The art of choosing art

Give bare walls a makeover with our guide to splashing out on artwork

By Daniel Williams
Photography by Nick Clayton

It’s fair to say I’m not an art buff.

On visits to galleries, I generally adopt Abraham Lincoln’s advice about it being better to say nothing and be thought a fool than open your mouth and prove it. If I’m standing before an artwork and feel compelled to offer something by way of a reaction, I’ll go with approving grunts and exhalations of air – vague noises rather than telltale words. But is the bluff really necessary?

Not one bit, says Hugo Michell, owner of the eponymously titled gallery in Adelaide’s Beulah Park ( “There’s this misconception that the art world is made up of intellectuals who sit around sipping shiraz and looking down on people.” If you’re feeling out of your depth, bowl up to the gallerist and ask your questions, advises Michell. “I love it when anyone comes in who wants to talk about art.”

There’s nothing wrong with choosing a work purely because it seems to be whispering in your ear. In fact, that emotional attachment should apply to any art purchase because there’s rarely any certainty that a piece will appreciate in value.

Some years ago, before he was running his own gallery, Michell asked an art dealer what he thought of a piece that Michell was taken with. The expert told him not to touch it because it was priced too high from an artist who hadn’t done enough. A year later, the artist won the Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award and her work tripled in value overnight. “I learnt my lesson,” says Michell. “You’ve got to go with your gut.”

Gallery owner, Hugo Michell

Not that research goes astray if you want your purchases to be sound investments as well as enliven your home. Ask the gallerist for the CVs of artists whose work has caught your eye, suggests Michell.

If an institution such as Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art has included them in a group show, or the National Gallery of Australia has acquired one of their works, you’re probably backing winners.

But are you also backing artists whose works are forget-it expensive? Perhaps, but shake the idea you’ll need a second mortgage to buy any half-decent piece, says Michell. No gallery in Australia could survive if every painting in all its shows exceeded $20,000. Most galleries support emerging artists whose work starts from a few hundred dollars or less.

Michell advises against fussing over interior decorating issues when selecting works. Whethera painting would complement your living-room rug or pick up the pattern of your doona cover is not, to his mind, important. “I say that only because I feel contemporary art will find its own spot on a wall,” he says.

“I go to a lot of collectors’ homes and you see works hung inch-to-inch, these really full-on images, with juxtaposition . . . and it all works.”

Anyway, while bedspreads can be changed, you may have just one chance to acquire that stunning artwork that will transform your bedroom while saying something about how you see yourself and the world.

“Don’t buy a piece of art because you think that it’ll be good for that wall,” says Michell. “Buy it because you want that piece, you need that piece. Where it’ll go – that’s an afterthought.”

Rather than just instant gratification, a fine painting offers a kind of slow-release reward, he argues: the more times you look at it, the more completely its subtleties reveal themselves. “You can hang it in the same spot for five years and you’ll still walk down the stairs or around the corner one day and it will stop you and make you look at it again.”

And make visitors look, too, suggests Michell. While you don’t buy art to impress, “I love it when people come to my house and my art causes conversation,” he says. “It may inspire praise or it may inspire debate – someone may hate it – but rarely will it not cause something.”


Buying an artwork because you like it makes perfect sense. But if that same piece were to quadruple in value in three years, you’d probably like it even more. The question is, given all the collectors you’ll be competing against, is it possible for a newcomer to nail a bargain?

“Of course it is,” says Sydney-based Tim Klingender, director of Tim Klingender Fine Art and national head of Aboriginal art at Sotheby’s Australia. “A lot of people follow the crowd. It’s the one with the good eye and the conviction to buy something before others would be prepared to who may ultimately score the prize.” Here’s how to maximise your chances of making a killing.

Not everything will rise in value and some things will go backwards, says Klingender. So if you’re going to be stuck with a lemon, at least make it a lemon you like looking at. “You’ll also buy better if you heed your feelings, rather than trying to second-guess whether a work is going to appreciate,” he says.

A work that’s “aesthetically appealing” stands a better chance of rising in value than one that isn’t, says Klingender. While that’s a broad term in the context of art, “there is a universal aesthetic . . . and it absolutely applies in art”.

If you’re tossing up between two paintings by the same artist, “the one that’s more attractive to the eye will sell for more down the line, even though they may be of equal academic merit”.

You’ll want to do the auction rounds and get a sense of whose work is on the rise.

“Another great guide is the Archibalds,” says Michael Fitzgerald, managing editor of Art & Australia. Take four-time finalist Ben Quilty: “His stuff now goes for $20,000 to $30,000 a piece, five times what it was getting before his Archibalds success.”

Melbourne Art Fair (in August) is the biggest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and well worth attending, says Klingender. Splash out on a five-day pass and watch the major collectors scurry about. The art is pricey, but the experience will be a great pointer to whose work is hot.

A good way to kick-start your investing is to size up some student art, says Fitzgerald. Front up at the art-school graduation shows and mingle. Ask the teachers (and students) who they think will go far: who has the persistence and maturity to support their talent? Also, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts each hold an annual show – New, Primavera and Hatched, respectively – featuring the work of the country’s best young artists, with prices mostly in the hundreds of dollars. “These shows are dependable barometers of trends and talent,” says Fitzgerald.

Go to galleries and look to get on first-name terms with the owners. When a show is coming up, request an advance viewing. “You don’t really want to be the guy having seventh, eighth or ninth pick,” says Klingender.

Driven by international demand, Aboriginal art has been the field where prices for the great works have risen exponentially over the past 20 years or so, says Klingender. Again, be guided by recent gongs – like the Telstra Art Award – on whose work is worth forking out for.

A word of caution: when considering buying a piece from the traditional regions, check you’re not about to line the pockets of a dodgy independent dealer. It’s best to acquire any works only from Aboriginal-owned art centres.

If you feel too green to back your gut, enlist a professional art consultant. You need a good one, though, largely free of vested interests. Check out the website of the Art Consulting Association of Australia (

Hang smart

There’s not much point acquiring terrific art unless you display it properly. Steve Bagby, of Total Hanging Solutions in Sydney, offers these pointers

Hanging pictures at different levels is a mistake because it disrupts the flow of a room. “It doesn’t matter how big or small the artwork is, pictures on the same wall should share the same centre line.”

Lower is better. “People invariably hang their works too high, especially if they have high ceilings.” The ideal centre line is between 1550 millimetres and 1600mm from the floor. “This is what galleries do and it’s a very comfortable level to look at art.”

Match large works with large walls and vice versa. “I see people try to squeeze a big piece into a small space and it looks tight . . . it can’t breathe.”

Anchor a picture to a piece of furniture, rather than just “float” it. “If the centre of the wall and the centre of a large piece of furniture are one and the same, all the better.”

Paintings look best brightly lit, but keep them out of direct sunlight: “Watercolours especially will fade dramatically.” A downlight over an artwork works a treat.

If you have old-world picture rails, use them. If you don’t, consider installing tracking hard up against the cornices so your paintings can be easily relocated without drilling more holes in your walls.

When it comes to clustering pieces, an odd number is preferable. “Three in a row looks great, with the middle one used as the anchor.”

Match styles with rooms. Nudes are best reserved for bedrooms. “A lot of people are put off coming in the front door and having a pair of 38Ds staring them in the face . . . unless it’s a Norman Lindsay, maybe.” Food and wine art works best in or near the kitchen.