In Donna Tartt’s award winning novel, The Goldfinch, the lead character Theo Decker gets drawn into the art underworld by a small, mysteriously captivating painting that had belonged to his mother. As Decker becomes more and more entwined in this unfamiliar world, experiencing love and loss and alienation and obsession, he grows to understand the unique power that a single painting can have on an individual. This excerpt from the book beautifully captures the sentiment:
“Great paintings—people flock to see them, they draw crowds, they’re reproduced endlessly on coffee mugs and mouse pads and anything-you-like. And, I count myself in the following, you can have a lifetime of perfectly sincere museum-going where you traipse around enjoying everything and then go out and have some lunch. But if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you. An individual heart-shock…..You see one painting, I see another…..the lady buying the greeting card at the museum gift shop sees something else entirely, and that’s not even to mention the people separated from us by time—four hundred years before us, four hundred years after we’re gone—it’ll never strike anybody the same way and the great majority of people it’ll never strike in any deep way at all but a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular.”
Tartt describes that heart-stopping moment when a painting moves you so magnificently; when it makes you halt in your tracks, leaving you with no choice but to take note and emote.
As we are preparing to launch our new gallery, The 500 Project, we wanted to understand more about the decision-process behind buying art. Do people need to be moved in the way Tartt explains or are there other, more important factors? How much does something as pragmatic as wall space matter? What about the investment potential of a painting? How price sensitive are people when it comes to buying art?
Here are some of the headlines from our recent survey on art buying behavior.
Using a variety of social media channels to publicize the survey including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, we gathered 118 responses, primarily from the United States and Europe. In terms of age range, respondents were distributed as follows:
The largest single group of respondents, 41.5%, were aged between 42 and 49. Next were the 34 to 41 year olds, making up 22.9% of the sample.
A number of factors come into play when someone is deciding how much they can and will spend on a painting. We asked our respondents, “How much are you comfortable spending on a piece of original artwork you love?” The starting point of our scales was ‘$249 and below’ and the top point of the scale was ‘$10,000 and above.’ Amongst our sample, the results were spread fairly evenly across three categories: $1,000 t0 $2,999 (23.3%), $500 t0 $999 (25.0%) and $250-$499 (27.6%). Looking at the data as a whole, almost two-thirds of the sample, 63.8%, were comfortable spending $500 or more on single painting they love.
We were really curious about the factors that influence people’s decision making when they are considering buying a piece of artwork. We asked respondents to rate a list of criteria as well as giving them the opportunity to write about other reasons for buying art. By a landslide, the number one factor influencing art buying is that the work speaks to the person or moves them in some way. Amongst our respondents, 95.6% rated this as ‘extremely’ or ‘very important’ and only 1.7% said this was ‘of little importance’ or ‘unimportant.’ The next highest rated factor was price at 55.7%. A surprise to us was the third highest rated factor: individuals have the wall space for it (54.4%).
At the other end of the spectrum, the least important factor for this group when considering buying a piece of art was that the artist is well know. For 87.5% of respondents, this was considered ‘unimportant’ or ‘of little importance.’ That said, most respondents were not looking for the artist to be undiscovered or new to scene either. This was of little significance for 71.9% of respondents. Also, the investment potential of the artwork did not matter to 65.8% of people.
Over half of respondents (55.8%) were not reliant on a gallery curator’s recommendation although having access to information about the artist and the specific piece of artwork was considered a more important factor when deciding on buying a piece of art.
When analyzing the open-response comments provided by respondents about other reasons for buying art, the majority related to being moved by or having a connection to the artwork. Here are some examples of the comments:
“Tied to an emotional experience – travel somewhere, a relationship, etc.”
“How the art resonated with me”
“The emotion or memory it evokes for sure”
“If it touches me”
“Reminds me of something significant, e.g. visiting somewhere”
“Because I love it”
“Mainly if it moves me on an emotional level”
” It’s hard to quantify. For me it’s about the feelings the piece engenders”
“Personal relationship with the artist, a story behind the creation of the piece or overall meaning, the situation in which I first viewed the piece. Essentially, any emotional connection.”
The second most cited reasons were about decor, including size, color and aesthetics:
“Being able to visualise it with existing pieces and in my flat”
“If it coordinates with exisitng pieces of art and the overall design scheme of our home”
“Right size of picture and colours in the picture for the space intended”
“Overall design scheme of house, or colour palette”
“Colors match my interior”
“Compatibility with other decor (i.e. colors, patterns, etc.)”
The third most cited group of comments related to an interest or connection to the artist:
“I already own work by the same artist”
“A limited edition from an up and coming artist”
“Interest in the artist’s statement”
“I know the artist personally – want to support friends/colleagues”
“If I had been to an exhibition or seen their work displayed elsewhere”
Buying art online
The online art market has exploded in the last five years and is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Collectors are buying artwork priced at $50,000, $100,000 and more from online galleries based solely on seeing a couple of jpegs. There is a new generation of buyers whose collections have been sourced purely from online galleries. But how confident were our respondents buying artwork online? The vast majority, 71.3%, are at least somewhat comfortable doing so. Only 3.5% of the sample stated that they would be uncomfortable making an online art purchase.
So what did we learn?
Well, it would appear that Donna Tartt was right. Our survey results indicate that, by a country mile, the biggest reason for buying a piece of original artwork is because of a personal or emotional connection to it – a relationship recalled, a feeling evoked, a place remembered, a pulse raised, a heartbeat quickened. For some people, this may be the only criteria. “I love it, I have to have it. I can’t live without it.” For others it would appear that their intuitive, emotional side is balanced by pragmatism, specifically price and wall space. This feels like reality and matches my own experiences of buying art. That said, I’ve never had buyer’s remorse when I’ve let my heart rule my head.
We also learned that people are pretty comfortable buying art online, want access to some information about the artist or artwork and don’t seem too concerned whether the artist is well-known, undiscovered or the next big thing.
To conclude, there is a really good news story for everyone in these survey findings. If we were to draw a venn diagram comprising three circles: Moved By The Art, Price and Wall Space, a piece of original art exists for everyone right at the point where those three circles meet.
Feature Image: The Goldfinch (1654) by Carel Fabritius