I was almost impaled by a wooden bird in a Ponsonby gallery. Part of a sculptural work by Bing Dawe, the menacing mallard seemed determined to stick me as I wandered through Whitespace. Fortunately the gallery's co-owner Kenneth Johnson warned me of the peril before I walked into the bird's beak, saving me from a nasty peck and a potentially expensive mishap.
I have always been slightly scared of art (my near miss with the wooden duck didn't help). The art world seems to me a rather intimidating place, populated by fabulous types in possession of esoteric knowledge that only years of full immersion can achieve.
Apparently I'm not alone in this. Independent curator Rob Garrett explains. "There is a lot of very good research, as well as mountains of anecdote, to suggest that people generally feel a great deal of apprehension about stepping into a gallery or museum. Most of it hangs on a fear that they are going to be shown up as an ignorant outsider or uncultured."
But I love art and would love to start a collection. Art these days seems to be more egalitarian as Facebook and the like enables the little people to keep up with openings, exhibitions and artists' talks that were formerly only known about by those close to the action.
On the eve of the Auckland Art Fair it seems timely to investigate this thing called art. How hard, and expensive, is it to start a collection? What should you look for in an art work? Is collecting art the domain of the wealthy, or can a regular people partake? And who are some of New Zealand's best emerging artists?
The art of buying
Deborah White has been professionally engaged with art for the past 30 years. She studied public art and arts management at RMIT University in Melbourne and holds an MFA in these disciplines. Working for many years as a fine arts consultant, she opened her Ponsonby gallery Whitespace with partner Kenneth Johnson 11 years ago.
Surrounded by art in the back room of her gallery, she's happy to help demystify the process around buying art. "Purchasing art is really the same as purchasing anything else," she says. "I know nothing about cars, so I will look at lots of them, talk to people and read reviews. It's just the same when buying art."
White says an important first step is to visit as many galleries as possible. "Visiting different galleries will help you to establish which ones showcase the sort of art you like," she says.
After you have established two or three different galleries that exhibit work you appreciate, you can sign up for their regular newsletters. This way, you can be in the loop for updates on exhibitions, openings, talks and artist news and increase your appreciation of particular artists.
Galleries are great repositories of information on the artists they represent. White explains that most galleries have extensive resources around the artists on their books and are able to provide their clients with the pertinent information about an artist.
"It's a good idea to research the artist's formal training, exhibitions, residencies or awards," she says. "We have information online and in folders about all the Whitespace artists, as will any gallery that's serious about their art."
She says the Auckland Art Fair is good for first-time buyers wanting to see a range of art. "The Art Fair is an ideal place to shortcut this process with so many galleries in one place."
Finding a piece of art you love is important but so is being able to pay for it. Wannabe collectors may be put off by the perceived high price tag of fine art but it is possible to buy works by up-and-coming artists for a reasonable price.
James Allan is an artist, curator, art dealer and consultant. He says that one of the best places to pick up well-priced art is at graduate shows. "You can buy pieces from new artists for between $500 and $1500."
Another option for those on a budget is to become a part of a buying group. Buying groups (usually of around 10 people) deposit regular amounts of money into a joint fund which enables them to buy quality works they wouldn't be able to buy on their own.
Allan says these are becoming increasingly popular. "Buying groups are usually friends who join together to purchase a work they love. Each member of the group has the work for a month, then it moves to the next person. If the work increases in value over the next few years it can then be sold for a profit."
Buying groups aren't just about economics, however. "It's about collective enjoyment, investigation, and gaining knowledge about art," Allan explains.
If collectors on a limited budget don't have the money they need up front, many galleries offer a lay-by system. "Not many people know about this," says Deborah White, "but it is often possible to pay off an art piece over a few months."
She says that this is a popular option with young collectors. "There is a real sense of excitement when a collector comes to pick up an artwork they have been paying off for six months or so," she says.
Finding an up-and-coming artist is exciting and rewarding. You have the satisfaction of knowing you're supporting someone's creative vision and the possibility that someday the work might be worth more. Rob Garrett says: "Collecting an artist through their career provides great support for the artist, joins you in a personal way to their creative journey, and can provide wonderful insights for people who see your collection in later years".
According to Deborah White, collectors often follow one artist as develop. She says that some artists are happy to have a personal connection with their art, others prefer the commercial side of the process to be handled by the gallery.
"We have events where the buyers can meet the artists," says White. "We host dinners where artists and buyers can meet and sometimes arrange visits to the artist's studio."
Graduate shows are also a great place to discover new talent. As mentioned earlier, prices at these shows are reasonable and you are able to support an artist from the ground up.
"You may discover an artist whose work will be worth a lot in a few years, you may not," says Allan. "But you should always buy a piece of art because you love it, and if you love it that won't really matter."
Whether you are buying as an investment or not, it's this love of the work that will make the process so rewarding. Deborah White sums it up well. "Art is not just about decoration. It's about bringing something into your life that has meaning or depth; something that will enrich your life on a daily basis."
Two to watch
For Gerry Copas, becoming an artist has been the fulfilment of a lifelong dream.
For years a leading graphic designer, Copas had long been involved in creating artistic and graphic works. But it took a life-changing event in the early 2000s for him to finally follow his heart and take a leap into the unknown.
A decade on and he has an MFA from Elam School of Fine Arts, many exhibitions under his belt, and is garnering a growing reputation for his unique works.
Copas refers to himself as a "text painter".
"My work is an investigation of text and language," he says. "The words often have a social or political message."
He likes to play with the space between letters and words, kerning letters so tightly they almost touch, eroding the usual typographical conventions so individual letters morph into complex forms.
"The words form symbols which can be read in different ways," he says. "My work has no subject in the traditional sense but are more symbolic, hieroglyphic and puzzle-like, visually. They're a challenge to the viewer to solve."
The edges and spacing of his work look precise enough to be printed, but the works are entirely hand painted. He uses black backgrounds to give the work strength, and "contrasting colours to create different levels of conversation".
His works formed part of a group show at the Pah Homestead last year, and he has exhibited at Saatchi and Saatchi in Parnell, as well as numerous other galleries.
He has sold many of his works to private collectors and is looking to continue his investigation of language and "continue to evolve as an artist".
"I would love to have a significant solo exhibition next year," he says.
It could be a photo of any traffic island in any suburb in New Zealand. The perfect round encloses a circle with a circle: the larger containing rocks, the smaller filled with native foliage plants and slightly straggly small trees. There's also the jarring red and white of a roundabout sign, and large corner plots, complete with sprawling family homes.
It's familiar image, which only becomes astonishing when you realise it's a painting.
Ruth Cleland's photorealistic paintings are breathtaking in their detail and accuracy. Her subjects are often banal - suburbs, shopping malls - but her rendering of the works is so intricate that it imbues these everyday scenes with a touch of magic.
"I've always been drawn to what's around me," she says. "And when my parents moved to a new suburb in Hamilton after living on a farm, I was fascinated by the uniformity of the suburb and the way in which it was spreading out into the countryside."
Her works take many months to complete. "I like the idea of spending so much time on a subject that's so commonplace," she says.
She is fascinated by the repetition she finds in the suburbs, and has created collections of traffic islands, shopping malls and parking buildings.
"My work focuses on the ordinary - bringing the viewer's attention to details of a subject that they would perhaps normally overlook. Just as important is the documentary aspect to my work.
"My paintings and drawings are accurate recordings of how suburban areas around Auckland and Hamilton look today - we don't know how these areas may look in the future."
A graduate of Otago Art school (she was awarded an MFA with distinction in 2002), she was awarded a Park Lane Trust Development Award in 2008 and spent three months at an artist residency in Vermont.
She and her husband Gary McMillan have an exhibition, entitled Inland Empire at Calder and Lawson Gallery at University of Waikato, and she will be exhibiting at the Corban Estate Art Centre in December this year.
Ruth is represented by Melanie Roger Gallery, 226 Jervois Rd, Herne Bay, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday-Sunday, The Cloud, Queens Wharf, Auckland. Tickets $25, under-12s free.
An international showcase of New Zealand and Australia's leading contemporary artists, the fair displays art and galleries' collections and also presents daily panel discussions, guided tours, artist talks and interactive project spaces, all included in price of admission.