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Buying art is not just a luxury for the rich. But like any good investment, it does require some time and a bit of courage.

Buy an Original

The trouble with buying a dried fern print for your wall is this: Within a year, you'll probably be wondering (1) why you ever thought a dead leaf was interesting, and (2) why your stuff looks freakishly like your next door neighbor's. A better option, say local artists, is to buy original work from any of the 25,000 visual artists who live in Virginia. It's not necessarily more expensive, it could increase in value, and - best of all - you'll be doing your part to keep those breath-of-fresh-air artists right here in Richmond. Still, it's not what most of us have the courage to do. Buying art seems like a luxury for the rich - or at least a hobby for people who actually know a lot about art already. "I think what spooks people is that we're used to looking at mass-produced things," explains Tommy Van Auken, a local Richmond painter who works a day job as an art handler at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "It's safer to own something that other people recognize or define as legitimate. It's a comfort zone. When you're looking at a piece of original art, you're not sure of its value. You can't look up its value on the Internet. It's a strange thing for people today to find something unique, made laboriously by one individual." But it's increasingly what people want, says Amie Oliver, a local artist member of the 1708 Gallery downtown. "There's hardly anything made by the human hand anymore, but I think people are thirsty for it. What do you think shabby chic furniture is about? It's because there's evidence of the human hand. People want - whether consciously or unconsciously - to have human contact." To that end, she says, anyone living in Richmond is in great shape. Smack between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, Richmond is home to VCU's art school and to big-time collectors, such as the Lewis family, who support art in the community. That's to say nothing of art haunts like the Fulton Hill Studio, the Shockoe Bottom Arts Center and galleries tucked all over nooks and crannies in the city. "Richmond is a very nurturing, very informed, very sophisticated city," Oliver says. "Anybody who's interested in art or having it part of their lives can find it right here. You don't have to go to New York to buy top-notch art." And you don't have to spend thousands of dollars, either. For a beginner, starting small might be the answer. Literally. Right now, Oliver is gearing up for the gallery's Small Works Show fund-raiser. It's definitely one of the best bargains in town because artists donate work and nothing is priced over $100. But Oliver says there are lots of other ways to hook into the art scene, too. Unlike the media hype about the "Bohemian artiste," most artists are thrilled that people want to own one of their pieces, she says. So thrilled, in fact, that visiting an artist's studio, negotiating price, developing payment plans and sampling the work in your home are all pretty common practices. You can work through a gallery (if the artist is represented) or go directly to the artist's studio to sift through work. All it takes on your part is getting on gallery mailing lists and spending some time browsing. That and lots of chutzpah to work a fair deal when you see something you want. Take Diego Sanchez and Dr. Noel Root, an artist and collector, respectively. Sanchez, a well-respected local painter, has shown work all over Richmond, including at the Maynard Gallery. Last year, he sold nine paintings, most in the $700 - $1,000 range. Of course, he's delighted to take cash for a piece, but he's been known to work strange deals in an effort to keep art in people's lives. Among his recently sold works was a painting purchased by Manny Mendez, owner of Kuba Kuba in the Fan. The final arrangement was a combination of cash and certificates to the restaurant. "Artists need to eat, too," jokes Sanchez. "And I like the food there, so it worked out just fine." Trades work out fine for Dr. Root, a West End dentist, too. He's acquired some of his 50 works by swapping art for his talent with a drill and tooth buffer. The important thing, both men say, isn't the mechanics of the deal. Instead, they see trading as one way to keep the arts community alive - a vital piece of any thriving city. "Good art is an investment on so many levels," explains Root. "If you take the time to train your eye to see what makes a good piece from the standpoint of design and craftsmanship, you can buy art that makes money. But another way to look at it is that you'll love this piece every day of your life. And that's a whole other important way of investing." The personal response to what you buy is actually the most exciting thing about investing in art - not how much money you've spent, according to Bev Reynolds of the Reynolds Gallery, that is known widely for showing museum-quality work. Even here at her crŠme de la crŠme gallery, Reynolds offers art in a wide price range. She does have watercolors by Robert DeNiro Sr. going for a staggering $12,000 each. But she can just as easily steer you to outstanding works on paper that can go for a few hundred dollars - pretty much what you'd spend framing a poster. "Buying art is an investment," she says. But it's not like buying stock. It's about buying work that makes you take a deeper breath when you look at it." Reynolds recommends looking beyond work that has an immediately pretty image since those tend to get boring fast. Instead, she suggests looking at pieces that bother you, even things you don't really understand at first look. "You want to be open to the excitement of new and different ideas. It's so much more interesting long term," she says. Her advice also includes letting go of gallery-phobia. Asking questions is the only way you'll learn about what's hanging on those walls. She herself spends a lot of time in seemingly aloof New York galleries, so she knows your pain. "I really know that awful feeling of going into a cold gallery. But there's nothing that we [gallery owners] like more than talking about what we show. We care so much about the artists. We believe so much in what they're doing. In the gallery we really want to encourage conversation about the work, about what the artist is trying to do and to explain why we think a piece is important. If you don't have the opportunity to talk about what you see, then you're in a vacuum." But maybe the most comforting thing to keep in mind is that galleries are thrilled that you've put your toe in the door at all. They'd much rather talk to you than have cool work go into storage unnoticed. Oliver at 1708 takes it one step further. She sees buying new art as a kind of radical act — for our time, anyway. "It's unique and it's yours," she explains. "That alone, in this day of Target, Wal-Mart and everything else makes buying art worthy of

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