Curatorial Expert Paula Wallace on Art in the Home

Paula Wallace’s life in art began as a child, when she watched with curiosity as her father hanged two small works of art that her mother had purchased at a thrift shop earlier that day. 

“They were matching prints,” Wallace says. “Two parrots, one red, the other a lemony yellow. In every house of ours, these birds always found a place to live.” The humble prints, she says, taught her that art needn’t be grand to hold meaning for a home. The parrots eventually came with her parents, Paul and May, down to Savannah in 1978, where they moved to help their daughter create a new art school.

Some 42 years later, Paula Wallace has made SCAD one of the largest and most comprehensive creative universities in the world, with campuses in the U.S. and Europe, a Permanent Collection featuring tens of thousands of historic and contemporary works of art (which can be found exhibited in its more than 100 rehabilitated historic properties, now home to classrooms, studios, and other learning spaces), and an in-house art sales and consultancy office called SCAD Art Sales, where the work of students, alumni, and faculty are available to the public. SCAD Art Sales has placed art work in films, TV shows, corporate headquarters and offices (such as Facebook and Netflix), and hotels and private homes around the world.

“SCAD wants to help homeowners find art they love and want in their homes!” Wallace says. “This is a win-win for us. It benefits the careers of our students and alumni, and it makes the world a more beautiful place.”

But how does someone who’s never purchased an original work of art begin to build a meaningful collection? Wallace is here to help.

“First, let’s talk about price,” she says. “You are going to spend money, but you have to remember: great art is like great furniture. It will outlast you.” Her rule of thumb is that you should spend about the same on art for a room as furniture for the room. If you plan on spending $3,000 on furnishings for the living room, then that’s probably a good target for spending on art, too.

And where do you find this art? Find a gallerist. “Every city has a few good galleries. Find them. Introduce yourself.” Think of it like shopping for books, she says. Most people will ask for a bookseller’s recommendations. “You can do the same with a gallerist. Ask what they love, what they like. They know artists.”

Homeowners, she says, shouldn’t worry about pretension or feeling like they need a degree in art history just to shop for art. But you don’t have to stop at galleries and swanky exhibitions, Wallace says. “Thrift shops and flea markets and antiques stores have great pieces, if you know where to look!” Another secret: Find out when the student shows are happening at local universities, where you can engage the artist in person and see if you connect. “Going to a student exhibition—where work is for sale—is a bit like going to an author’s book launch: It’s exciting. You’ll want to buy the work just because you feel like you know and understand it more intimately, from having met the artist in person.”

What kind of art is “you”, though? Think about what you love and need. Wallace suggests asking yourself: Do I like bright colors? Large, dramatic paintings? Do I prefer something with a sense of humor or a sense of meditative calm? What emotion do I want to evoke in the space?

“It’s more about liking what you love and loving what you like,” she says, “Don’t ask why too much. Why did you select that couch and not that one? Sometimes, you don’t need to know why! What moves you?”

Extroverts, she says, tend to prefer more dramatic works—bright of color and tone, animated in style, satirical, energetic, frenetic, even. Introverts prefer the quiet and profound. And yet: “The space dictates the work, so often.” A common area for parties and hosting might call for art work with more energy and movement. A sunroom or bedroom might need more reflective, meditative colors and themes. “You want your art to reflect your personality and moods—and the function of the spaces it will inhabit,” she says.

Placement is key. “Size matters,” Wallace says. “Large rooms need big art.” This is a common mistake among new collectors, selecting art that’s too small. “Art shrinks when you install it!” She recommends measuring walls before you start shopping and making a note of the sizes and square footage of areas, which will help gallerists keep you from choosing work that might not be suited to the room.

Finally, Paula Wallace suggests that buying art is like buying clothes—the kind you want to keep for a lifetime. Your art, like your wardrobe, announces who you are and what you expect from the world. It welcomes, invites, complements, pleases, warms, and illuminates. “It took me a lifetime to see that those two parrots were my mother and father: a perfect symbol of their love.”

That’s what great art does, according to Wallace. It points to something deeper and more beautiful than what you see. “That’s why every home needs it.”

Learn more about Paula Wallace of SCAD here: