Into Lane County," by Lli Wilburn (clothing die, ink and
colored pencil). [Courtesy: Froelick
One: The paradox of getting started
art in Portland
gallery owners and artists will tell you that Portland is one of
the best places in North America to buy and collect art.
The Portland art scene abounds with original art in
the broadest range of styles, genres and prices. Legions of talented
and committed artists choose to live in the area for its natural
beauty and the diversity of a thriving culture.
Michael Kenna, the internationally renowned California
photographer, just moved here from San Francisco because it's allowed
him to dramatically cut his housing and studio costs. He's far from
alone. And it's an abundance of such talent that provides Portland
with a market of fine art to please every imaginable taste with
prices that can easily fit into most budgets.
As a collector, I believe art should be an easy sell
to the locals in this highly accessible, culturally rich scene.
But it's not.
Local gallery owners tell me close to 60 percent of
the art they sell goes to people who don't live here. They come
from places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Miami
even Seattle and Tacoma.
Why? Because we have the quality and diversity of
most big cities along with some of the best prices in the country.
My collecting history started in 1982 when a friend
opened an art gallery in an old remodeled house. She invited me
to stop by and look around. She said it wasn't like most of those
pretentious downtown galleries. "It's in a house that's easy
to just hang out in," she said.
At the time I was barely above the poverty line and
had never thought about spending more than $30 for a poster to tack
on the wall. So when I finally visited my friend's gallery, I wasn't
expecting anything special to happen.
I ambled through this unusual combination of art gallery,
craft gallery and jewelry shop. The character of the old house was
the core concept for the gallery's design and the place offered
a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere.
Drifting past a kaleidoscopic array of paintings,
sculptures, jewelry, clay pots and plates, my senses tingled. I
don't think I had ever been in an art gallery before. A painting
hanging above the front window of the gallery grabbed my attention.
Rendered in the atmospheric translucence of watercolor
was the most beautiful flower I could ever remember seeing. The
central image was a white iris with purple highlights and nearly
photographic clarity flanked by softly focused foliage. Everything
I thought I knew about art changed in a moment. I understood the
virtue of a unique, handmade object.
This painting was more than just an image, more than
simply an object of beauty. It was also a symbol of something much
greater. I stood motionless.
"You know," a voice from behind suddenly
said, "we have a very easy layaway plan."
I was hooked.
That moment turned into one of those life-altering
experiences forever etched in my mind. The feeling was like my first
sunset at the beach, my first taste of ice cream, my first kiss
from a beautiful girl and my first symphony concert. Once bitten,
Pleasure," by Kirk Lybecker (watercolor with airbrush).
[Photo by Todd Leninger with artist's consent]
The painting, by Kirk Lybecker, was priced at $450
a huge sum to me at that time, but my desire for the piece
I feared my wife, Linda, would think I was crazy if
I suggested buying something as useless as a painting. But her passion
for drawing and painting went all the way back to her childhood.
To my surprise, she loved the idea. We scraped together
$100 to put down and paid $60 to $100 a month until it was paid
off. Then we bought another painting by the same artist.
Well, 22 years later, we have more than 80 works by
at least 50 different artists adorning our modest southeast Portland
The help I received buying that first piece was truly
fortunate and necessary. I needed guidance through the barriers
that block many people from making their first art purchase. Looking
back, I understand that the first piece was the most difficult to
I thought I couldn't afford fine art. I needed justification
for spending that much money on an object of such subjective value.
I feared I didn't have the knowledge or experience to make good
judgments about what I wanted. I felt intimidated by the abstract
nature of what constituted quality art.
People with art savvy know that the work shown in
Portland galleries and artists' studios holds up well to art sold
anywhere else in the nation. I learned this as I continued to buy
more art and built relationships with gallery owners, artists and
I became a regular at many gallery openings and previews.
I started meeting visitors from all around the country who came
here to take in the galleries with the intention of buying. Talking
with many of these visiting art lovers gave me a window into the
art markets of other cities. The more I learned, the more I came
to appreciate the opportunities Portland offered for collecting
great art on a modest budget.
Portland has art for almost anyone willing to take
the time to look.
Some galleries cater to people with a taste for decorative
and representational work. Others are geared toward contemporary
themes like abstract, conceptual, minimal and other statement-oriented
work. Regionally prominent and nationally known artists show here
as well as emerging talent from all over the country.
High quality, broad diversity and abundant supply
result in a market much larger than one might expect from a town
this size. All collectors love great values; Portland has them in
spades. Locally, the value issue doesn't receive much attention.
It's just taken for granted by those familiar with the scene.
Many established Portland galleries spend time and
money building clientele in markets outside our region. The top-tier
galleries buy advertising in high-profile art publications to promote
their best known and most talented artists. Ads from Portland galleries
appear regularly in ArtNews, Art In America and Art & Antiques.
The Portland art scene has a national reputation as
a destination art market and brings in substantial amounts of money
from people coming here to buy. Unfortunately, relatively few local
residents take advantage of this opportunity.
For years the local gallery community has debated
the reasons for this situation.
Some say Portland (and, to some extent, the rest of
Oregon) is anti-business. For example, Nike is the only Fortune
500 company in the state, so there are few highly compensated corporate
executives here to solicit. Some say the money here is old money
and these materially blessed community members do spend on art,
but there's only so much from this group to go around. Still others
just throw up their hands and say, the locals just don't get
With all the First Thursdays, preview nights, local
arts reviews and countless mailings every month, you might ask,
Why don't they get it?
It's Own," by Martha Pfanschmidt (egg tempura). [Photo
by Todd Leninger with artist's consent]
A recent article in the Oregonian by D.K. Row mentioned
that many local galleries have grown tired of expending energy on
First Thursday. Frustration grows as, month after month, thousands
of people attend these events but very little gets sold at openings.
These events have succeeded in raising the awareness of the local
community to the presence of an art scene, but that's just one of
many steps needed to cultivate new collectors.
From my years of collecting and nurturing my knowledge
of art in the Portland market, I see a need for some new strategies.
The barriers I had to overcome when I bought my first piece also
hold back many others from making their first art purchase.
This might be a good time for taking a fearless inventory
on just what these barriers might be.
Return next month for "Part Two:
Breaking down the barriers"