by Claudia Cave (1991). [courtesy: Laura Russo Gallery]
Two: Stripping away the barriers
art in Portland
many people I meet in Portland galleries and museums, the first
thing I ask is, "Do you collect?"
All too often my second question is, "Why not?"
The most common answers I get on the second question
are: 1) I could never afford to buy art; 2) I wouldn't know how
to go about it; and 3) I don't know what I should buy.
Whenever I've pressed for clarification on these issues
I inevitably find some level of discomfort with the image galleries
project. For a person previously unexposed to a traditional art
gallery, the experience can be a bit unsettling.
Bright lights, high ceilings and linen-white walls
may remind some people of a chapel, others of a grand meeting hall.
When they look at the price tags of artwork they've never experienced,
they may be reminded of the time they walked into a Neiman Marcus
thinking it was a Sears. New and challenging experiences often give
people an unsettled, nervous feeling.
The art of introducing art to the inexperienced buyer
requires an effort to smooth the bumps in those early encounters.
My friend who sold me my first painting told me not to feel intimidated
by those big galleries downtown. She gave me the permission and
confidence I needed to walk into other galleries to look, learn
and enjoy regardless of whether I intended to buy or not.
That was the trigger I needed; others may require even more help.
This elitist stigma is not an entirely conscious intent
of galleries or arts organizations. It's tied up in a tradition
that's thousands of years old. The history of art and civilization
is the history of how art has been the exclusive domain of the wealthy
There is a long tradition of merchants and professionals
from many cultures who avidly collected fine art and crafts, but
we seldom find histories about collectors from the bourgeois classes.
We are taught that dynasties like the Medici House in Italy, the
Strogonoff family in Russia, or the Rockefellers and Gettys of America
are the storied patrons of the arts.
The best and most widely known example of passionate
and intelligent collecting by the working class has to be the Herbert
and Dorothy Vogel collection. He was a U.S. Postal clerk and she
was a librarian. They married in 1962 and lived in a small New York
apartment for 35 years. They used his income to pay the bills and
hers to buy works of conceptual and minimalist art.
By the time they retired they had amassed over 2,000
pieces currently worth millions. They donated most of the
collection to the National Gallery, for which they accepted an annuity
worth a fraction of what the collection could bring at auction.
The Vogel Collection includes pieces by many of the
great artists, such as Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, Robert
Smithson, Agnes Martin, Donald Judd and even Christo.
They accomplished all this even though they refused
to work with dealers and consultants. They instead relied on their
own taste, research and judgment. They focused on smaller pieces,
which could be purchased on installments or for just a few hundred
dollars. They were not motivated by the pursuit of wealth or prestige.
Their inspiration was simply a passionate and committed love for
But they don't fit the stereotype of great collectors.
The fact that they are a simple, middle-class couple from New York
City often receives greater focus than the collection that bears
Of Past Dreams," by Tyson Grumm. [photo by Todd Leninger,
courtesy: Froelick Gallery]
Another issue that confounds people who have little
or no experience with galleries is the mixed message surrounding
the economics of the business.
On a typical Portland First Thursday, many first-timers
will stroll from gallery to gallery and find themselves baffled
by some of the art. This often leaves the novice puzzled about how
art gets priced. They may find a piece in one gallery for $500 and
another that has a similar style in a different gallery for $5,000.
Regardless of the reasons, this can make that novice
feel a bit uneasy even suspicious if they don't have
the opportunity to ask the right questions and get the right answers.
The popular media focuses on art appreciation in terms
of the monetary value of art rather than its esthetic value. The
huge prices paid at auction for a select few pieces get plenty of
attention in the press. However, we seldom hear how much one of
those pieces originally sold for decades or centuries earlier.
A recent discussion on CNBC centered on the new Art
Index Funds being created by asset managers. We also see stories
about prominent businesspeople who donate a portion of their large
collections to museums. What we never read about are many less prominent,
middle-income people who offer important collections to museums.
The Vogels are the rare exception to this rule.
In Portland, unlike in larger cities, one doesn't
need lots of money to afford a very nice personal collection. Local
galleries do a good job making art accessible to anyone who has
even modest amounts of disposable income. Many local galleries have
liberal layaway policies that help new customers start collecting.
In recent years galleries have been opening outside
the traditional art districts with a focus on quality work by emerging
artists generally priced under $1,000 with many works from
$100 to $500. This profusion of affordable art is the element that
makes the Portland market irresistible to the experienced collector
and surprisingly accommodating to the novice.
Labeling any original art as a bargain, however, is
looked on by some as cheapening the image of the work. So this selling
point seldom gets mentioned. In terms of a public dialogue, mixing
the topics of money and esthetics in a public forum is considered
vulgar and inappropriate by curators, major collectors and gallery
people. The huge reservoir of middle-income people rarely hears
how affordable art in this town can be.
A weak link in the public relations of art is the
absence of any meaningful discussions about the basics of buying
and collecting. Recycled coverage of basic topics on subjects like
food, gardening, interior design, exercise, real estate, movies
and consumer electronics are mainstays for newspapers and TV magazine
But how often do we see articles on the basics of
What we get are esoteric critiques of an artist's
work, the cultural and historic significance of the new blockbuster
exhibit at the museum, or the announcement of an upcoming art fair.
These topics are important, but they're aimed way over the heads
of those who aren't familiar with the business and esthetics of
There's a need for more discussions about the reasons
for collecting and the reward for cultivating this passion.
The basics don't get much attention. The point to
keep in mind is that the toughest piece of art to sell is that first
piece to someone who has never bought an original work of art. It
takes a lot to make that first sale. But if the gallery people do
their job and help the buyer find a special connection with that
first piece, it will almost never be the last piece they buy.
by Doug Shafer. [courtesy: Butters Gallery]
With coordinated gallery show openings, preview nights
and cooperative gallery promotion tactics, the Portland scene goes
a long way toward opening up the market to that elusive new buyer.
But cultural tradition can't be created overnight.
Even though Portland's First Thursday openings have continued for
almost two decades, there is a need for some new points of focus.
Maybe by giving attention to what experienced art
buffs take for granted, the old barriers can be stripped away and
the ground can be tilled for larger crops of new local collectors.
One: The paradox of getting started" in last month's issue