Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A beginner's guide to buying art

I thought I wasn't a collector of anything until I looked around my living room the other day and realized, shit, this counts as a art collection. I think I own about 80 pieces if you count those too big to transport across the Atlantic (gathering dust in my parents basement).

It's a thrilling and scary thought considering I'm still in my twenties.

So, as a novice art collector of sorts, and a former art gallery salesperson, here is what I know about buying original art.

1.1: There are three common places to buy art (four, if you count The Internet): In a gallery, in an artist's studio, or at an auction.

I'll cover auctions in a separate post, as most beginners will buy in a gallery setting.

A note on The Internet: Artwork can photograph differently than it looks in person. If you're a beginner buyer looking at large or big-ticket pieces, I highly recommend buying that kind of artwork at a gallery or studio. Plus, shipping big artwork is almost always a nightmare.


No matter how old you are, or how much you make, you belong in an auction or gallery as much as anyone else. Don't feel awkward. Don't feel under or overdressed. Don't feel like you have to show your pay stub at the door to gain entrance. Art is for everyone.


Galleries are (rather frustratingly) quiet places, but it doesn't have to be that way. Don't be afraid to chatter away about the stuff in front of you. There has never been a rule against talking at a regular volume in any gallery I've visited.

After all, the best pieces are the ones that keep you talking. 


Gallery-width canvases have thicker sides (about 1.5 inches to 2 inches), making them sturdier and less likely to warp over time. Bonus: They also look best when unframed (hello, savings!)

My rule of thumb is to buy gallery-width canvases whenever possible, but especially if the artwork is bigger than twelve inches squared.

Worried about warping? Larger canvases, and thin-sided canvases, are more likely to warp. The fix for warping is generally to have the canvas re-stretched on a new frame ($$$)


In many (but not all) gallery and studio settings bargaining is a no-no. If you're intent on getting a good deal, you can mention it to the artist or gallery directly, but do so gently.

Most artwork is fairly priced to reflect the time and materials invested in the piece. Remember, artists have to eat, too.

Curious about commissions? Gallery commissions range from 5-50% (and can sometimes be startlingly higher) depending on the gallery. Some artists discount their prices in-studio to account for this commission, but this is (obviously) frowned upon by galleries. 


I used to work at a not-for-profit art sales and rental gallery and it was fabulous. I can't tell you how many people walked away from that gallery relieved and triumphant that they could purchase art in a low-commitment, low-stress atmosphere. I loved that the option to rent artwork made art more accessible, too.

If there isn't a rental gallery in your area, you can sometimes borrow artwork from galleries or studios (against a deposit).

Renting or borrowing is particularly ideal if you aren't confident in choosing artwork for a particular space, if you are worried about the size or shape of what you're buying, or if you have an inkling you might not be able to live with a piece long term. 


Every time you frame something in anti-reflective (aka frosted) glass a kittens dies.

Now that we've got that covered, if you're buying framed pieces keep the frame colours and styles simple: it's easier in the long run. For awhile I bought all black (great for bright rooms), now I buy all white (great for dark rooms). I always buy frames I can spray paint different colours, later, too.

An insiders note on framing: unframed pieces are usually much cheaper. Some artists and galleries are able to significantly increase the price of pre-framed pieces, since they are more convenient for the buyer (although you may not be getting the exact style and size you want). In rare cases, artists and galleries may intentionally price pieces to make extra money off of the frame: what cost them $50 will be factored into the price as $200. Whether or not framing is that much of a value-added service is up to you.

Not sure about framing styles? I have a personal distaste for huge, elaborate frames that overwhelm the artwork they display (especially given their price tag). A trip to any doctor's waiting room will show you that these kinds of frames become outdated quickly, too. 

It will save you major (MAJOR) money to learn how to do minor repairs, wire, and clean frames on your own. 

Worried about wires? Invest in coated wire to save yourself from sliced-open hands, or thoroughly tape up the ends of uncoated wire to stop fraying. And buy a good, strong gauge (thickness) wire!

I always wire my artwork on both sides of a piece, about 1/3 of the way from the top, with eye hooks that screw into the frame. This makes the artwork easier to carry, safer to hang, and easier to level. 

Scratches or nicks in wooden frames? No problem. Invest in a paint pen, and some wood repair putty, and patch it up yourself (no need for fancy frame repair kits). Shoe polish and permanent markers also cover 'character marks' quite nicely too. 

When you're handling artwork and mattes make sure your hands are very clean: paper and matte board absorb body oil very rapidly. To clean up marks on mattes use an art gum eraser.

Damaged canvas? Ripped or punctured canvas can sometimes be sewn together, but it's best to go to a professional for this. If your canvas is dented (concave or convex - this can happen if something has been leaning against a canvas in storage, for example) on acrylic paintings only gently dampen the back of the canvas with a cloth. When the canvas dries, the fibres will re-tighten and eliminate the dents.


Many art schools have small galleries dedicated to selling student work. Student galleries are most full of 'inventory' at the end of the semester, and many carry both two-dimensional (paintings) and three-dimensional (sculpture, installation) work.

Buying from student galleries is a great way to snag big pieces at beginner's prices and support emerging artists. You can also take comfort in knowing that the money earned generally goes straight back into buying art supplies or paying down student debt; art schools almost never profit from student galleries. 

Because they are usually not-for-profit ventures, student galleries are not usually very well marketed. Search and ye shall find, and it shall be worth it. 


You don't have to go to art school to buy art, but any gallery or artist should be able to provide you with basic care information for your piece. You'll want to ask about hanging in direct sunlight (okay for acrylic and oil paintings short term, disastrous for prints and paintings on paper), dusting and cleaning paintings, hanging prints in bathrooms (don't), etc. 

Ask questions. Gallery staff and artists are generally quite happy to share knowledge about art: That's usually why they're working in a gallery or studio, anyway.


Not what art history tells you to like. Not what your friends like. What you like.

Not sure what you like? You aren't alone. I can't tell you how many people used to walk into the gallery and have no inkling of their preferences. Don't be afraid to window shop in galleries for awhile before committing. Don't be embarrassed if you can't explain why you like something, either.

You can also easily learn what you like without going to art school. There are a lot of wonderful art blogs out there (The Jealous Curator, Colossal, Buy Some Damn Art). Explore them. Pin or save images you like (I collect mine here), and you'll notice patterns emerge in what kinds of images and mediums you gravitate to.

Now, go buy some damn art. 

graphics © Jess Gerrow

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Valletta's New City Gate: Update

While it's still very much a work in progress, I wanted to share a quick update on Valletta's new city gate. Behold: The scaffolding is finally retreating! Approaching the city you are now greeted with a beautiful, streamlined vista that encourages the eye to travel right down Republic Street. It is quite impressive, especially at night. 

Although anticipated to be finished long ago, the parliament buildings are still under construction (politics) but the open-air theatre is fully functioning and quite lovely.

I can't wait for the project to come together and I'm keeping my fingers crossed that, even though Malta's 'new' bus service is leaving the country, the bus terminal will still be transformed into an open green space as Renzo Piano planned.

The New Valletta is really taking shape.

I, for one, like what I see.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

What Christmas is like in Malta

This is our third Christmas in Malta.

The first year I hated it.

It wasn't Christmas. There was no snow, no frosty windshields, no mittens and scarves or toasty fireplaces. No real Christmas tree. No eggnog and no candy cane ice-cream. No Christmas parades or Christmas specials on TV. The Christmas lights strung up between the chalky limestone houses looked wrong. The nativity scenes set up in the roundabouts looked sad and sun bleached.

We bought a cheap plastic tree and decorations at the 1-Euro store. It looked silly compared to the Christmas trees from all my childhood Christmases - fat, furry things covered in ribbon and popcorn and beautiful white lights and decades of decorations. 

We hardly knew anyone in Malta and spent the holidays alone, just the two of us and the pups, trying to recreate our moms' Christmas dinners.

It was all wrong.

It did not feel like Christmas.

We vowed never to miss a Christmas in Canada again.

The second year I knew what was coming. I anticipated the arrival of the lights strung between the limestone houses. It wasn't my Christmas but it was someone's Christmas. And that was sort of OK.

From my classmates in my Masters program I learned about Maltese Christmas traditions - the things Wikipedia doesn't tell you. That everyone goes pub crawling on Christmas Eve. That the 'panto' (pantomime) is a Christmas thing here: A musical comedy production that usually features a good dose of slapstick comedy, political jokes, and cross-dressing.

And then we went home to Canada for Christmas! And returned to Malta wallets much lighter and completely exhausted. In an effort to have and eat our cake we opened presents and ate turkey dinner with Mike's family and mine. That's two Christmases, a lot of driving, little sleep, and a few pounds gained.

Toss in a bout of gastroenteritis that Santa brought everyone and it was a less than merry Christmas.

We vowed not to go to Canada for Christmas this year.

This Christmas I looked forward to the lights and the sun bleached decorations in Malta. I knew that around the middle of November the lights would go up, and on December 1st they would turn on. I knew that the silly blue Christmas trees in Valletta went up, then, too, accompanied by Christmas carols and Top 40 music blasting across speakers hardwired throughout the city. It's the only time of year those speakers are constantly used.

I knew that Sliema would be full to the brim with Christmas shoppers, parking impossible to find. Most Maltese making a day trip of coming into the city to have lunch and shop. I joined them, knowing the Plaza mall would be full of pink decorations, the Point mall's decorations would be blue, and Marks and Spencers would have the best holiday candies. I stocked up on mulled wine spices and I booked our pantomime tickets to Little Red Riding Hood at Teatru Manoel (which was beyond fabulous). 

I decorated our plastic tree with our 1-Euro decorations on American Thanksgiving. I've taken to watching the Food Network's constant stream of holiday themed cooking shows as a replacement for North American Christmas specials. I bought a little white poinsettia from one of the flower trucks on the side of the road. We ordered a turkey. We lit our fireplace scented candles.

This year it all feels right.

I'm starting to think what makes Christmas Christmas isn't the traditions themselves but being able to anticipate them coming. 

Christmas in Malta is warm. With temperatures hovering between 15 and 20 degrees Celsius, we wear sweaters and light coats here during the holidays, not parkas and boots. Those with heartier constitutions than I could, theoretically, go to the beach on Christmas Day.

The Maltese spend Christmas with their large, extended families, so most of the large hotels and resorts here host big, fancy Christmas brunch buffets, heavily marketed to expats, British retirees, Scandinavian vacationers, and anyone else without a community to celebrate with.

Many shops in Malta sell Christmas hampers during the holiday season. Wicker baskets full of food and wine, Christmas hampers are gifted between coworkers and neighbours and lesser-liked family members (I kid. Sort of.)

During the holidays grocers' shelves fill up with panettone: tasteless, stale, dry cakes akin to a giant pasty you would buy in a vending machine. They're an Italian tradition imported to Malta. You can guess how much I like them.

Much tastier, supermarkets fill up with wonderful British Christmas chocolates and mulled wine spices and Christmas puddings, too.

Christmas in Malta is about food and gifts, to be sure, but it is also about philanthropy. Around Christmas there are a lot of charity fundraisers that go on in Malta: Winter swims and runs and parties to benefit L-Istrina (a children's charity). Each person in Malta gave on average €8 to L-Istrina alone last Christmas.

And, perhaps more than philanthropy, Christmas in Malta is about booze. If you're under 50, or otherwise so-inclined, you hop from bar to bar on Christmas Eve, attending Christmas Mass slightly tipsy, and continuing the party late into the night. Presumably, on Christmas morning much of the country wakes up with a hangover, cured by a Christmas turkey or ham or goose, a big mug of mulled wine, and a honey ring.

You experience Christmas in Malta with all of your senses. On Christmas Eve the churches in Malta light up their domes and facades with strings of 60-watt bulbs and spot lights. It's one of the only nights of the year that Valletta's large domed church is lit up, too. Around Christmas church bells rings out Christmas carols; a nice change from the usual cacophony of tuneless chiming. Lit-up structures in the shapes of flying stars and wreaths are placed at regular intervals along Malta's narrow streets, creating canopies that blink so furiously overhead they make you dizzy.

To the uninitiated Christmas in Malta its a strange mix of palm trees and fairy lights, Christmas carols played alongside the latest electro-pop hit, religion and belligerence. 

But, three years later, it all feels like Christmas to me now.

Post-script: This Christmas Santa brought us the flu, again.

It turns out that it finds us no matter what continent we spend the holidays on.


Daytime photos: Christmas in Victoria, Gozo (2012)
Nighttime photos: Christmas in Valletta, Malta (2013)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

That time I went to an auction and bought 30 pieces of art

I'm starting a mini, one-off art-buying series on The Stroke. I had two blog posts about art auctions sitting in draft and, after reading Brittany's post on The House That Lars Built today, I've been inspired to unleash 'em (and add a few more). Grainy iPhone photos and all.

On the twelfth day of Christmas I took my husband to an art auction (his first). And I accidentally-on-purpose bought 30 pieces of art.

(We're counting it as my twelfth advent gift.)

Art auctions in Malta are fascinating. You arrive at a street level store front and walk into a large, open space jammed full of stuff. Antique furniture piled high with ceramic sculptures and clocks. Stacks of artwork: everything from 15th century manuscript pages to Baroque paintings in huge gilded frames to abstract art by contemporary, local artists. There are rows of simple chairs, and the seats at the back fill up first (better to watch your competing bidders). There are no paddles or numbers. The auctioneer knows you by sight, and has your details on file. (If you're a newbie you fill out some paperwork only if you buy something). You grab a catalogue and find a seat.

At this, my second art auction, the action started right on time: A minor miracle in Malta. The first few pieces were worth little and the auctioneer flowed through them quickly, setting the pace for what was to come.

As the auctioneer announced the number and starting price of the lots (generally 25-50% less than the estimated value) two assistants walked up and down the aisles of chairs holding the artworks, bringing them up close to your face so you could closely inspect the pieces.

The chanting of the auctioneer and the continuous circuit of the artwork being whisked past me was hypnotic.

People wandered in and out of the auction house during the process, many leaving after the lot they had their eye on sold, many (dressed in impeccably tailored suits) coming in just in time to bid on a few things and head back to work. Some people talked on phones during the auction, taking bids or simply chatting to a friend to pass the time until the auction was over and they could pay for their spoils. The room was filled with a constant buzz. It made for a strangely relaxed atmosphere, given the amount of Euros being spent.

The woman in front of me followed the auction's progress, marking the actual selling prices next to the estimated value in the catalogue in a bright red pen.

The first time I attended an auction in Malta I was terrified I would accidentally scratch my nose and buy an expensive piece of art.

It turns out most people bid by beckoning to the auctioneer with the same gesture you would use to politely call a waiter to your table. Seasoned buyers bid with nods or other signals, but if you're a newbie your chin scratch likely won't be mistaken for a bid.

I didn't tell my husband any of this in advance, and chuckled to myself as he sat as still as he could through the auction.

Three quarters of the way through the auction, when the cheaper lots come up on the block, Mike got a phone call and had to leave the auction for a meeting.

I am a bad auction attendee and I didn't go to the auction house in advance to inspect the lots (you normally do this a week in advance).

I arrived 15 minutes before the show started to quickly walk through the auction and get an idea of certain lots that might interest me. Then I read through the catalogue, noting the lower priced lots, and waited through the auction with anticipation to see if those items in my price range were worth bidding on.

There were a few lots I had my eye on that day. I was too scared to bid, and some of them sold for really low prices. I had instant regret.

If there's one emotion I have no tolerance for it's regret.

My heart started hammering.

A framed page from a fifteenth century German manuscript came up on the block. It was valued at €100. Bidding started at €50. I raised my hand. Someone bid €55. I raised my hand.

Sixty Euros once. Sixty Euros twice. Sixty Euros three times. Selling for sixty Euros...


I bought my first piece of art at auction. It was such a rush! I was giddy.

And once I bid I couldn't stop bidding. Like that Pringles commercial.

A round drawing on silk in an ancient gilded frame came up on the block. I bid three times and



Three prints of old maps of Malta came up on the block. I had always wanted some. And this lot was for three!

I bid. I bid again. I bid again. I started bidding so much I began bidding against myself and the auctioneer had to tell me to stop (how embarrassing).



Then, as the auction was wrapping up, chairs scraping against the floor as people started heading home empty-handed, things started to speed up. The auctioneer wanted to go home. There were two lots at the end that had 7 and 18 pieces of art in them, respectively, with cryptic descriptions like "7 maritime prints" and "18 small pieces". The auctioneer shouted:

Five Euros for lot 748!

No one bid.

The auctioneer shouted Five Euros for lots 748 AND 749!

There was a pause.

I did some quick mental math.

I raised my hand.



And that's how I bought 30 pieces of art at an auction. For less than €130.

Best advent gift ever.


WHERE: Belgravia Auction Gallery, Sliema, Malta
WHEN: Auctions are held quarterly. 
WHAT: The auction house is open the week prior to the auction for lot viewings. The auction takes place over 7 days. On each day different categories of lots are offered: Day 1 - Furniture, Day 2 - Art, etc. You can bid online, by phone, or in person. The full auction catalogue is posted online prior to each auction, and selected images of lots are also available to view online. Payments can be made in cash. A 10% deposit is required on purchased lots. You collect your purchased items the week after the auction. In this case, since my artworks were small, I was able to take them home the same day.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Stroke of Inspiration / I

I've been consuming a lot of brain food (and food food) lately,
and rather than tweeting out each and every delicious bit I decided to start a (semi regular?) compilation
of podcasts, books, documentaries, recipes, and articles I like right now.

Voila, the Stroke of Inspiration.

The Rosie Project is Graeme Simison's first novel. This book is light, funny, and completely relatable for anyone who has ever spent time in a university setting surrounded by academics (I could name a few who are startlingly similar to the book's main character, Professor Don Tillman).

This isn't exactly food for your brain, more like a nice, quick cup of tea. And we can all use one of those sometimes.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) has been sitting on my must-see list for ages, and it is worth every ounce of hype it has received. It is a masterful documentary.

You'll never see sushi - or Japanese culture - the same way again.

This recipe for vegan leek, apple and walnut soup with turmeric is on constant rotation in my house right now.

And it's pretty, to boot.

If you're new to the world of podcasts (of which I'm campaigning to be elected mayor) This American Life is a good place to start. The granddaddy of all storytelling podcasts, each week this American Life selects a theme and broadcasts stories on that theme.

This week's theme: Unconditional Love, which attempts to answer the question "Can love be taught?"

I realize I'm about ten years late on this one, but Six Feet Under (2001-2005/5 seasons) is a great character-driven anecdote to Breaking Bad withdrawal. Not for the drugs and violence, but for the complex personalities, the rawness, and the bad-assery.

The Elevator Pitch: Dysfunctional family mourning the loss of its patriarch runs an independent funeral home in California.

With a generous helping of gore, and tear-jerking moments, on the side. 

If you're a fan of Terry's Chocolate Oranges, good news! This is the grown-up adult drink version. 

Goes great with any of the reading or watching material listed above.