Bettina Huang's Guide to Buying Art

The brainchild behind Platform, the David Zwirner–backed digital marketplace for contemporary art, shares her list of things to consider for novice buyers.

Breakfast accompanied by Azikiwe Mohammed's Places I've Been with Helicopters #8.

In the staid confines of the art world, innovation comes at a glacial pace. Then there’s Bettina Huang. After cutting her teeth at Christie’s more than a decade ago, Huang fled to the e-commerce design site, where she discovered it was possible to make an elitist pursuit accessible to the masses. Anyone who has ever walked past a gallery and peered into its unwelcoming environs knows that buying art is not an egalitarian sport. In the throes of the pandemic, Huang set out to change that. With the backing of powerhouse gallerist David Zwirner, she launched the contemporary art marketplace Platform. The selection of paintings on the website rotates monthly, is smartly organized into categories like Scenes from Life and Unearthly, and includes helpful primers—“how to display art” and “how to collect art without collecting art,” among others.

Since debuting a year ago, the interloper has made waves thanks to a well-curated mix of talented up-and-coming artists, approachable pricing, and a non-judgy vibe that encourages neophyte consumers to get involved instead of thumbing a nose at them. (One surprising development has been the enthusiasm of some high-profile collectors.) Platform is also subverting the long-held belief that physical art can’t be sold online. 

In honor of Platform’s first anniversary, Surface reached out to Huang to get a few pointers for art-curious buyers. We’ll admit, even savvy vets like us found her tips enlightening.— Nate Storey    

The first thing to decide is: do you want fine art or decorative art?

And what does that even mean? Decorative art exists solely for the purpose of looking nice on a wall. It isn’t made with the intention of being an expression of creativity, uniqueness, or technique, and so it’s also often mass-produced. Think: art category at West Elm. Fine art is meant to be a real expression of the artist’s skill, and when fine art is good, it also engages the artist and viewer by pushing boundaries and doing something original.

For these reasons, fine art is more expensive, generally starting at $1,000. It takes skill, good materials, and many hours to create good fine art. Moreover, when you’re looking at artists who are really sought-after (like the ones on Platform), their unique works are very hard to get, which is where the principles of supply and demand come into play.

Perhaps surprising coming from someone who sells really great fine art, but I think there’s a place for both fine and decorative art, potentially even in the same home. For example, I would never put a painting I care about in a bathroom—it would be ruined by the humidity. Or, if you’re just not as interested in the originality, rarity, and collectibility of fine art, and your goal is simply to fill your walls, decorative art can be just fine. But when some stores charge $1,000 for a mass-produced giclee print on canvas, why not level up?

Bettina Huang. (RIGHT) A Candelabra on a Dark Night by Emma Kohlmann decorates a home office.

If you want to buy fine art, buy art because you love it.

Anyone giving advice on how to buy art will say you should buy what you love. It’s a cliche, but it’s entirely true. Art is a really interesting conduit between the artist and owner because it’s a form of self-expression for the artist but also for the person who owns (and loves) it. As with other types of love, you might need to do some exploration before you know what ignites that feeling in you:

There are a lot of very different reasons a person can fall in love with a work of art, ranging from visual appeal to rarity. If you don’t know how to figure out what you love:

a) Do some self-exploration to know whether there are certain topics that matter deeply to you. You might find that you care about images that, for example, depict family life in city centers, or you might find that you’re drawn to artists who identify as women of South Korean heritage.

b) Go to a museum and see what you like, and think about why you like it. Or browse a site like Platform, where the art is varied but curated, and where we make it easy to learn about artists and artwork being offered. You don’t have to become an expert whatsoever, but having a lay of the land always helps, no matter what you’re buying.

c) Think about how you buy things in other categories, like fashion, watches, and furniture. If your main reason for buying a handbag is that it’s by a young designer who’s on the rise and hard-to-get, you might be drawn to art by artists who are young and hard-to-get, too. Or you might find that the shapes and color palettes you like in furniture and clothes are also shapes and colors you like in art.

d) Envision the artwork in your home. Granted, this isn’t always easy, since the traditional art world shows art only on blank white walls. But there’s a feature on Platform called the Virtual Preview Tool, which lets you take a photo of your home and preview what the art we sell would look like in your space. Does it make you happy to think about having that work of art in your home for years to come?

Art is a hybrid of a luxury product and a piece of cultural history—and you can think about prices that way.

Art (self-actualization) is high up on the hierarchy of needs, but it’s clearly not a day-to-day necessity—so you could think about it in terms of other luxury goods you might buy. What would you spend on a handbag or a watch? A handbag and a painting might both cost a couple of thousand dollars, but you may or may not love the bag for as many years as you would a really accomplished painting.

You might never have thought about the value you place on culture, but that’s also something to think about here. Oftentimes, the cultural value of an artist’s work relates to the financial value. In other words, if an artist has been in shows at museums or significant galleries, or if their work is owned by museum collections, they’re contributing to contemporary culture. In fact, that’s a big part of what we look for when we invite artists to offer works on Platform. Cultural value is a factor in what makes art good in the first place, which then relates to prices. It’s not a perfect correlation, but generally speaking, it’s a good rule of thumb.

Under for Opening Eyelids of the Moon by Marcel Dzama. (RIGHT) Aufwärts by Neo Rauch.
Untitled by Nathaniel Robinson.

Galleries and auction houses have amazing expertise, but buying from them can feel impossible. [That’s why we created Platform.]

Galleries and auction houses are still where most art gets bought and sold, and in some ways, they’re good sources because they’re full of experts who know what to look for. Galleries in particular exist to identify talented artists and grow their careers, so there’s a level of quality assurance you get from buying from a good gallery.

But even in a world with auction houses and galleries, most people don’t know how (and maybe don’t even care) to navigate how you’d buy art from them. Galleries force you to make a relationship with a sales person before you can even start asking about prices and availability and inch towards making a purchase. Auction houses force you to actively compete for what’s available. I care about art enough to work in this industry, and even I have no interest in going through any of that. What’s exciting about Platform is that we sell art by the most sought-after artists from the best small and mid-sized galleries, and then we make it really easy to buy…no need to be an art world insider. And if you want to ask someone questions, you can ping our Expert who’ll try to answer any question, from where the price of a specific work comes from, to why you should care about a certain artist we’re selling.

Robert Zehnder's Hollow Underpass brightens a living room.

Don’t get stuck in your head.

A lot of people hesitate to buy art for reasons that are purely psychological. They think art is only for people “in the art world,” or they don’t know exactly where they’ll hang a work once they buy it. But ultimately, you can always move a work of art to another place in your home if the mood strikes; it’s surprisingly easy to patch nail holes. And you can buy art (particularly from a source like Platform) just because you like it, without being a serious Collector or an art history expert, and without even wanting to be those things. The traditional art world is intimidating and judgmental – but what does tradition have to do with anything these days?

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