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"Breath," by Claudia Cave (1991). [courtesy: Laura Russo Gallery]
Guest Writer

Part Two: Stripping away the barriers
Collecting art in Portland
by Duane Snider

ith 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 and powerful.

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 art.

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 their name.

"Memories 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 shows.

But how often do we see articles on the basics of collecting art?

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 art.

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.

Untitled, 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.

– See "Part One: The paradox of getting started" in last month's issue –

Original images above from the private collection of Duane Snider and Linda Dies. E-mail Duane at sniderdies@msn.com and find more from Duane in our archives.

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