If You Have Never Bought a Piece of Original Art, You Are Doing Life Wrong
Seattle is a terrible place to sell art. Dealers and artists will all, universally, tell you this. Nobody buys art here. Galleries barely stay open, and then they don't, and then artists leave town just as they're beginning to become interesting, and everybody asks, "What happened?" even though nobody has ever bought any art here.
This has to change. This is a manifesto.
I'm talking to you. You are an average Seattle person. You are not wealthy. You are the 99 percent.
The last time you avoided an art gallery out of intimidation or slunk out of one feeling out of your depth? That was the final time. Right here, right now—this is the end of your lifelong career of never once having bought a piece of original art.
I don't care what you buy. I don't care how much it costs. But you will buy something. We are going to change this city right now.
Let's begin with the following basic understanding: You are not buying art to make anyone rich. Approximately point-zero-zero-one percent of artists ever make as much money over the span of their entire careers as a Microsoft or Amazon employee in a single year. If you are concerned that your art purchasing will create a class of brats, then your concern ought to be placed elsewhere in your consumption cycle.
But you would be correct if you assumed that what we're really talking about is money. And talking about money in art is no easier than talking about money anywhere else.
An episode I witnessed recently brought it all together.
A man in a suit was kneeling on a carpeted floor. This was on VIP night at the inaugural Seattle Affordable Art Fair in November, and he was at the booth for Portland gallery Fourteen30 Contemporary. The man was trying to figure out how much the art cost. But the label that told him how much for that lovably odd oblong red painting on the wall was waaaaaaaaay down at floor level. The "Affordable" part of the Affordable Art Fair includes rules such as You must list your prices on the walls with the art—but Fourteen30 doesn't use wall labels at its actual location in Portland because they distract from looking at the art itself. "So labels on the floor, six-point font: That was my solution," said Fourteen30 owner Jeanine Jablonski. "Labels are visually distracting—people immediately go to text. I know I do. I would rather have a conversation with someone. But people are shy."
People are shy. Many of them, even if they are dressed-up VIPs, would rather kneel on the floor than ask the elegant woman near the desk who made something or how much it is. Money is embarrassing. Money in art, even more so. It is a truth in the art world that you are less likely to see labels on the walls the higher the cost of the artworks. If you think of artworks as "ascending" from the artist's studio to the gallery and finally to the museum, well, the museum is the place where you will never, ever, ever see a price tag at all. The art there is so legitimized that it has been removed from the market entirely. You can know almost anything else about an artwork at a museum, but if you were to ask how much it cost, you would be met either with blank stares—the guards and reception clerks certainly don't know—or with administration-level squirming.
I once wrote, somewhere on the internet, that I never wrote a negative review as a way of deterring people from actually seeing the art themselves, to which someone responded, "Then you completely misunderstand your role to give me consumer reports." But art has a double economy. One economy is nearly free. The other—where you actually buy—is perceived to be basically impossible to enter unless you're a Rockefeller. Yes, the art that's sold for millions and makes headlines for its auction records, etc., etc., no, you cannot afford that art. But who cares? The world is jammed with 99 percent art.
This is you. You want to own something that means something to you. The pleasure of an original thing is that, like anything you truly love, it attaches itself to the original part of you and builds it like a muscle, makes you feel more like you. It also connects you to someone else, the artist—but you don't have to tend that relationship, it's just there, simple, pure. You never have to meet the artist if you don't want to, but if you want to, you can ask the artist all about this thing you now have, and you will find that the artist also wants to hear what you see in it, and eventually you will both agree that neither of you really penetrates what the thing fully is, which is maybe why both of you love it so much. Let's say you have a couple more criteria: Maybe you would prefer art by someone local, someone who does not have a leg up in the 1 percent game of the international art world. And: You do not have money to burn.
Here's what you should know about what is affordable—a vital fact: Every gallery wants to help you buy something if you love it. (They are not in this for the money because what money?) Pay what you can every month, with zero interest. This is common. This is how it works. A work of art that costs $1,200 looks like it's out of reach; I know I can't spend that right now. But $100 a month for a year? How much was that last night of going out? How much was that sweater, dinner, cab ride? And you are paying how much in rent? Want a work of art enough and you will have it. It's not about affordability. It's about knowing that this is possible, and knowing you can ask to make it work. Knowing that dealers and artists want you to ask to make it work. The good ones don't care how much money you have. They care how much love you have.
Another reason to buy art: because a city cannot live on project managers and engineers alone. Because buying art is a way to notify artists that their presence is wanted. (Because it is most likely not going to pay their bills.) Do you know how many artists have considered stopping making art or leaving this place they love, but stayed and kept on just because of one or two or three encouraging art sales? It doesn't take much.
Dealers in Seattle are likewise not fat cats. Greg Kucera, the most established contemporary dealer, is no Larry Gagosian. (Gagosian is the mob boss of New York art, with locations spread across the globe.) Kucera boycotted the Affordable Art Fair in large part because he objected to the name. Basically, he was offended. After 30 years of making art affordable and accessible in Seattle, who's this outfit coming in and pretending they're presenting something new? (The Affordable Art Fair is a franchise out of the UK.) And screw those guys for focusing on price rather than quality. The lack of qualitative focus was apparent in the fair's selection of certain out-of-town galleries that filled their booths with floor-to-ceiling displays of truly dismal art displayed like magnets on a gift shop carousel—$10 would have been too much to pay for that stuff. Some Seattle dealers refused to put on the walls the signs provided by the fair's organizers that barked "Under a thousand dollars!" It just felt too bargain-basement.
As Kucera insisted, We already have affordable art in Seattle. There is something undignified about having to point that out after all these years.
"I just checked my own inventory, and we have work under $500 by Shimomura, Newport, Daws, Calderon, Fitch, Livingston, Beecher, Dzama, Webb," Kucera said in an e-mail. "At under $1,000, it includes work by just about everyone else." We're talking Andy Warhol to Kara Walker, Alice Wheeler to Whiting Tennis and Victoria Haven.
Dirk Park, who started up the respected Aqua Art Miami held at Art Basel Miami Beach every December, told me at the Affordable Art Fair—where he was representing his own small new gallery in Seattle, Prole Drift, and where he ended up selling not one single piece of art but felt grateful that after three days of standing in the booth, he made contacts for his artists—that he's personally never bought anything more than $1,000. "And if I go over $500, Jaq [Chartier, his wife and a painter] and I have to agree. I do other things to sustain ourselves financially," he said. "This is a project."
Meanwhile, Park was selling hot-colored portraits of rock stars like Stevie Nicks and Ann and Nancy Wilson at prices that surpassed anything he'd ever paid personally (but still under the fair's bar of $10,000). That's because some people can pay those amounts, and a single one of those sales can finance a whole new series of works.
Affordable art really is everywhere. If for your first foray into art-buying you really can't spend more than $300, here are a few galleries at the very lowest price range to try: Bherd, Blindfold, Cullom, Davidson, Gallery4Culture, Ghost, Prole Drift, Punch, SOIL, Roq La Rue, Season, True Love, Vermillion. (There also are artist-run online sales sites, like Seattle Catalog at www.seacat.co, and low-cost local art mail subscriptions you can buy, like LxWxH.) But with even a modest payment plan, you owe it to yourself to get to Foster/White, G. Gibson, Grover/Thurston, James Harris, Greg Kucera, Linda Hodges, Platform, Traver—and to consider the higher-priced works also available at places like Davidson, Prole Drift, Roq La Rue, and Season.
If you want to buy but are truly intimidated by the idea of committing to a payment plan, consider starting with prints. A print is a limited-edition object created and controlled by an artist and meant to be a print. In case the terminology is new to you, a print is completely different than a poster. A poster is a photograph of something else—usually a painting—reproduced in an unlimited edition by a business entity that has nothing to do with the artist. Buying a poster is not buying art.
The home of antique prints and maps in Seattle is Davidson; another great prints place is Cullom. In my living room, I have two prints from Davidson. One is a hand-colored etching by Isaac Robert Cruikshank ($85). It was an illustration for a satire published in 1822 called My Cousin in the Army. A skinny, bug-eyed soldier with pants up by his nipples holds a sword aloft over a trio of rich old biddies and their rapt pets in a horrible-tchotchke parlor. Cruikshank engraved the plate with the image on it. He hand-colored a prototype. Then production workers hand-inked the object in my house.
My other print is called Shrimps! (plainly the best title for a work of art, ever; $60). The image comes from an oil painting (to me, an amusingly terrible one, but one held by the National Gallery in London) by a great printmaker, 18th-century Englishman William Hogarth—a buxom peasant girl balancing a platter of shrimps on her head, wearing a toothy smile and an expression of such delight, it suggests lobotomy. In my print, she looks just as in the painting, but with her left nipple exposed like a tiny bomb in the image. It's hilarious. But who made the joke? An actual Hogarth print would cost more than $60, and the engraving is dated 1782, when Hogarth died in 1764. The story is that Hogarth made the oil sketch with the nipple, but his widow commissioned a print of it from printmaker-to-the-king Francesco Bartolozzi. The plate is Bartolozzi. The nipple joke is Hogarth.
Davidson happens to be one of Kucera's local favorites. "I buy stuff from Sam Davidson"—Davidson Galleries' owner—"all the time for a few hundred bucks. And many things that I bought from Scott's gallery [Lawrimore Project] were less than $1,000, but spread out over the duration of his gallery, each small sale was welcome. Truly, it doesn't take that much to keep a gallery here in business."
Richard Thurston co-owns Grover/Thurston Gallery, on the Pioneer Square circuit. Fancy, right? But a Seattle dealer years ago (Mia Gallery, not open anymore) let him buy Terry Turrell's folk sculptures on incredibly modest payment plans. Today, Grover/Thurston represents Turrell, a Seattle artist, and they're happy to negotiate individual payment plans with anyone who can't imagine not living with one of Turrell's transformations of wreckage into totems. They understand falling in love with a piece of art, needing to have it, not having the cash.
"I'll work with you," Susan Grover, Thurston's co-owner says quietly, leaning over the counter one afternoon and talking to a woman whose birthday it was, who wanted a Turrell painting that she couldn't afford right then. The woman, based in Fremont, was an artist herself. She didn't have money to burn.
If that woman decides to buy, the gallery will take half and the artist the other half. This is the standard setup, the benefit to any artist of being "represented" by a gallery. One of the best ways to whittle down what you want is to troll the "artists" sections of the websites of galleries. That's the gallery's "stable." They might have inventory from those artists even if it isn't on display now. Ask.
Ask. It's time.
I first saw Baso Fibonacci’s art on the streets around town: murals, wheat-pasted prints. During SIFF this spring, I went to Cafe Kanape off Broadway a lot, and Baso was having a show there of his wonderful wild-animal paintings: raccoon, grizzly bear, lynx, red panda, porcupine. When I contacted him, the owl painting I liked was already sold—but he offered to paint me my own owl. I took him up on it. The painting is oil enamel on glass (28 by 23 inches, $500), and this grave owl now watches over my home. GILLIAN ANDERSON
I found this beguiling thing at Ghost Gallery. I saw it and could not leave without it. Could not stop looking at it. What is it? A sculpture? Something else? It’s hard-plastic ribbons of various widths pinned to a board. From across the room, it looks 2-D, until you move in any direction: When your perspective changes, it changes. It’s called Loopholes. It’s 12.5 by 12.5 inches. It was $100. According to the back, the artist is Adriana Phillips. I love you, Adriana Phillips, whoever you are. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
This photograph hangs on my kitchen wall. I bought it at Photo Center Northwest for $100, but I don’t remember the photographer or the title. The main color is red, as if depicting the lurid dream of the half-empty ketchup bottle. True, nothing much is happening in the photo, but it never fails to hold my attention for a moment or two. Whenever I enter the kitchen, the image makes me aware not only of its own presence but the presence of all the other objects around me. What kind of dreams are the spoons, forks, bowls, fridge, and washer having? And all of these sleeping objects, like this picture on the wall, are mine. All mine. CHARLES MUDEDE
I came across Nathan Lambdin’s 5/13—To and From at the opening of Ghost Gallery in April 2010. Lambdin fashioned a contraption that held a few dozen markers, pressed them to the paper, and let the ink soak in on one side. He then dragged them across the paper and did the same on the other side, creating a similar, but not identical, pattern. I bought it for $300, and it’s about 36 inches wide. I love how this piece is all about the process of making it, and the meaning is left to whatever each individual viewer brings to it. AARON HUFFMAN