Will Ramsay will never forget his first time. She was a beautiful canvas he spied in a street market; he was a lowly university student on holiday in Moscow. But he had to have her: her rich ochers and oranges, the way she made him think of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. Though his tastes have since changed, he kept her around, stashed in the attic like Mrs. Rochester.
He just couldn’t part with his first piece of art.
Since then, Ramsay, a London-based gallerist, has made it a personal mission to make art more accessible—to teach people that one needn’t take out a second mortgage to buy a painting. “It gives me huge pleasure to see an artist live off of his or her work, and connecting them with people who didn’t realize they could afford art or were intimidated by their lack of knowledge,” Ramsay said. “It’s all about being inclusive.” In 1999 he launched his first Affordable Art Fair in London; three continents and 14 cities later, it makes its Northwest debut. Nearly 50 galleries have been selected by anonymous curators with guidance from local advisors—Seattle art fair director Jennifer Jacobs, Margery Aronson, Jaq Chartier, and gallery owners James Harris and Prole Drift’s Dirk Park—to show works that range in price from $100 to $10,000, and cost $2,500 on average. Artists span the I-5 corridor from Portland to Vancouver, BC, with several international names in the mix.
And in case you were wondering: No, affordable isn’t code for “lousy.” Big-deal Seattle sculptor Jeffry Mitchell, whose gleefully subversive ceramics piled high with puppies and flowers are on display at the Henry Art Gallery, will sell his wares; so will mixed-media artist Victoria Haven, who currently has a one-woman show at Seattle Art Museum. At past fairs around the world, the artwork reflected the city’s gallery scene; Paris had an influx of urban and street art in 2010, New York a $1,500 Damien Hirst woodcut. Seattle’s event is no different. With much of the Seattle Art Dealers Association showing alongside newer spots like Prole Drift, the fair offers a crash course in contemporary Northwest art. Novices will learn the identity of renowned Washington painter Gaylen Hansen, and savvy shoppers will pick up one of his lonesome cowboy or wolf-dog canvases for a bargain.
Seattle is just the third city in the U.S. (after New York and Los Angeles) to host an Affordable Art Fair—thanks to the strength of our galleries—and Ramsay hopes to make it an annual event. That all depends on whether enough people fall in love for the first, or fiftieth, time.
Shop for Art Like a Pro
10 Tips from Will Ramsay and Jennifer Jacobs
1. Repeat after me: I’m not an art idiot. “We live in such a visual world, with magazines galore; we see beautifully composed photographs in adverts, TV shots, film shots. Everyone is visually tuned in and ready to buy art.”
2. Get lost. “It’s so much easier to lose yourself in the crowd of an art fair than in a single gallery, where you’re nervous and they can hear your footsteps, and you think you’re going to be asked a scary question.”
3. Take a little notepad. “Jot down the things you like. Make a note of which stand they’re on so you can find them again, and then have a drink.”
4. Buying art is like dating. “There’s an initial attraction and then you delve deeper and discover what’s below the surface. Buying a piece of art is forming a relationship with an artist, in effect, because you both appreciate the same things, be it a mood or a landscape.”
5. Measure twice, cut once. “If you’re looking for a specific piece for a specific wall, then measure the space beforehand and take a photo of it.”
6. Keep an eye out for diamonds. “I bought a Louise Bourgeois at an affordable art fair eight, 10 years ago. A sculpture or unique piece by her would be far too expensive, but it was a small editioned piece, so I could afford that.”
7. Gang up. Do as Jacobs does: “I have collector friends in Seattle who will buy pieces together and rotate them.”
8. Don’t spend the rent money. “You shouldn’t be afraid to ask gallerists if you can pay in installments. They’re there to help you buy art; they’re going to be very open and helpful.”
9. Relax. “Over half our visitors are people who already go to galleries and buy art. They come to see young artists they might not have come across before, and maybe do a bit more relaxed art buying—something that doesn’t require a big budget or decision.”
10. Leave the bike, take the car. “We have a wrapping service; that’s very much part of the game. You can take your art straight home.”