How to Be an Art Collector in Seattle

Investing in art? Do it for love, experts say, not for money
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

LET'S TALK. Seattle Art Museum CEO Kimerly Rorschach says the buying of art should provoke conversation.

This story appears in the July 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

With his name on the door of a Bellevue accounting firm — Gunning, Stenson & Price — and an international reputation as a master art collector, John Price has a brain equally engaged on left and right hemispheres. He can talk profit and loss, appreciation and depreciation, market values and tax implications all day long. And with thousands of pieces of contemporary Alaskan Inuit (Eskimo) art in his personal collection, he stays equally fluent in animated artspeak.

But he stops short of bridging the two worlds, that is, buying art to make a profit.

“No,” he says. “I don’t encourage anyone to invest in art.”

Price isn’t saying people shouldn’t buy art. They simply shouldn’t be looking for the kind of return Irish art collector and horse breeder John Magnier realized in May when he sold a large nude by Amedeo Modigliani for $157 million at auction. Magnier had paid $26.9 million for it in 2003, netting a tidy gain of 484 percent.

Instead, Price advises, “Buy what you love.”

It’s advice he has followed the past half century, amassing the world’s most complete collection of Inuit works as well as impressive portfolios of Northwest Coast Native American art, painted glass, Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs, contemporary modern art and books on the American West.

Some of it has certainly appreciated in value over time, Price acknowledges. Some hasn’t. It doesn’t matter to Price, because he has never sold a piece. He prefers to live with the art, share stories about who made it and lend it to museums around the world.

Price knows about acquiring art, but for the inexperienced prospective art buyer — let’s say someone working in the day-to-day business world of red ink and black — the siren call of buying art may be drowned out by a chorus of uncertainty. Price recommends asking for help.

Seattle art consultant and appraiser Dena Rigby of Dena Rigby Fine Arts dispenses precisely this kind of assistance. She is often asked to explain value — as in, “How do I know the piece I want to buy is worth the price?” She has a two-word starter response: position and provenance.

If an artist’s work is shown in a reputable gallery as opposed to, say, a cruise ship boutique or a Vegas casino shop, it’s in a good position, Rigby notes. An even better position occurs when an artist’s works appear in university and museum exhibitions. Favorable mentions in reputable publications also signal a career on the upswing. If other accomplished collectors own work by an artist you like, Rigby points out, that conveys positive provenance. This is especially important if you’re buying previously owned art, though only the work of the most established artists will have much ownership history.

Do not buy art assuming you’ll make money when you sell it, Rigby cautions. Unless it’s a Picasso — or, these days, a Modigliani — there may not be a market for the work when you’re ready to sell, even after the artist dies. Careers run in cycles; collectors’ tastes change.

“Investors who want to purchase a piece for a couple thousand dollars and think this artist will become the next Basquiat — it’s a fantasy,” Rigby asserts. “We don’t live in a world of Antiques Road Show.”

If investing in art is considered such risky business, why buy it at all?

There are many good reasons.

Learning about art is enriching.
Meeting artists is fun and can lead to lifelong relationships.
People who buy artwork let its makers hone their craft and evolve as artists.
Acquiring local art sustains an ecosystem of small businesses.
The hunt is fun.
Finding the perfect piece is deeply satisfying.

Finally, original art makes life better. So says Janet Galore, an Amazon creative director and collector who buys art she falls in love with. “When I put it on my wall,” she says, “it enriches my life in ways I didn’t expect.”

So, how to get started?

Galore recommends going to art walks — like the original First Thursday in Pioneer Square or the walks hosted in neighborhoods year-round throughout Seattle. There’s a lot to see: oil paintings, of course, plus prints, photography, ceramics, charcoal and pencil drawings, glass, furniture, sculpture and so much more.

“Don’t just walk around,” she advises. “Ask questions! Every single gallerist and artist I know is more than happy to talk. It really means a lot when people engage with them.”

Stacey Winston Levitan of Winston Wächter Fine Art suggests taking a year to figure out what you like.

That year doesn’t have to be hard labor.

Galore recommends Collect art tours. Collect is the invention of Elisheba Johnson, who, with two like-minded partners in the art “ecosystem,” conduct art tours in a party bus.

Over the past three years, invited experts have accompanied Collect guests to museums, galleries and alternative art spaces in many neighborhoods. The next tour will coincide with Seattle Art Fair and future travels will head to Tacoma and the Eastside. Tours are catered, the crowd is convivial. And there’s champagne.

Seattle Art Fair, coming up August 2–5, is well worth the admission fee, says Seattle Art Museum CEO Kimerly Rorschach, because it’s “a great resource” and way cheaper than a plane ticket to Basel or Miami or New York. Of course, she goes to art fairs in all those cities (it’s her job, dontcha know), but she cherishes the fair she can walk to from her office at SAM.

This year’s Seattle Art Fair will bring more than 100 galleries — local, domestic and international — to the CenturyLink Field Event Center to show contemporary art. This collaboration between Vulcan Arts + Entertainment and Art Market Productions, now in its fourth year, packages glorious eye candy with events, talks and performances. It’s really big.

Last year’s fair included pieces by Yayoi Kusama, Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso. Check the website to plan your day, allow several hours and do wear comfortable shoes.

If that’s just not enough, Seattle Art Fair’s Collector Cultivation program produces a year-round calendar of events, behind-the-scenes tours and educational talks for prospective collectors. There’s a special tour of Art Fair.

Once you know what you like, you should establish a budget. Art is a luxury item and you get to decide what you can afford. Fifty dollars will buy a small work at an art fair. Five thousand dollars should get you a good-sized painting in a gallery. Somewhere in between you’ll find prints and multiples, works on paper and photographs.

Whatever your budget, don’t be apologetic.

“We all have budgets,” says Rorschach, who buys art for herself “in a very modest way.” Trained as an art historian, she buys drawings by contemporary artists that “reveal the working method before an idea is fully formed.” They also tend to be smaller and less expensive.

Yes, galleries can be intimidating. But understand that gallery dealers want to help. They will ask about your budget and your interests — not to be nosy, but to help determine what in their showroom (and back room) will suit your need, fit your budget and make you happy.  

“Dealers want to know,” says Rorschach, “that the work is going to a good home, not to someone who is going to flip it for more money.”

As for price, there’s totally room for conversation. Rorschach advises, “It’s OK to say, ‘Is there any room for negotiation? Or might a discount be possible?’”

There’s more. Most galleries are happy to let you pay over time. And you may need to try out something at home before committing. Says Rorschach: “It’s just about having an honest and forthright conversation.”

Lori Uddenburg has been working with Winston Levitan for more than 20 years, since the gallerist helped her — a self-described clueless first-time buyer — find the perfect piece to fill a gaping wall space. Now an accomplished collector who divides her time between the East and West coasts, Uddenburg still relies on Winston Levitan to source new works, contact other galleries and arrange details like shipping and installation.

“Galleries,” Uddenburg says with conviction and appreciation, “do a lot of work.”

Carie Fowler Antonelli, a fourth-generation owner of her family’s Eastside irrigation business, H.D. Fowler Company, concurs. She sought help to tackle a daunting wish list when remodeling her family’s shared vacation home in Friday Harbor.

Antonelli’s goal was to find a few statement pieces that would fit the space, complement the new contemporary interior, and please her extended family. Most important, she wanted to source the art locally to honor and support the community.

Ruth Offen at Waterworks Gallery in Friday Harbor knew what to do. “She showed us photos, met with us seven or eight times and was an incredible asset in helping us think of different ways to address the space,” Antonelli reports. “The whole space feels much more thoughtful and interesting now.”

Art consultants offer alternatives to gallery owners. As a third party, Dena Rigby can meet with a client, then assemble and show pieces from a variety of sources. She can also arrange to have a few pieces brought to clients’ homes to try out.

Unlike a dealer working on commission, Rigby charges a consulting fee. But her goal is the same. “I love when clients say they are happy with the outcome and they had such fun doing it,” she says.

When it comes to buying art, many people are just plain afraid. Winston Levitan says she has has been hearing that lament from gallery clients in Seattle and New York City for more than two decades. They’re afraid of making a bad choice. Afraid of getting ripped off. Afraid of losing value.

To that, she echoes the words of veteran collector John Price: “Buy what you love; work with someone you trust.”
It’s true, she concedes, that investing in art is tricky. Its value is not quantifiable like stocks and bonds.
“But, then,” she points out, “you can’t frame a stock certificate.”

MORE: Meet five Seattle artists you should know

Resources for art collectors and wannabes

Courtesy of Seattle Art Fair

SAM Gallery
1300 First Ave.
Seattle Art Museum’s rental and sales gallery presents a low-risk introduction to acquiring work by Northwest artists. The gallery has hundreds of works, including paintings, drawings, mixed-media works, limited-edition prints and photographs. Prices range from $500 to $5,000 for purchase; three-month rentals run $50 to several hundred dollars per piece. You can put half the rental payment toward a purchase or return the rental with no obligation. Interest-free, 16-month payment plans are available to SAM members.
 
Gallery 4Culture
101 Prefontaine Place S
Gallery 4Culture has shown innovative and underrepresented art forms by King County artists for the past 35 years. Each season, juried artists — often in early career — present solo and small-group shows. It’s not a commercial venue, but artists’ work is often for sale with prices ranging from $250 to $15,000. Staff will connect prospective buyers with artists upon request.

Seattle Art Fair
CenturyLink Field Event Center
From August 2 to 5, Seattle Art Fair shows contemporary work from more than 100 local, domestic and international galleries and presents a slate of events, talks and cultural programs. Vulcan Arts + Entertainment and Art Market Productions collaborate to produce the annual spectacle, now in its fourth year. Admission starts at $30. Check the website for programs, where seating is first come, first served and free with admission.

Seattle Art Fair Collector Cultivation
SAF Collector Cultivation produces special events, behind-the-scenes tours and educational talks for prospective collectors all year long. It conducts a special tour during Art Fair. Participation is by invitation. Send email inquiries to vip@seattleartfair.com.

Collect Seattle
Three local arts advocates created Collect in 2014 to engage and inform prospective collectors in a relaxed, no-pressure environment. The next Collect tour complements Seattle Art Fair on Saturday, August 4. For $60 a person, a catered party bus will visit seven satellite exhibits/studios open during Seattle Art Fair. Yes, champagne is included. Riders are encouraged to visit Art Fair on their own. The tour during Art Fair always sells out.

First Thursday Art Walk
Pioneer Square
First Thursday in Pioneer Square was the first Art Walk in the country. Galleries open at 5 p.m. and parking is free in three garages from 5 to 10 p.m.

Neighborhood Art Walks
Every month, local artists and merchants in more than a dozen Seattle neighborhoods join to support the city’s art scene with festive events.