Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



January 2009

"A book [or an artwork] should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us."


Quotation from Franz Kafka from Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers by Donald M. Murray.

Ethics and the Purchasing of Art

Dear Reader,

Last night, as I was leaving a reception for a group show at Gallery Z in Providence, Rhode Island, owner Bérge Ara Zobian handed me a small pin. White letters on a crimson background told the world: I BUY ART / Providence The Creative Capital. I promptly attached it to my lapel. When I was putting my clothes away this morning, I saw it.

While I am proud to be one of the artists whose work can be seen at Gallery Z (, my husband and I have also recently purchased artwork from there. In fact, we have been happily collecting art since the 80's. Some of our friends have said that visiting our home is like visiting a gallery.

Others have told us that they are surprised we have artwork by others: I am a painter and John is a photographer. Our own work is squeezed in among paintings and sculptures that we could not live without. When we saw them, they acted on us like Franz Kafka's simile: "the axe for the frozen sea within us."

The very first painting we bought does not exist anymore. I fell in love with a painting on glass of a woman standing in a garden holding a parasol. After several years, I noticed that some of the paint was flaking off. When it was too damaged to look at, we gave it to someone who wanted the frame.

When we visited the gallery the following summer, I mentioned the situation to the owner. While there was no offer to make amends on that particular piece, we received a discount on future purchases. We felt comfortable with the arrangement. I have often wondered what the artist himself would have thought about the solution. If he were like me, he couldn't paint another one just like it. What was done was done.

A different dilemma occurs when an artwork in perfect condition loses it hold upon us. What should be done with a painting or sculpture that has given pleasure in the past no longer serves that function?

As an artist and a collector, I have been in both situations and would like to offer some ideas.

  • If possible, before purchasing artwork, ask the gallery staff or artist if it is possible to bring the artwork home and live with it for several weeks. It may prevent future disillusionment and disappointment.

  • Change the location of the piece. Different light and a different setting might give it a new life in your eyes.

  • Give the artwork a rest by putting it safely in storage. Replace it with another piece for a while or simply let the space breathe. Seeing the artwork later with fresh eyes might make you remember why you bought it in the first place.

  • Give it away! There are dozens of options here: a family or friend who has admired it may like it for their home or office, a favorite organization may have a place for it in their building, a local charity may have an upcoming auction (Be aware that auctions frequently require original art donations, not reproductions).

  • What if you know the artist and/or have bought the piece directly from her or him? You have spent money on the work, you have enjoyed quality time with it, and you have invested in someone's talent. While there is not an "all sales final" stamped on your receipt, there is an ethic at work here. I do not know one artist who can afford to buy back a piece because someone has stopped liking it. You made the decision to buy it and have an obligation to come up with a way to make someone else happy with it.

  • After you have exhausted every option for giving the artwork a happier home, destroy it. After all, it is your property. If you know the artist and he/she notices its absence, lie if you need to: say that you are enjoying it in your office or you gave it to your sister in Muncie because she admired it. You need to exercise your empathy and spare the artist your feelings. We tend to be a sensitive lot. Or you may not need to lie about your decision to part with the artwork. Most artists become disenchanted with a piece now and then, and destroy it themselves. We understand, but may not want to be part of your solution.

If you haven't already done so, read the opening quotation by Franz Kafka. If that is what you expect from artwork you purchase, then your head and heart are in the right place. You don't need to compromise, but do take personal responsibility for your decision to purchase artwork. Take on the challenge of being the author of a creative solution to your problem.

If you have any advice or questions about the purchasing of artwork, please contact me: