You, Too, Can Collect Art

A modern guide on how and where to buy local artwork.




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Jerry Bilton, who coordinates shows at Gallery 919 Market, has increased his personal collection of paintings to 30 through creative financing that has included making monthly payments on a piece. Bilton has paid as much as $10,000 for a painting and as little as nothing.
Photograph by Pat Crowe II


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You—yes, you—are an art expert waiting to happen.

You are readily capable of viewing, appreciating—even collecting—the products of other people’s souls as rendered on canvas or in sculpture. And you don’t have to be a Medici, a du Pont or a Gates to do it.

They may have had the wealth to commission great works and, say, accomplish a little thing like kick-start the Renaissance. But you don’t need vast wealth or influence to become a collector of art. You need only desire.

The art world—artists, their mediums, styles and influences—may seem complicated, but you can learn to navigate it more easily than you may think.

And with a rich history of visual arts, our little corner of the planet is a great place to do it. There’s no test to pass, no code and no credit check. There are only your eyes, your mind and your soul. So let’s get started.

The Blank Canvas

Jerry Bilton and painter Crystal Moll are surveying the walls of the Citizens Bank Center in downtown Wilmington. They have just hung a show of Moll’s work that will open the next night, which happens to be the monthly Friday Art Loop.

The lobby, now known as Gallery 919 Market, has become the de facto most-visible place for art in the city since it opened in November. The gallery isn’t hidden on a side street in a residential neighborhood. There is no admission fee, as at a museum. The shows change regularly. And they’re hanging for all the world to see. Anyone who needs to tap an ATM for lunch money can view Moll’s oils, or Mark Houlday’s photos, or the work of whichever artist is featured at the time.

In other words, it’s the kind of place where you can start to learn about art—even buy it.

“What people can see here is within their means,” says Bilton.

He should know. Executive director of the Community Service Building Corporation by day, Bilton coordinates shows at Gallery 919 Market simply because, “I love it.”

The job has led to his collecting—he has amassed about 30 paintings over the past five years—or his collecting has led to the job. The important thing is that the exposure has turned Bilton into a patron.

Though he and Moll admit the $2,000 to $9,000 price tag on the urban landscapes in her show is a lot of dough for some budgets, they are, ironically, also within people’s means. Moll has bartered services with buyers and arranged installment payments. She’s even bought from other artists by paying monthly. The same ploy has gained Bilton a couple paintings by a certain famous Wilmington artist. The purchases put him in elite company—with little financial pain. It also put him in league with the rest of us. He’s paid anywhere from $10,000 for a piece to absolutely nothing.

“Really, the very passionate collectors I know are not very wealthy at all,” says Susan Isaacs, adjunct curator for the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art in Wilmington and a professor of art history.

What they are is excited.

But I Know Nothing About Art

So you can’t tell a fauve from a photograph. You’ve never heard of pointillism. You’re forever confusing Manet and Monet.

It doesn’t matter. Collecting art isn’t about what you know. It’s about what turns you on. So get out there.

“Looking for art is like finding a girlfriend,” Bilton says. “You just keep looking until you find the right one. You’ll know it when you do. You get a little weak in the knees.”

If you were to catch her in her studio at the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts, at a gallery show or at some other exhibition of her creations, Linda Celestian would just love to chat. Ask her about her work. Why does she do it? What did it mean to her as she created it? No question is off limits.

And no question is, ahem, too dumb.

“For me, being an artist, I have no problem saying, ‘What kind of paint is this?’” says Celestian. “For some reason, people who don’t paint are afraid to ask. They’re afraid they’ll look like they don’t know what they’re talking about. But ask me how it’s made, about materials, my thought process, because it helps me understand the market for the art.”

Most gallery owners are equally as obliging.

“You are the public for that art, so people should not be intimidated” when talking to an artist or dealer, says Lisa Hunter, author of “The Intrepid Art Collector: The Beginner’s Guide to Finding, Buying and Appreciating Art on a Budget.” “And, of course, the dealer knows more about the art than you do. That’s their job.”

Plus, says DCCA director Maxine Gaiber, getting to know an artist “just makes it fun.”

How did photographer Mark Houlday end up showing at Gallery 1919 Market? Bilton met him at yoga. How did Bilton get interested in the work of Janet Loper? He painted beside her in a class.

“What I buy,” Bilton says, “is work from people I’ve met.”

The Search Starts Here

In Delaware, we’re lucky. You can’t stretch without bumping into a gallery, a top flight museum or an art event.

At the top of the pyramid are places like Winterthur, Brandywine River Museum, Delaware Art Museum and the Biggs Museum of American Art. Then there are dozens of galleries in Delaware, southeastern Pennsylvania and the Eastern Shore. Dover and Rehoboth Beach benefit from connections to Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

“People find out very quickly that there are very good works of art here for purchase, and not only watercolors of lighthouses and beach umbrellas,” says Nancy Alexander, director of the Rehoboth Art League.

The league hosts an annual show in August. The DCCA will hold its TropiCabana auction on October 20. Bethany Beach (boardwalk) and Wilmington (Brandywine Park) have shows each September. Wilmington hosts Art on the Town, an “art loop” of shows on the first Friday of each month from September through December and February through June. Such events are great places to look and to meet the artists.

Other great places are student art shows. The area is rife with university art departments, and Wilmington is home to the Delaware College of Art and Design, which regularly holds student and faculty exhibits.

Our Best of Delaware Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!

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