How and Why Do People Choose & Buy Art?

By Robert Klonoski

According to the 2010 census, there are nearly 132 million housing units in the United States. Based on the average square footage of a residential unit and the average amount of wall space, and guessing at how much art would dress an average wall, I arrive at a rough estimation that there are about six billion paintings, photographs and other decorative items on display in homes across America.

How and why do we choose the objects we do to decorate the places where we live, and also work? In particular, how and why do we choose to buy original art? Only a modest percentage of our decorative possessions are likely to be original art, but still, the question as to how those pieces are selected is relevant and worth investigating.

Original art, in marketing terms, tends to be a luxury item, the term "luxury" referring to merchandise that sells well in times of economic prosperity and poorly in times of economic stress. Spending on art is almost entirely discretionary, and the more expensive it gets, the more it takes on the characteristics of a luxury item.

Price is a consideration with any purchase, but it plays out differently for commodities than it does with discretionary items such as art. With commodities, for example, I may cross the street to go to a different shoe store if I know the same shoes are on sale for a lower price, or I may comparison shop for gasoline or ink cartridges for my printer. These are commodities; one brand can pretty much substitute for another. We all spend portions of our total budgets on such commodities-- food, shelter, clothing, and so on-- and when we're done, hopefully we have money left over for discretionary expenditures such as art.

Because art gratifies or satisfies not in terms of need, but rather in terms of desire, people have much more flexibility where and on what types of art they spend their discretionary dollars. In other words, people don't have to buy it; they want to buy it. So lets say Joe has a thousand discretionary dollars left over after basic necessities are taken care of and he decides to spend it on art.

To begin with, it's the degree that a given work of art interests Joe that sets off his (or any potential art buyer's) internal calculation about whether he's willing to part with any or all of his thousand dollars to own it. He may be interested in owning it exclusively for his own private viewing or he may be interested in placing it where other people can also see it. Either way, he's acquiring it for the gratification he anticipates it will provide, but this simple decision about where to display it may have a significant impact on what type of art he buys.

If he's buying for his own personal viewing, he may be attracted to the art for its impact, its point of view, its quality, its craftsmanship, its style, or any of a myriad of other reasons. He may identify with the artist's statement, experience a connection to the thoughts or ideas of the artist, or share the artist's perspective. Or maybe it's simply his ability to understand and appreciate the art that attracts him to it. In all of these instances, he "bonds" in some way with the art and artist, even if only in his mind. The outcome is personal-- between him and the art.

Then again, he might view the art as a trophy of sorts, a symbol of his success and achievements in life-- an indication that he has a thousand dollars to spend and he can spend it on whatever he feels like spending it on. Or maybe he believes that possessing original art sets him apart from those who own none. In these cases, he experiences a sense of fulfillment not necessarily related to the specifics of the art, but rather to the fact that he's able to own it.

In other words, the acquisition and display of artwork for personal viewing only is at least in part about enhancing the self-esteem or self-perceptions of its owners. The art makes its owners feel good or better about themselves whenever they look at it, and in so doing, fulfills its purpose from its owners' perspectives.

Now suppose Joe intends to put his art on display in a place where others can see it. In this case, his relationship to the work gets a little more complicated. It's still personal, of course, but since people besides Joe will see it, that relationship, in a sense, is on display too. So viewers not only experience the art as art, but also as revealing something about Joe.

Perhaps they perceive Joe as having enough money to make discretionary purchases, like luxury cars or expensive clothes. Or maybe they decide he has refined tastes or has the ability to distinguish quality in art. Or maybe they see him as confident enough to successfully break into the art world. Whether those viewers are a small circle of friends or everyone everywhere, the salient point is that the art is no longer private. Joe is sharing something about himself that hopefully he's comfortable letting other people see.

Regardless of who sees the art, it represents something of significance and value to Joe in the here and now. The question then becomes whether Joe believes his art will retain that significance and value over time, or on a broader scale, whether the audience for that art will either maintain or continue to grow in size over time and will continue to believe in that art in ways that will at least retain or may potentially enhance its value.

Resale is not necessarily a principal consideration here, especially if Joe intends to permanently house the art in his home or office. Joe may consider the reputation of the artist or the importance of the art in terms of resale before he buys it, but his connection to the work and the gratification it provides him remain the primary factors in his decision whether or not to buy. If, however, the art is being purchased as an investment, the weight of financial considerations is likely to increase. No matter how little or how much the art costs, the greater Joe's concern over financial considerations, the more that concern influences how he perceives the art, and the more significant a role financial considerations play in whether or not he buys.

For instance, Joe's purchase may involve some amount of doubt, as many art purchases do. Even if Joe is not buying in anticipation of financial gain, it is comforting for him to know that his art won't be losing a substantial percentage of its value in the immediate future. Resale may not be the first thing on Joe's mind, but advance knowledge that a work art could depreciate significantly in the year following purchase may be dissuasive to a potential buy.

Another dissuasive factor, specific to more controversial works of art, are the types of social or political statements, philosophies, beliefs or values that the art embodies. For example, Joe may feel a risk that the point of view expressed by a particular work of art could potentially become unfashionable or that attitudes toward it will change over time. Of course, some works survive changes in fashion or trend or style and will always be appreciated as representative of something that was popular at the moment of its creation, but other works may not survive the longevity test.

So Joe is likely aware that no matter what art he buys, he's expressing (and risking) some amount of self-confidence in selecting it, especially with art that's intended to be viewed publicly. There's always the nagging self-doubt that maybe he's making a bad decision, doubt that may vary in intensity depending on the strength of his commitment to the art.

Much of what we buy-- the clothes we wear, the car we drive-- is functional, but yet also reflects aspects of ourselves. Art is no different even thought it depicts things we like to see or feelings with which we can sympathize or concepts that ring true with our intellects. The art we buy is as much about who we are as it is about the artists who create it.

***The author, Robert Klonoski, is an Assistant Professor of Business at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia.***

Want to sell more art than you're selling now? I work with artists all the time to help them improve how they organize, present, price and sell their art, both in real life and online. All you have to do is give me a call at 415.931.7875 or email The consult usually takes only half an hour, includes a review of your art and background information in advance, and costs only $90.

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