I wandered into Blackfish Gallery on First Thursday to see the Annual Recent Graduates Exhibition, featuring the work of emerging artists from all over the state, singled out as exceptional by the faculties of their universities.
I was drawn in by Kristin Miller's "Concept in Space," a minimal abstract ink on paper that made me think of a reverse constellation—dark stars against a light sky, and by a disquieting untitled photo by Nicolette Silva of platinum-haired Lolita-esque twin sisters in the doorway of a white church. The two pieces are priced at $500 and $600, respectively.
And I thought: this is the perfect place to start collecting art.
If you are reading this, you are living in the single greatest city in the country to start an art collection. Nowhere else can you find such a high level of talent combined with such criminally low prices. The show at Blackfish is a great example but, really, there's incredible value all over town. I see hundreds of pieces of art every month and—with only two exceptions—all of my favorite pieces have hovered around or under the thousand-dollar mark. Many have cost half that.
I'm going to let you in on a secret: if you live in Portland, you only need $90 a month to put together a world-class art collection. I do not mean this in an abstract way. I am not being hyperbolic. Skip the second latté or the fourth beer and you can be an art collector.
Most of us never think of ourselves that way. We see the art world as a rarefied place. We fear walking into a gallery and being treated as though we don't belong or don't know what we're talking about. "This whole notion that you have to be extraordinarily wealthy or knowledgeable is not so," says Jeffrey Thomas, owner of Jeffrey Thomas Fine Art in NW. "The way to start is by going into galleries and asking questions and being curious."
Here are some questions to get you started: I'm trying to learn more about art, can you talk to me about this show? I've never been here before, what type of work do you tend to show? Can you tell me what you love about this artist's work?
Nine out of ten times, you will find that the gallery owners, managers, and assistants will be thrilled to talk to you about art. They want to develop relationships with new collectors, even potential collectors who have never set foot in a gallery before. Part of their job is to help educate us and turn us on to artists they're excited about.
But if you go into a gallery and you are not treated warmly, if your questions go unanswered, if your newbie enthusiasm is not embraced, it is not a reflection of you. It is a reflection of them. Walk out and don't go back. Then walk into the gallery next door and try again (and when you get home, email me the name of the gallery that wasn't nice to you. I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Here's another secret: many galleries accept payment plans. Stephanie Chefas, owner of Stephanie Chefas Projects, a gallery in SE that shows emerging artists, says, "If you're only able to put $50 a month toward a painting, I'm totally good with that. Once it's paid off, it's yours forever." Thomas affirms this sentiment by telling me about one of his favorite collectors, who is a driver for UPS: "He has an absolute budget of $100 a month. When he comes in to buy something, it's even more special because he's made more of a sacrifice relative to his income."