How to Buy Art as Gifts


Growing up, I always viewed original artwork as something other people had. Rich people.

I’ve never been an art geek, but I’m starting to hit that point in my life where I’d like some nice things to hang on my walls. I’m in what I think will be a long-term home, and I’m aging out of the grad student chic look that kept me happy through my 20s.

So I’ve begun paying more attention to art. I’ve found myself visiting a lot of art studios and gallery shows over the past year. In doing so, I learned that beautiful original art doesn’t have to be expensive. Often, it costs no more than you’d spend on a sweater at the mall or a gift certificate for a nice restaurant. In other words, entirely within many holiday gift budgets. (See also: How to Cheaply Display Your Art)

I’ve replaced my garage sale prints from college with original pieces by Molly Tomlinson, Nica Davidov and Rachel Silber. Never heard of them? They’re not famous, just local artists who are good at what they do. There are literally thousands of good artists making interesting work out there.

How do you shop for fine art at an affordable price? I turned to Boston-based artist and teacher Rachel Mello for advice. Here are her tips for a successful gift.

Be brave!

Giving someone art as a gift can be tricky, but it’s tricky for the same reason it’s so special: it shows you’ve been paying attention to the person and (hopefully) know what they like.

Go with your gut.

You don’t have to overthink an art purchase. Rachel says the two most important questions to ask when you see a piece of artwork are, “Do I like it?” and “Does it remind me of the person I’m shopping for?” It’s really that simple.

Don’t be afraid of abstract art.

If the colors draw you in, and you think they’d look great on your loved one’s wall, go for it!

Look locally.

Open studios, like Somerville’s Open Studios, are common places for artists to show off their stuff. You can also buy from artists directly at craft shows and holiday fairs. Art schools often hold holiday shows where you can buy work directly from art students.

Look online.

Many young artists market their work through Etsy or eBay. If like me, you’re interested primarily in photography, check out Imagekind as well.

Buy directly from the artists.

Every time art is collected and resold, the price goes up a notch.

Frame it.

"If you give somebody art that is not ready to hang, that can be a big burden,” Rachel said. “Work that's not ready to hang or put out often ends up in a drawer.” She warns against falling for the custom framing racket, though. A ready-made frame from Target will serve nicely for most pieces.

Rachel points out that for someone who loves art, the gift of an original piece is two-fold. "Not only are you giving them a thing that they like, you're supporting a practice they like: you're supporting art and keeping art-making happening,” she said.

So go ahead and turn your home, or your mom’s home, into a mini-museum this holiday season. You’ll be bringing more beauty into your home, and your local arts community will thank you for it.

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Guest's picture

I am right there with you on this! I love art and not just so-called "fine art" either. I love art from friends of mine too. For this Christmas, I commissioned a custom illustration from a friend I know who does really whimsical cut paper art ( This one is for my mom and replaces one I had done for her a few years ago before my youngest son was born. Etsy is an excellent source for this. Thanks for sharing!

Guest's picture

I disagree about giving art, even if it's "good" art. I HATE it when people give me something I feel obligated to display, either on my walls or on shelves, although I have a lot of original art. It's just too tricky to gauge someone's taste. I always remember my mother on this issue. She lived in the country and had several of those horrible "ducks in scarves" pictures on her wall, and I asked her what she liked about them. "Oh, I hate them," she replied, "I just have to put them up because my Secret Pals at church give them to me. I gritted my teeth and put the first one up, and now everybody thinks I like them and gives me more."

Guest's picture

Problem with giving art is its so subjective. It all depends on the person and one person could love something and another hate it. difficult to buy art for someone else.

Guest's picture

Yeah, I have to agree with the above comments that art is not a good gift. It's like trying to pick clothes out for a teenager - too subjective. An alternative might be a gift card to a gallery (do they sell those?) or simply take the recipient out and ask them what they like, then go back and buy it at a later time.

Great point that you should give "ready to hang" art. DH and I have a painting in our office closet that we have been "meaning" to hang up since we got married 6 years ago. It was a gift...

Linsey Knerl's picture

Would this be an instance where a gift card or credit to a local gallery may solve the problem?  I know what my close family likes in a piece, so I think I could safely pick something out that they would love (I've also walked through a gallery with them, so I've heard straight from the horse's mouth.)

You could give the gift of a gallery tour experience -- complete with a purchase at the end OR you could maybe give them credit to a local shop?

I personally would love a gift like this, and while my tastes are unique (my first piece was a Virginia Ocken abstract), I love the idea of getting the chance to pick out art on someone else's dime!

Great article, Sierra!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

Unless you really know what someone likes in terms of art, 9 times out of 10 you are going to get them something that they will put in the closet. I once got a statue that was fairly expensive as a holiday gift. The person that got it for me thought it was the greatest thing ever and it probably cost more than $250 (maybe much more). I held on to it for years putting it behind other stuff on my shelves, but my wife finally had enough of it and we put it up for sale at a tag sale. We priced it at $5, then $3, then $1 and finally it ended up in the dumpster.

Now if the person is very close to you, this is one of those gifts that makes sense to shop together one. I'd rather go out with my wife and choose the right painting then come home with my preference and have her think "what the hell was he thinking?"

Local artists are a good source and there are some really good art students that will produce good stuff for next to nothing.

Guest's picture

As the primary artist Sierra talked to for this article, I'd like to chime back in to the discussion before it goes too far astray.

Sure, many of us may have stories about poor choices of artwork that well meaning people have given us in the past. But, then again, how many of us also have ten-times that many examples of poor choices of mass-produced items from well-meaning, or even careless people in our lives? I have certainly yard-saled, re-gifted, deep-storaged, or otherwise dealt with plenty of items carelessly picked up off the shelves from Target for me. Clothes I won't wear, knick-knacks that assume I have desk-space for them, books I'll never read... this happens to everyone, I imagine.

The point about buying original art for someone is not that it's a fool-proof gift that suddenly frees the giver from having to worry if their gift is well chosen, or the receiver from having to accept a well-intended gift graciously. The point is that *if* you are attentive and thoughtful in your gift giving, then giving original art has the potential to be far more meaningful than a mass-produced item.

Gifts always have the potential to be "hit" or "miss." When I receive a seriously "miss" gift that's mass-produced, I'm thankful for the thought, but also a little sad that the money and the environmental resources went into the manufacturing, shipping, packaging, etc. of this thing that to me feels like a waste. When I receive a "miss" gift that's original art, I still get a bit of extra joy knowing that an independent artist was supported and the world is a little more of the kind of place I like to live because of it.

When I receive a "hit" gift that's mass-produced, hey, that's great, here's this thing I wanted and now I have it: joy! But when I receive a "hit" gift that's original art? Wow! Even more Joy! Something I didn't even know I might like, someone really paying attention, and showing me something they see in me, and sharing something unique in the world with me.

Original art may be, in fact, sometimes harder to select than mass-produced items. And certainly not everyone on my list will be getting some this year. But a few will, and that's because I saw something special that made me think of them. I'm confident they will appreciate it.

-Rachel Mello
visual artist, art instructor