Since becoming a full time artist I have noticed a few common approaches to browsing and buying art. I have a bias for buying directly from the artist, but most of these approaches can be seen in galleries also.
Art can be intimidating when you see the multi-million dollar sales and the pretensions of many art lovers and museum people. The most important thing to remember when looking at art is your impression of it. Do you like it? Does it elicit a reaction? Your opinion is what should matter to you, and not everyone else. As you learn more about what you like, and about art styles and techniques, you may find that your tastes expand or shift. This is what makes art so fun for me -- there is always something new, interesting, and that impacts me.
These are the five most common art browsers and shoppers that I've seen.
1. The Shoe Gazer. This is by far the most common. At an art show, art walk, or gallery the Shoe Gazer browses around and never makes eye contact with the artist or gallery folks. If a conversation is initiated the Shoe Gazer will dismiss it with a grunt while maintaining absolutely no eye contact and keep moving on. I believe these are the most nervous art browsers that believe that everyone is ready to hard-sell them at the first opportunity. This approach does not work and reinforces their fear and limits their learning and art enjoyment. Most artists are not going to put on an aggressive sell -- many artists are so insecure that you often have to convince them to sell something!
2. The Speed Dater. These people are cordial and will interact with the artist but move on fast. They give short answers to any questions. If they ask a question they hardly listen to the answer. These people tend to be hobby artists looking for ideas and techniques, or insecure browsers that are not ready to buy. One guy once asked me about the wood panels that I paint on. I told him that I make them myself and he began to move on. I then grabbed a painting off the display easel and showed him the back and described the process. He was genuinely interested and we had an interesting conversation about his abstract oil painting. This speed strategy does not work as the speeder will miss out on some really interesting art tidbits.
3. "I'm Just Looking." Usually stated apologetically to the artist, as opposed to dismissively as it is said in most retail stores. The translation is "I am not here to buy, but I like seeing new artwork, and I don't want to bother you." If this is really true, and Looker doesn't want to interact in any way with me, that is fine. This strategy also does not work. As an artist I really love to talk to people who love art. I want to hear about what they have seen recently that they love and why they love it. This is not a bother! I do want to make sales, but the most important thing for me as an artist, is to have relationships -- whether a sale comes soon or not at all.
4. The Art "Expert". The "Expert" is here to tell me about art. The funniest is when they tell me about my art. I had one woman tell me incorrectly about the inspiration for my art and that it is derivative of Rothko and de Kooning (I took this as a complement, but it was meant as a cut.). I asked if she meant William or Elaine (de Kooning) and she did not answer, but picked up a few of my sculptures and looked at the bottom of them. I'm not sure what she was looking for. By the way, touching without asking is a no-no. I always tell a person that it is fine to touch the sculptures but they should ask first. I would rather the Art "Expert" pass by without imparting their wisdom. This approach is a failure for everyone involved.
5. The Enthusiast. This is the only art browsing and buying strategy that works every time.* Get to know the artist. What is their inspiration? What is their process? If you are not ready to buy then be open about that. Comment on what you like and what you don't. One woman was engaging me and told me flat out that she would never buy my sculptures because they scared her. We talked about my paintings and how the encaustic technique is ancient and kind of finicky. She liked a few of the paintings so we moved them to be all together so she was not distracted by the ones she did not like. We had a great conversation and she left to look at some other art. She came back later and looked again at the two paintings she liked the best. She ended up buying them on the third visit. I have even bought a painting weeks later after meeting an artist at a show. But most commonly, the Enthusiast and the Artist come away having learned something, and maybe started a friendship, but there was not a business transaction. This is fine. Enjoy art and artists -- we are sometimes pretty interesting people.
*The only time the enthusiast approach does not work is if you do find a tired and aggressive gallery person. It is rare but you can still enjoy the art.