My office is around the corner from a branch of the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Every day, I see "creatively" dressed youngsters dragging massive black portfolios to and from class. Sometimes they do photo shoots on my street, doing closeups of eggs splattered on the pavement or scantily-clad models slithering around on tinfoil. "How are they ever going to make a living when they get out of school?" I always wondered, shaking my head and clucking like a grandma.

Then one night while walking to the train station, I passed by the school, which featured student artwork in the windows. Dramatic black-and-white photographs of the countryside, colorful still-life of tropical fruit, muslin ballgowns draped on mannequins. This was college students' work? To me, it was wonderful stuff that looked like it could be displayed not only in art galleries but also in my place of honor, above the fireplace mantle. That's when I decided I wanted to help those students down the street earn a living.

I'll never have the budget to buy a Picasso or a Pollock, but I could be buying work from the next art-world sensation. That's why I think buying works from art schools is way better than buying them at art galleries and auctions. Not only are you giving students and alumni a mental and financial boost, you're also buying up-and-coming works that could appreciate later on if the artist gains fame.

Of course, that doesn't always happen so it's wise to buy artwork that you really like and want to show off, no matter who created it. The best part: Art-school prices don't have sticker shock built in and are far less expensive than what you'll find at any chi-chi gallery in downtown.

Budget Travel magazine recommends Savannah College of Art and Design (check out Jay Schmetz's funky, Matisse-like animal portraits like "Pit Bull Guitarist" and "A Very Literary Burmese" for $95 to $120), and the Rhode Island School of Design (my favorite was CucumberLab's red steel sculpture of a barnyard rooster for $62) although their brick-and-mortar shops obviously carry more stuff than their Web sites.

I found a variety of art schools nationwide at Ugallery.com, started by a former art student who couldn't find work in his field so went on to business school but still wanted to help his artist peers find patrons. It's easy to search by art school, price, genre (from Abstract to Western), color, size and medium (from acrylic to ceramic to sculpture to watercolor).

The "Under $100" category had around 60 items listed recently, and there was some good stuff from three students at Cairo Durham High School in New York who aren't graduating until this spring! I'm a photography buff, so if I could be a art patron, I'd like to fund Melissa Buchmann, a photographer who graduated from the University of Arizona last year. Her up-close, textured photographs of poppies, cactus and sea kelp average $85. Maybe she could be the 21st-Century version of Georgia O'Keefe?

Don't knock funding the work of "starving artists" as a money pit; it could actually turn out to be a good investment. My late aunt taught architecture at the University of Puerto Rico in the '70s and told one of her students, Arnaldo Roche, that he would be better off as an artist. She bought him art supplies and then bought his paintings so he could support himself. Twenty years later, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought one of his works, and the price of his paintings skyrocketed, as did my aunt's net worth. She sold most of them later to fund other things but she left me one of his early works in her will. It's too big and needs too much care to go over my fireplace mantle, so it's hidden away, appreciating in value. I'd like to follow my aunt's example and pay for artwork that would not only look good in my place of honor and be a good investment, but help those aspiring artists believe they can make a living at pursuing their passion.

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