There's a science to collecting, and no shortage of twists and turns along the discovery. If you're just beginning, I like to recommend attending at least one of the Top Ten Big Art Shows as a quick and dirty learning and filtering experience. Without a doubt, as you get some art fair mileage under your shoe soles, you'll have a more discerning eye to the devil in the detail. First, let's survive the Big Show.
1. Walk and Bring a Pal. Walk through the entire show noting your first impressions. Look for items that are striking in their visual impact. Ask your pal for feedback. Notate the display location on the back of business cards (or mark it on the show map). Listen to the pitch. Watch others in the vicinity. I like to work from the back of the show forward to the door. Many shows are partitioned by venue. You may wish to select three to five genres you think you'd like to see. Many shows also highlight a particular artist or style, do make it a point to visit these high-traffic showcases to compare what's "hot" with what's "not." Feel the energy.
2. Walk Some More. Return to booths you noted earlier. Listen, talk, linger. Does the visual impact of the piece you're admiring increase? Does the work express what its intending? Does it grow in stature? Does it continually mature? Can the gallery recommend artists with similar styles? Ask questions. Check the price. Scrunch up your nose and walk away. View the piece from a distance. View the piece close up. Take three breaths to center yourself. What are you thinking? What does the piece represent to you?
3. Rest. I can't overstress the important of taking breaks. Go outside. Get a coffee. Take off your shoes. Talk to someone about something OTHER than art. Gripe a little (it clears the negative brain drain). Laugh a little (it produces endorphins). Compare notes with said pal. Lounge, close your eyes, and regroup. If there are art lectures or special symposia, attend an afternoon session. Big Art Shows can have a way of bringing out both the worst and the best in people. If you saw pieces you liked, but disliked the manner of the display, or the manner of the marketing, remember that many FINE galleries with FINE works can be viewed back at home over the Internet in a much less hectic environment. Also, know this. Big Art Show energy in the afternoon/late evening is generally much more relaxed.
4. Go Back (I know your feet are killing you!). By this time, you'll have a short list of the items, artists, styles, or materials you really like. You may even be hungry for more detailed information. Go back to the booth and see if the piece amazes you in a different way each time you view it. That winter in rainy New York, I recall seeing an enormous Japanese silk painting featuring a pink peacock. The first time, I wanted to purchase on sight - no questions asked. The second time, I noted the lush green forest surrounding the peacock (wait, do peacocks live in forests?) I took a picture with the artist, standing there smiling with polaroid in hand. Returning to the piece a third time, I realized that silly bird was really the only thing in the whole work that had stood out! A whole wall for a two inch bird?
5. Is it unforgettable? Pieces you consider for purchase to your permanent collection should present to you the power of mystery, the power of discovery. As important, is the question of whether the work is any good? A sad fact about Big Art Shows is along with fantastic finds, there are also finds less so. Most collectors want their collection to grow. And grow means lots of different things to various people. Is it any good, is it unforgettable, will it help my collection grow? Here's where your after-show follow up, research, and information will really pay off for the NEXT show.
Listen, there's more than one type of collector and more than one way to build a living legacy. Some of us buy for pure emotion, others buy for cost, others for provenance, and others for sizzle. Some buy for content, some for quality, some for quantity. Some buy for size, some for genre, some for fame of the artist, others for potential fame, and still others because they knew the artist in third grade. Whether the work is any good is a series of decisions only you can make after balancing a myriad of facts. I'll never forget the time I saw a real-live-honest-to-goodness Howard Finster (it was at the Outsider Arts Fair years later in New York's Armory). I STILL kick myself for not purchasing it. Sometimes you just have to buy on impulse, and in those cases, you'll be happy to have said pal to either encourage or roll their eyes at you.
The key to surviving your first Big Art Show is this. Before you get to a YES, there's going to be an awful lot of NOs. Remember, there's no big rush. There's plenty more coming right behind this show. It takes several show venues (and preferably in different geographic areas) to really get a feel for how things should go. And I try to remember it's the entire experience I'm buying. The experience of the magical find, the careful consideration, and hopefully, the final acquisition.