Ask a Gallery Owner | Fine Art Vs. Decorative Art?

I recently received an email that is reflective of a number of comments and questions I’ve seen on our social media pages and in other emails. Many artists have wondered what my thoughts are regarding fine art vs. decorative art, as this artist does in her email:

One of the things I’ve noticed about the work you’ve shared as “recent sales” is that these pieces often seem to be “decorative,” as opposed to “fine art.” While I realize that these definitions may be outside of the conversation many art professionals have publicly, I wonder if your gallery sells more of one kind of art than the other. Do your clients typically seek art that enhances the decor of their homes, or do they desire art that becomes an emotional touch point, as well as a visual one? I imagine they do both, but how many are conscious of the difference, or care? Do you see a demographic difference between these types of buyers/collectors?


I found this email thoughtful and sincere, but many of the communiques I receive on this topic are somewhat combative – “the art you sell,” they seem to say, “isn’t fine art.”

A quick look at the dictionary gives us these definitions:

Decorative Art

1. art that is meant to be useful as well as beautiful, as ceramics, furniture, jewelry, and textiles.
2. Usually, decorative arts. any of the arts, as ceramics or jewelry making, whose works are created to be useful.
3. works of decorative art collectively.

Fine Art

1. a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically, painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, graphics, and architecture.

Seems pretty straightforward – if a piece of art has some function, it’s considered decorative. If it’s purely aesthetic, it’s fine art. By these definitions most of what I sell fits the definition of fine art.

This clearly isn’t how JK is thinking of the difference, however, and most of the other comments I see in this regard also aren’t drawing the line based on the dictionary definitions. Instead, many artists consider art purchased for its decorative properties (its ability to look good with a couch, or on a wall of a particular color, for example) to be of a lesser value, while true art is purchased for its intrinsic artistic value (?) or maybe not purchased at all because it’s too “fine.”

Riot of Color by John Horejs | Recently purchased by clients who were looking for a piece for their dining room. They love their new painting – that’s “fine” with me!

I may not be understanding the distinction perfectly, but I get the sense a lot of artists feel they’re own work is complex or difficult, and is therefore less likely to be appreciated by the general public and sell. They feel their art is therefore “fine art.” Art that appeals to a broad audience and sells quickly is  “decorative.” In another version of the discussion, the fine art is the work that is going to end up in a museum one day, but not necessarily in buyers’ living rooms.

So what does all of this mean to me as a gallery owner? How much time do I spend thinking about the “fine” nature of an artist’s work before agreeing to represent the artist? Do I feel guilty about selling “decorative art?”

While the question and issue is complicated, my answer is simple: I don’t expend a single thought on this issue.

I feel that fine art is in the eye of the beholder. I look for artwork that interests and excites me and that will bring an interesting dimension to our gallery. As the email above says, I’m looking for art that has “emotional touch point.” That’s my fine art. A visitor to the gallery might feel the same and become motivated to buy the piece, or they may not experience any connection and walk right out the door.

To the email’s point that some buyers may be more motivated by the way a piece will fit into their decor, than the way the work resonates with them, this does happen, certainly, but in my experience this happens in a minority of sales. It’s almost always the case the our clients say, “I love this piece,” and then “where will we place it?”

Are there times when a client comes in and says “I’m looking for art for a particular space”? Sure. Are there times when a client buys a piece because it will match a sofa? Yes. Do I refuse to sell art to these buyers? No.

My hope is that over time I can educate my collectors to have a deeper appreciation for the art and a better understanding of what it is that draws them to a particular piece. Art collecting is a process – taste is refined over time.

I leave the concern about the long term artistic value of the artwork to the museum curators. At the risk of sounding a little crass, I’m in the business of selling art.

More importantly, I’m not at all sure that it would be effective for me to try to determine what’s fine art and what isn’t. I’ve spent a lot time studying art history, and in my reading it seems that it’s very difficult for anyone to know which art is going to be great on a historic scale in the moment the art is being created and on the market. There were heated battles over whether the impressionists were creating fine art. The abstract expressionists were derided as hacks.

Again, the question is beyond my pay grade.

The good news in all of this is that, no matter what you are creating, there are buyers out there to whom your work is fine art. Let’s stop worrying about whether art is fine or not, and get out there and find them!

What Do You Think About Fine Art vs. Decorative Art?

Do you make a distinction between fine art and decorative art? Do you feel galleries should focus on showing more “fine art”. Do you consider your work to be fine art? How much do you think about the historic significance of your work? Please share your thoughts, experience and opinions in the comments below.

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