Art. It has as many definitions and interpretations as there are souls that have existed. For some, nothing less than the unassuming radiance of Cézanne's apples and oranges will do, while for others, a velvet Elvis qualifies. In an inspiring environment like Puerto Vallarta, it is no wonder our sight becomes a little sharper, and our spirit more receptive to the fruits of creative endeavors.

Puerto Vallarta has made a name for itself as a haven for art aficionados. Besides the natural beauty, this town boasts an impressive collection of galleries and public art. During high season, the continual flow of exhibition openings, art walks, and cocktail receptions dominate the local social scene. They also serve to heighten the awareness - if not the appreciation - of plastic arts.

In order for the potential art buyer to be better informed - or at least able to talk the talk - we've invited a panel of local experts to share some tips. We've limited the discussion to plastic arts -art created from materials that includes painting, sculpture and drawings. With years of collective and individual experience, this selection of top local gallery owners offer insights, advice and comments on the art of buying art:

What makes a painting, drawing or sculpture, "art"... what is art?

Jan Lavender, partner, Galería Uno:
The aesthetic. Art is really basically the use of skill and observation and knowledge to create an aesthetic. There's bad art and there's good and there are also different types of art, such as fine art and decorative art. Decorative art is meant to enhance an environment, makes it more pleasant than before. John Huston taught me that with a really good piece of art, you need to look at and let it grow, because there's a lot more there than you first see.

Susan Burger de Camacho, partner, Galería AL
(Arte Latinoamericano):
Anyone can create art by doing something with their imagination, but good art is something more.

Marcela García Alegría, owner, Galería Rosas Blancas:
Many people buy a painting for decorative purposes more than any other, and that's okay. If you learn about art, you'll see the difference between art and decoration.

Lucy Flores de Savorgnan, partner, Galería AL
(Arte Latinoamericano):
Art is a matter of personal taste. However, the tech-nique is very important, as well as the light, the style, the quality and the content.

Martina Goldberg, partner, Galería Uno:
There should be a communication with a piece of art. People coming in to buy a piece of art basically buy what pleases them. If it sits in your head then it is speaking to you. It does not make it a good piece of art, but it speaks to you.

Gary Thompson, owner, Galería Pacífico:
The word 'art' is one of the most used words there is but it consistently denotes some high level of skill and accomplishment. Art has been around since man has been around, it's been with us for 34,000 years. Fundamentally, it's about human experiences and human feelings.

How do different elements affect the price of a piece of art: medium, surface, style, Artist, other ...

Susan: Materials will affect the price of a piece. Most of the time a work on paper will be less expensive than a work on canvas, or a bronze sculpture will be more expensive than something made of wood, because of its durability over time.

Lucy: The curriculum of the artist, is important. An artist who has never been in a gallery, or has never had a show, needs to be realistic and set their prices accordingly. Based on our experience, we know what a market will bear, and we can help the artist set the price.

Martina: Style is like the trademark, the sello of an artist, which can also be a factor in the price. You have to look into the background of an artist, the history and the years of experience, and the shows he has had, which will be reflected in the price of the work.

Marcela: It depends on how the artist feels about how much time and emotion has gone into the piece. Often, the more an artist likes the piece, the higher the price they will set.

Jan: Most people buying art should not be concerned with the 'name' of the artist. There are very few artists in this town that are collectible in the sense that you have a market outside of Vallarta. What is important is to remember that you will be living with it in your home, so you have to like it and enjoy it yourself. You can admire and respect good art, but you may not want to have it to live with.

Gary: The more difficult, the more training required, the more time required are all factors that have an effect on the value of a piece. What really dictates the price of a piece is the artist - who he is, who you think he is, who he thinks he is. But does price really matter? You may be able to get a piece off the street from a struggling artist that gives you a tremendous amount of satisfaction and joy, because you met the person. If someone willed you a $56 million Van Gogh, obviously it's a very valuable painting but the visual impact may not be the same for you - you didn't have the history, you weren't involved personally.

What advice would you give a novice art buyer on how to choose a work of art?

Susan: With many first time art buyers, the logistics of the purchase are important. Most people who go on vacation are not thinking of buying art and they question how they will get it home. Getting it home is not a problem. Something large - say two meters by two meters - can be packed in a crate and sent. Many oils or watercolors can be rolled in a tube, and even framed pieces can be packed to carry on a plane. Also, we let people know that all original, signed art is duty free.

Marcela: There are a few practical matters a buyer should be aware of. For example, if you live near the ocean, and want to buy a watercolor, you need to be sure the frame is sealed properly, to prevent the humidity from affecting the paper. Oil paintings also will even need some main-tenance to prevent the oil from cracking. Be aware that all art will need to be taken care of over time.

Gary: Educate yourself, by visiting museums or reading about art, or learning about it on the Internet. Then, find a dealer that you feel comfortable with and try to rely on their advice. That sounds self-serving, but that is what we are trained to do. It's how people make art purchases, and within that, think with your heart. It has to have an emotional con-nection with you, or you'd be better off buying something else. You should not worry about what other people think of it, you should be looking for how it makes you feel. It may be that buying a new Buick makes you feel better - who knows?

Jan: Remember when you're buying art look at it carefully - you don't want to get home and get bored with it. Then it becomes just another pretty face. You know after the shower, what then?

What advice would you give an experienced art buyer considering a purchase in a local gallery?

Jan: Buy what you like, what will enhance your life and your existence. That's the most important thing, and don't buy for investment, unless you really know what you're doing.

Susan: More experienced buyers generally want to know a lot more about the artist - what they were thinking when they created the piece, what the title means, and what are the expectations for his future.

Gary: In my mind what sets art apart from other invest-ments is that you get to derive pleasure from it every day you look at it. It might even be disturbing art that makes you ponder and think, but it stimulates you, it does something for you, there's an emotional pull.

Marcela: You really don't need to offer any advice - once you have seen a painting and relate things with it, it reminds you of something special, you have made a connection with it. If you like it, you'll buy it.

Why buy art?

Gary: Because it's good for you. It's one of the things that sets us apart from our animal cousins that we share the planet with. Art repre-sents our greatest potential. I think that artists are special people - they're mediums, they are people with a gift that help us see things that we don't see ourselves. We have to encourage them and support them, and buying art does that.

Susan: It's a luxury, but even the process can be interesting. Why would someone on vacation even go into a gallery? Spending time in galleries is a great way to see real Mexico - this is it. It's a great way to experience the differences in the culture that you see in the use of colors, the style, and the subject.

Lucy: Here, art is integrated in the fabric of the culture. But when you buy it, it is because you like it, whether it is for decoration, invest-ment, or pleasure.

Marcela: It is a pleasure - like love at first sight. It's wonderful to be at home, surrounded by things that you enjoy, that give you pleasure.

Jan: Really fine art should change you, and change the world by changing percep-tions, the way people think about things and feel about things. It should expand your horizons a bit, by showing you things you didn't see before.