapers and alternative weeklies; find out what’s going in your local art community.
  • If you can, attend an opening, or vernissage, where you can meet the artist. Group exhibitions are a good option for scoping out different styles in one place. While you’re looking, ask yourself a few questions. What colours and textures appeal to me? Do I prefer landscapes to portraits, or handicrafts to installation art? Artists who take risks, or more traditional works?
  • Remember: Buying art from a gallery—even a funky, low-key one—can be a serious investment. Paying by installments is one possibility, but if your budget is more modest, check out annual exhibitions put on by art schools. You could also visit art fairs, but don’t be surprised if your local café, restaurant, theatre, library, or bookstore has work up for sale. Check out what’s on the walls—if you like it, contact the artist or speak to the manager.
  • The Internet can be a virtual museum if you know where to look. Most artists have websites and accept orders online, and commissions, too—a good option if you’re looking for more personalized work. You can also find out about upcoming exhibitions and open studios, specific times where artists invite the public to their workshops. Start your search with the Artists in Canada online directory.
  • If you just want something fun and kitschy, try garage sales and flea markets—you’d be surprised at what you can dig up. Planning to travel outside Canada? Then check out local galleries and outdoor art markets.
  • Once you’ve chosen your masterpiece, speak to the artist or gallery staff about proper care. For example, any work on paper (drawings, watercolours, prints, and photographs) needs to be protected by glass and kept out of strong sunlight, or it will discolour over time. If you are having the art framed, don’t be afraid to ask questions about mounting and displaying, including lighting.

A final word: Buy what you love—regardless of whether or not it’s a limited edition, comes with a frame, or goes great with your purple sofa.

Rebecca Schwarz for

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