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When it comes to decorating, one of the most challenging tasks is figuring out what to do with a bare wall.

Allison Marvin has made a career out of helping people do just that. She founded Sightline (, an art consulting business, in 2004. Marvin helps clients navigate the art world, offers guidance on buying works for their homes and offices, leads tours of art spaces and introduces beginning and seasoned collectors to galleries and dealers.

Marvin knows that many people are uninterested in seriously collecting art; they simply want to fill their empty walls. Still, she recommends buying something original, which, she says, isn't as difficult to find or as cost-prohibitive as you might think.

"Student work is going to be the least expensive," says Marvin, 37. "Check with local universities to see if they have open studio days. You can get something original, and you're supporting a young artist, which is a nice thing."

Marvin, the daughter of an art writer and a painter, says she always knew she wanted to work in the art world. After studying art in college, she attended law school and practiced at a Washington firm, gaining expertise in intellectual property, contracts and licensing. She left to start Sightline and her own law practice, focusing on art-related law. She runs both businesses out of her Chevy Chase, Md., home, where she lives with her husband and 1-year-old son.

Marvin recently spoke about collecting, hanging and framing art, and where to go to find it.

What advice would you offer someone looking for art for their homes?

I would encourage people to take their time. If that means allowing the time to budget and save the money to put toward a piece, then do it.

I also suggest they resist purchasing several smaller, lower-value pieces and wait for one larger piece when they can afford it and when they find a piece that really sings to them. If a smaller piece is less expensive but it's not something that's grabbing you, exercise patience. Typically, you want to go with the big pieces that really stand out. It's hard to resist buying, but while you continue to look, you're learning about yourself and learning about what you like. Buying artwork shouldn't be about filling a certain space on a wall or about the price. When you find the right piece, it should provoke a guttural response.

How do you figure out your personal taste in art?

Go look at a lot of art. Go to museums. Walk through galleries. Pay attention to your reactions. Have a conversation with yourself about what you like and why, and what you don't like and why. It's all about finding artwork that challenges you, moves you or reflects your sensibilities.

What would you suggest to someone on a limited budget?

Ask yourself: What are visual things around you that appeal to you? What moves you? Do you have favorite books, magazines, objects? Pick a predominant wall in your house and create a display of a personalized collection of objects and images, salon-style (different sizes and shapes hung in a grouped arrangement). If you have favorite magazines and books, pull the pages out. Hang a postcard that someone sent you or that you picked up on a recent trip. Include programs or other take-aways from art shows you particularly liked. I would do that rather than pay $250 for a framed poster from a chain store. Instead, save your money and create your own personal story.

Is there a general guideline for hanging art?

Most people make the mistake of hanging art too high. Art is supposed to be eye level, but it shouldn't be eye level to a guy who is 6 foot 3. If you hang artwork lower, you bring it into the room, make it much more part of the environment, and you can look at it better.

Rule of thumb: Artwork should hang so that its center is 60 inches from the ground. But I often hang my own art so that the center is a bit lower, about 56 to 58 inches from the ground.

What do you need to know about choosing a frame?

Let the artwork be your guide and your only focus. The frame should respect and reflect the art, not fight it. A good framer will show you your options and tell you what he or she thinks looks best. Rule of thumb: Simple is better.

When selecting materials, it's best to use UV-protective glass, especially if the artwork is going to be exposed to sunlight; you want to avoid hanging art in a spot that gets direct sun.

For matting, use archival materials, like paper, tape and glue, so the artwork doesn't get damaged over the years. Custom framing can get expensive, but it's the best route for any artwork you invest in; it will look the best and preserve the work the best. A frame should always be part of an art purchase decision.

Where can people find nice frames in stores?

Ikea has good-looking, clean and contemporary white frames. And you can usually find simple, affordable frames at your local hardware store. . . . You won't get the UV protection or archival materials, but you'll get something that's a decent temporary solution that won't fight with your art.

What is the most common mistake people make when buying art?

Mistakes happen when people don't educate themselves about where to look for quality art. There's a road map and it's easy to follow: Talk to a few people in the know, like a gallery owner, a collector or a consultant, and you'll be off and running.

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Expand, or start, your art collection

- Fine Art Adoption Network ( No money is exchanged for art on this site. Users peruse artwork and contact artists directly. The artist decides whether to send the work for free. "It's done to encourage collection and stewardship," art consultant Allison Marvin says. "By agreeing to 'adopt' artwork, you are making a promise to care for it and keep it as part of your collection."

- Artnet ( Galleries from around the world put their inventory on this site, which is a major resource for people looking to collect art, Marvin says. In addition, the site's user-friendly auction system includes estimates of each work's value. "It's a good way to educate yourself about different price points, search for different artists and discover new ones."