But that Georgia O’Keeffe poster in your foyer, the one you bought in 1989 to cheer up your college dorm room? That’s so not grown-up décor.
Let’s qualify an earlier statement: Art may cheer up an empty wall, but it’s not mere décor. If décor is a sheepskin rug, then art pulls the rug out from under your feet. It elicits a laugh, yanks a tear, loosens a memory, sets off an emotional itch. And its influence on your life needn’t be restricted to intermittent Thursday night gallery hops. No, just like your favorite David Bowie album or book of Flannery O’Connor shorts, a great painting or sculpture should be there to greet you when you wake up and set you to dreaming at night. You need art. Now, how do you get it?
PLOT YOUR PATH
In Portland, a city with dozens of galleries and (count ’em) three bona fide art districts, the question is both where to go— and when
"WE DON’T GO to First Thursday anymore,” says Michael DeAngelis. The 42-year-old Intel manager and his partner, Eddie Creech, have a home filled with works by rising local talents such as Storm Tharp, whose richly emotive ink drawings and sculptures are sold at PDX Contemporary Art. “We go to the preview receptions on Wednesday.” That’s right, most dealers in the Pearl District, Portland’s gallery motherlode, lay out the wine and cheese for collectors and VIP guests the night before the hordes arrive for the Pearl’s monthly gallery walk. Ask to get on a gallery’s invite list to attend these sociable gatherings, where you’ll be able to meet the artists and to actually see the art, instead of just the backs of drunken gallery-hoppers’ heads. And if you simply want to browse, pick any lazy afternoon (galleries are typically open Tuesday through Saturday) to amble through one of the city’s three distinctively different art districts—making sure to stop at the venues highlighted below.
Roughly bordered by W Burnside St, NW Fifth Ave, NW Johnson Ave and NW 13th St
What you’ll see: Everything from paintings to conceptual art by emerging and midcareer talents from the Pacific Northwest and beyond; prints and drawings by “blue chip” greats ranging from Andy Warhol to Louise Bourgeois.
When the crowds roll in: First Thursday 5:30-9
Don’t get run over by: Ladies in spike heels, boomers in berets or PNCA students on acid
Be sure to visit: NW Ninth Ave between NW Flanders St and NW Glisan St, where three of the city’s top galleries—Pulliam Deffenbaugh, PDX Contemporary Art and Elizabeth Leach Gallery—are lined up conveniently in a row, across the street from Blackfish Gallery, the city’s oldest cooperative art venue. Also make a stop at the revamped
DeSoto Building, which now holds two stellar photography galleries (Charles A. Hartman Fine Art and Blue Sky) and two veteran contemporary art dealers (Froelick and Augen). This is also the home of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, which houses a sales gallery full of decorative and functional craft-art ranging from woven textiles to wooden furniture.
For more information: www.firstthursday.org
CENTRAL EASTSIDE INDUSTRIAL DISTRICT
Not exactly a walking district, this loose consortium of galleries fans out from the the Central Eastside Industrial District all the way to SE Division St and the middle reaches of NE Sandy Blvd.
What You’ll See: Trend-conscious works by emerging artists (and a few established ones) in all types of media.
When The Crowds Roll In: First Friday 6-9
Don’t Get Run Over By: Tousled-haired hipsters clutching copies of Cabinet magazine
Be sure to visit: Small A Projects, where owner/director Laurel Gitlen sells cutting-edge works by career-minded young artists from around the country, such as Los Angeles-based Zoe Crosher, whose crisply alluring photographs explore the myths and realities of life in Southern California. (Thur-Sat 12-6; 1430 SE Third Ave; 503-234-7993; www.smallaprojects.com)
For more information: www.firstfridayart.com
ALBERTA ARTS DISTRICT
NE Alberta St between NE 14th and 30th
What you’ll see: A handful of galleries showing, mostly, emerging local artists, often with an Outsider bent—meaning either they’re self-taught or their rugged, quirky style suggests as much; plus, every last Thursday in the warmer months (roughly April through October), sidewalks teem with stalls selling everything from crocheted beanies to cheap paintings by the next great George Rodrigue of the Willamette Valley.
When the crowds roll in: Last Thursday 5-9:30
Don’t get run over by: Packs of anarcho-hippies on tallbikes
Be sure to visit: Guardino Gallery, where husband-and-wife owners Sal and Donna Guardino personify the district’s friendly, funky vibe. (To celebrate the pioneering gallery’s 10th anniversary last year, Donna even handed out hand-drawn paper dolls based on wildly attired Last Thursday regulars.) Works in all media, from inexpensive paintings to silver jewelry, crowd Guardino’s cozy back galleries, with rotating exhibits in the front. (Tue 11-5, Wed-Sat 11-6, Sun 11-4; 2939 NE Alberta St; 503-281-9048; www.guardinogallery.com)
For more information: www.artonalberta.org
There are galleries all over Portland, from downtown to St Johns. You can download an excellent citywide gallery map at www.travelportland.com :Click on “Arts & Culture,” then “Visual Arts.”
‘Buy what you love. Don’t buy something because someone says you should.’ —Kent Mathews
ADVICE FROM THE ADDICTS
Kent Mathews and Brian Riney met at an opening at Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery—the same place they bought these winsomely abject ceramic pieces by Seattle artist Jeffrey Mitchell. After 17 years of collecting (buying at a current rate of about one piece every two months, they estimate) they’ve filled their Northeast Portland home with works by Pacific Northwest talents such as Mitchell, as well as international greats like Jeff Koons, David Hockney, Ed Ruscha and Kiki Smith. “I’ve never regretted anything I’ve purchased, but I’ve regretted things I didn’t,” says Mathews, adding that one of his secrets is to resist impulse purchases—a strategy novice collectors should consider emulating.
HONE YOUR EYE
Can’t tell a Minimalist from an Abstract Expressionist? Don’t let worries like this hinder your budding collecting career. If you follow these eight easy steps you’ll soon be buying art with confidence.
- Say hello. A good dealer is a buyer’s best friend, so start making nice with her and the people she employs. And don’t take offense if no one greets you with a bear hug as soon as you walk in. Most gallery-goers come to look, not to buy—so you may be left alone until you initiate contact.
- Take a gander. Avoid immediately blurting out, “Do you have something like this in purple?” If the work on the wall strikes a chord, or even just inspires a feeling of curiosity, keep looking—and ask yourself why you’re intrigued, since this is how you’ll come to understand, and to further develop, your own taste. If you’re left cold, move on.
- Sate your curiosity. Whatever it is you’re wondering, be it “Is this sculpture made of cat fur?” or, more nebulously, “What does it mean?” go ahead and inquire. At a loss for words? Try this perennially useful conversation opener: “Can you tell me something about this work?” In most cases, gallery staff will be more than pleased to enlighten you.
- Bide your time. Repeat steps 1 through 3 until you find a gallery that you click with, then ask to see the back room inventory. (To get the most out of this experience, call ahead and make an appointment, scan the gallery’s website and google the artists whose work you’re interested in seeing before you arrive.) Spend 30 minutes or so browsing the merchandise, and if something catches your eye, make a note of it.
- Set a budget. In the ethereal world of one-of-a-kind artworks, the value of your money can start to seem awfully… relative. So get realistic about what you can spend. Whether it’s an annual limit on a growing collection, or a ceiling on a particular item you’re after, just set a specific mark—and be sure to include the costs for framing and protecting the work.
- Fall in love. Whatever it is—say, that cat-fur sculpture, molded into the shape of the Hindu goddess Kali Ma driving a Humvee—if you love it (and if you’ve followed steps 1 through 5), trust your heart.
- Do your homework. Assuming the piece falls within your budget, verify that it’s being offered at an appropriate price and make sure the dealer’s credentials check out.
(See “Spot a Deal” on the next page for advice on how to avoid getting snookered.)
- Buy now! You won’t be sorry.
bq. ‘I collect to keep the art community alive. I don’t approach it as simply an investment.’ – Marjorie Myers, Collector
Marjorie Myers showed her spirit of generosity by lending Kara Walker’s The Humane Acquisition of Chitlins to Reed College’s Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery for an exhibition last month. The Portland stock trader buys art in three categories: works she predicts will be historically important (and thus someday desirable at auction); works by younger artists whom she wants to support, regardless of the potential resale value; and works, as she puts it simply, “that I like.” But she cautions that figuring out that last part can take some time. “You have to look at your first few years of collecting as your time in college,” she says.
h3. ADVANCED COLLECTING
ONCE YOU’VE DEFINED your tastes and bought a few pieces you love, you may want to take your new hobby to the next level: obsession. Start here.
Study Abroad Join Portland arts consultant Jennifer Jacobs and and a small group of fellow sojourners on an intimate tour of the contemporary-art riches of foreign lands such as Buenos Aires, Beijing and Melbourne. You’ll stay in plush hotels, eat fine meals and gain VIP access to top museums, galleries, private collections, studios and art fairs—and even meet the people behind the scenes. Visit www.thejacobsgroup.net for information on 2008 trips.
Procure Prints Private dealer Jennifer Stoots represents photo-luminaries such as Elliott Erwitt and Steve Schapiro. At her occasional evening collecting seminars, you’ll learn the basics of collecting photography, from knowing the difference between vintage, modern and posthumous prints to understanding the relative desirability of low and high edition numbers—all in a casual setting where impromptu discussions frequently overtake the lecture format. Contact the Newspace Center for Photography (1632 SE 10th Ave; 503-963-1935) to register.
bq. ‘If you don’t have a lot of money, just go through the motions and educate yourself for six months. Why be in a rush about it?’—Laurel Gitlen, Director, Small A Projects
h2. SPOT A DEAL
h3. How do you quantify the value of a unique work of art? It’s simple:
You can’t. But you can at least avoid getting ripped off.
"SPIT ON YOUR FINGER and wave it in the wind,” an editor once told me when I asked how much he planned to pay me to write an art review. The same advice applies to the price of art.
In very rough strokes, an artwork’s value is determined by several factors: how unique it is (e.g., paintings, which are unique, sell for more than prints, which are made in editions); how big it is; how much demand there is for the artist’s work, relative to the supply; and—playing a far murkier role in the whole equation—how “good” the work is.
But what does that tell you about how much a particular artwork is actually worth? Not a lot. Last year, a wealthy collector could have spent $2 million at auction on an editioned print by German superstar photographer Andreas Gursky—or used the same money at Portland’s Elizabeth Leach Gallery to buy 36 steel sculptures, each 7 ½ feet tall, by noted Oregon sculptor Lee Kelly. But he’d have had to multiply his investment 36 times to buy Mark Rothko’s 1950 painting, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), which sold for $72.8 million at a Sotheby’s auction last May; or he could have spent one-sixtieth of it on a prime painting by Rothko’s (deceased) friend and contemporary, Oregon artist Carl Morris. Alternately, with his $2 million, he could have bought a pretty nice house in the West Hills.
What’s any of it truly worth? Spit on your finger.
Unlike that hypothetical collector, you’re probably aiming to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 to $10,000 on an artwork at a local gallery—in which case, you’re in luck. Decent artwork in Portland is relatively inexpensive compared to other similarly sized cities, in part because supply far outstrips demand. That means that whether you snap up a giant, 7-foot-by-9-foot oil canvas by masterful Portland figurative painter Henk Pander (which goes for about $35,000 at Laura Russo Gallery, a price that may soon go up now that Netherlands-born Pander is building his reputation in Amsterdam, where his work is being acquired by the prestigious Rijksmuseum) or a palm-sized sculpture by emerging Portland artist Rachel Denny (recently on sale at Mark Woolley Gallery for about $400), you’re likely getting a deal.
Of course, you can still get ripped off—if you buy bad art. So, presuming you’re still training your eye, how can you feel more secure about your purchases? Start by developing relationships with reputable dealers who know the market intimately. The Portland Art Dealers Association (PADA), an organization devoted to promoting awareness of Portland’s art scene, requires its 12 member galleries to adhere to high professional standards. (PADA’s website, www.firstthursday.org, even includes a page of helpful FAQs for beginning collectors.) But not all reputable galleries belong to PADA, so ask a trusted dealer to weigh in on a gallery’s reputation if you’re not sure about it, and visit Manhattan dealer Kathryn Markel’s excellent website, www.theartlady.com, for advice on spotting shady establishments.
Next, learn to read an artist bio. That will tell you whether an artist is just out of a BFA program or has a decades-long track record of solo exhibits in prestigious galleries and museums, a distinction that affects the value of the work.
And if you’re tempted to forego collecting and spend your savings on a minor home-remodel instead, be aware that, like nice kitchen cabinetry, the base price of a work of art is, at least in part, a function of the actual costs of production. For the artist, there are hours of labor, piles of rejected attempts and months of rent paid for studio space; and for the dealer, there’s the money and time invested in cultivating and marketing the artist’s work. (The gallery commission is typically 50 percent of the asking price.) The product of that R&D process is a luxury item, to be sure. But when all that hidden labor is considered—alongside the visible part, of course—a few thousand bucks looks like a pretty reasonable price for an object that will probably outlive you.
h2. REAP THE REWARDS
h4. Leave the speculating game to the pros (and the fools), and revel in the less tangible benefits of collecting.
MARJORIE MYERS WAS A 30-year-old, retired modern dancer living in Texas when the feverish collecting boom of the 1980s was just warming up. At the time, Myers estimates, “there were probably only a couple hundred contemporary art collectors in the world,” and New York was the unchallenged epicenter of exchange. That relatively low-stakes market allowed this daughter of a Dallas doctor to indulge her blossoming passion for contemporary art by picking up pieces by emerging artists at bargain prices. In 1995, for instance, she bought the large Kara Walker paper silhouette pictured at left for $3,600; today, similar works by Walker, a MacArthur “genius” known for her works that depict racially charged scenes from the antebellum South, sell at auction for $40,000 and up.
But if the art market’s recent, well-publicized, decade-long frenzy has you dreaming about flipping paintings for princely profits, dream on. In 1983, the total art trade in insular New York was already estimated at $2 billion; since then the art market has exploded into a global hydra of far greater size and complexity, with paintings by recent Chinese MFA grads—the latest hot commodity—selling for tens of millions at mobbed art fairs in Miami Beach and Tokyo. “For the average person to go out and buy a painting they like, and to think of it as an investment—that’s ill-fated,” says Myers. “The entry level into the speculation market is too high.”
Erik Schneider, a former CPA who owns the contemporary art gallery Quality Pictures in the Pearl, echoes Myers’ sentiments—and, like most dealers, cautions his clients against thinking of their collections as especially comely 401K plans. “Anytime someone comes in to make money, it doesn’t work,” Schneider says. “The first step is falling in love.” (That’s especially sage advice here in Portland: Works by local artists are pretty much never offered at auction, which is how the prices of most artworks are driven up in significant spurts.)
After all, the real rewards of collecting art have less to do with growing your assets than with partaking of intangible pleasures—stimulating your mind, inspiring your soul, supporting the cause of creativity. And as you progress from merely buying art to building a real collection—a compilation of objects that tells a compelling story about you and the world you live in—you’ll be socking away something far more valuable than a financial asset. You’ll be preserving a piece of history and even, in an important sense, making your own creative mark on the world.
With that attitude, if you pick a winning horse, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. And if you’ve collected for the right reasons, you’ll probably refrain from cashing in, knowing that what you have can’t be bought for money.