Art seems like a souvenir only for the super wealthy, but finding a quality piece at an affordable price isn't as difficult as you might think.
1. Should I start at galleries?
Galleries offer a wide range of art, but they also tend to be expensive. Look for smaller galleries that put together one-off shows for emerging artists—these places charge less than a gallery that has invested in building an artist's reputation. Large galleries that carry a number of artists' works, as well as different styles and sizes, may also charge more because they have spent time stocking their space with many pieces to choose from, saving you the time and effort of having to find them on your own.
2. Is there a cheaper option?
One alternative is to search out young, unestablished artists selling their works from a studio. "Their doors are always open to the public," says Danielle Shang of the DF2 Gallery in Los Angeles. However, unless you're visiting a city with an arts district where galleries and studios are located, such as Beijing's 798 Art Zone (798art.org), you'll have to rely on word of mouth to find artists' work spaces. Galleries might point you in the right direction if you ask to meet an artist—just don't say you want to bypass the gallery to make a purchase. Openings of exhibitions at galleries and museums attract artists, who also may be able to tell you where to go.
In addition, look online to see if there's a well-known market where indigenous art is sold, like the Saturday market in the San Angel suburb of Mexico City. This type of art is cheaper than what you'd find in galleries, and competition among artists may make for bargains. Another option is to visit an art school with a gallery that sells student work. For instance, the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam (gerritrietveldacademie.nl) holds an annual show of its graduates' pieces—most of which are for sale.
3. How do I research artists?
Magazines like Art in America, ARTnews, and The Art Newspaper are good sources for general information on the art scene in different countries, though the artists they feature are often established and sell their works at high prices. Websites like artfacts.net, artinfo.com, and artnet.com have comprehensive lists of artists and galleries, as well as details on upcoming exhibitions and fairs. Artfacts gives the names, addresses, phone numbers, and websites for thousands of galleries and schools in more than 100 countries, including places you wouldn't ordinarily associate with contemporary art, such as Mozambique and Moldova. Artnet has a catalog of the prices of many international artists' works, but to access it, you have to buy a monthly subscription for $30. You can also search for websites for specific countries, such as artscenechina.com and newchineseart.com in China, museuvirtual.com.br in Brazil, and contemporaryart-india.com in India.
4. How can I ensure that the art I buy is authentic?
Paintings and photographic prints that are purchased at galleries should come with certificates of authenticity signed by the dealer. Determining whether indigenous art at a market is handmade or mass-produced is more difficult. In tourist centers with thriving art communities—such as Cuzco, Peru, and Siem Reap, Cambodia—do research online or ask in local shops or at your hotel where you can find fair-trade artisans collectives. The works at these places should be authentic, and the artists are guaranteed a certain percentage of the profits. In Cambodia, for example, the Artisans d'Angkor collective (011-855/63-963-330, artisansdangkor.com) trains young people in traditional crafts and gives them an outlet to sell their work.
5. Are prices negotiable?
Galleries, studios, and art schools are sellers' markets, with little leeway on price negotiation. Nonetheless, making discreet inquiries never hurts. Gallerist Danielle Shang advises being up front with the seller about how much you're willing to spend—even if that doesn't bring down the price of your top choice, the shop may have other options in your range. One way to save money when buying photography is to look for early numbers of limited-edition prints. The higher the numbers are, the more likely the run is almost sold out and the less of a chance you'll get a deal.
6. How do I ship things home?
If you don't buy art at a gallery, which will arrange shipping for you, check the rates at FedEx, UPS, or DHL, or at an art handling company such as Atelier 4 (atelier4.com). See if your home owners' insurance policy covers valuables shipped from abroad, as some policies do, up to a certain value. Framing a painting adds to the shipping cost, but it also protects the work during transit because it prevents anything from rubbing against the canvas.
Bringing your piece of art on the plane is another option—but make sure you know the rules for oddly shaped carry-on items if it won't fit in the overhead. And never check a valuable piece of art. Airlines will accept no responsibility for art that is lost, stolen, or damaged.
7. Will my art rise in value?
For people on a budget who are serious about acquiring art as an investment, Beijing-based dealer Maya Kovskaya recommends buying from young artists who have shown their works at international exhibitions, because their pieces are the most likely to increase in value. "Not only can you enjoy the artist's work, but you'll play a role in supporting a growing career," she says.
For most travelers, however, "buying art should be purely out of love," says Shang. "It becomes an investment when you can afford to spend millions."
Other Fair-Trade Art Collectives
Rajana Association Started by a British NGO in 1995, the organization trains poor Cambodians to make jewelry, clothing, wall hangings, and cards. Toul Tom Pong market, St. 450, House 170, Phnom Penh, 011-855/23-364-795, rajanacrafts.org.
Mercado Global Many women in this Guatemalan network lost their husbands in the country's civil war and sell traditional Mayan clothing, jewelry, and pottery to support their children. 203/772-4292 (the group's representative in the U.S.), mercadoglobal.org.
Center for Traditional Textiles of Cuzco Founded 12 years ago, the Peruvian center's mission is to preserve the ancient Incan style of weaving by giving women a place to work and to sell their goods. 603 Ave. Sol, Cuzco, 011-51/84-228-117, textilescusco.org.