How to buy art

Tips for buying Art at the Exhibition from an art addict

an insightful narrative from an avid collector, curator and our long-term supporter 

Let’s first acknowledge that tips are necessary, or at least helpful, because buying art during the Exhibition weekend is unlike purchasing art anywhere else.  I know there are other outdoor art fairs but it’s also necessary to acknowledge the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition is subtly and essentially different. It’s these differences, combined with the familiar, that make the Exhibition such an important edifying event. And, like visiting any established, well attended cultural cornerstone, tips on how to navigate and how to draw the most from the experience are, well, helpful.

 So, yes the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition is held outside rain or shine for three days in early July. There are 300+ artists arrayed under pitched white canopies that also act as tents each covering an area 100-foot square. Under or within these soft stables, artists arrange all manner of exhibition devices including industrial fence, fancy plinths (a fancy word for a display column), wooden shelves, tables, easels and sometimes something outrageously original.

The exhibition has been set up on Nathan Phillips Square since 1965 having previously survived four years in the parking lot of the new modernist low-rise Four Seasons Hotel on Jarvis Street north of Carlton. Now just a parking lot.

The recent restoration and renovation of Nathan Phillips Square essentially reduced what had been a behemoth of an exhibition with 500+ artists surrounding City Hall on three sides (For those gargantuan displays my suggestions were basically life and sanity preserving survival guides) to a much more manageable affair.

Differences between Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition and other generally younger, smaller, outdoor art fairs can affect how you approach the exhibition. They are:

  • The event’s longevity: Fifty-five years of success (Fifty on the same iconic, centre-of-the-city spot) infuses the atmosphere with a gaiety born of tradition and devotion. A visitor, to a sacred place where thousands and thousands of other devotees have paid homage over the years, experiences the air as if it were imbued with magic or mystery.
  • The whole exhibition is laid out on a huge concrete piazza. A fact that lends a magnifying intensity to heat from the sun but also drains water quickly after a torrential downpour.
  • The scale of the production. Now standing at 300+ booths, it is an impressive yet doable exhibition.

Tips:

For the business approach one can do some homework. Look on line at the Exhibition website and scroll through the exhibiting artists and their art. In the comfort of your living room or local cafe you can choose favourites and also dig deeper into the artist’s career by visiting websites etc. With this approach you can make an informed decision about the investment aspect of your purchase.  Having virtually selected a favourite piece on-line one can bee-line it to the booth on Friday morning and still make it to work on time.

For a practical approach one can adopt a more casual yet organized plan. Decide ahead of time what type of art you are in the market for and most importantly how much you are willing to spend to get it. Keep it flexible but do ask yourself in order of predilection, “Is my real preference for a painting and if not that, then a drawing or print and if not those then maybe a photograph? Would I consider buying a sculpture or anything ceramic or made of glass? Would I purchase wearable art?” (Yes, they have that too).

Once you have narrowed down your preferences you can begin to map out how you will navigate the exhibition. By visiting the Exhibition website you can identify specific favourite artists. On the day you visit, first pick up a catalogue which includes a map of the square. Then head for the area dedicated to selling not art but beer and using your list from home mark on the map the booths you want to visit. Then map out the route you will take. Now, suitably stabilized and energized you are ready to set out on your cultural journey.

Traditionally, the different disciplines are mixed together across the entire square. So you might find the most exquisite jewellery next door to a fabulous punk painter followed by two ceramicists. You get the picture. Which is why it saves time and energy to have a map with a pre-selected first-favourite list of say 20 artists to guide you. Then after satisfying your initial desire and possibly having purchased a piece you can begin a leisurely stroll of the fair.

Final thoughts: Attend with friend or consultant. Be prepared to chat with artists. Do Awards mean anything? (To you that is.) Be patient – it’s crowded. Wear good walking shoes and sunscreen. Enjoy! 

More resources 

Not a Millionaire, Not a Problem: A Frugal Guide to Buying Arta talk by William Huffman happening on Saturday July 9th 

Buying art in Toronto: a beginner's guide by Murray Whyte 

7 Tips on Buying Your First Piece of Art from Artsy - the world's leading resource on collecting