Collectors, 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, forever smitten.
"Foolish 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 overwhelmed me.
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 home.
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 buy.
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 other collectors.
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 it.
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.