The Eastside is home to about six commercial, for-profit art galleries, as well as nonprofit organizations such as the Kirkland Arts Center and the Bellevue Arts Museum. It’s apparent that while much about the industry changes with the times, much remains the same.
From Kirkland, where Ryan James Fine Arts recently reached its 10th anniversary, gallery director Ryan James explained that, like with any industry, there are many types of galleries and business models. His venue seeks artists working within their chosen medium, while maintaining a strict limit of 15 artists at a time.
“Our gallery will only look at artists that work within a series to create a body of work,” James said. “We expect to see evolution as the artist works from one series to the next.” James defines a gallery’s role: to curate and find an artist of interest to show to the public while often focusing on a specific area of art.
“This allows us to build a client base and a following for the artists,” he said. “Overall, when an artist generates a large following for their body of work, museums will take notice, and the opportunity for a museum to purchase and preserve an artist’s work for future generations is a huge achievement — that starts with a gallery first discovering and taking a financial risk on an emerging artist.”
Partnering with a gallery might not be the right fit for many artists.
“The gallery takes the risk on the artist, and the artist takes the risk on the gallery,” James said. With the key idea revolving around value appreciation, the gallery should “100 percent oversee pricing an artist’s work.” Over time, his gallery has developed a seven-point pricing system with each artist, with the goal of increasing an artist’s price as the artists build a following.
Nayoung Buchan, director at Kirkland’s NYB Gallery, an international contemporary fine art gallery, has longtime relationships with many represented artists, thanks to his traveling lifestyle. “We have had enough time to develop a mutually trusting relationship,” he said.
Other times, he’ll contact prospective artists directly. So why would an artist seek gallery representation? “To me, is there any other way for the artist to present their art?” Buchan asked.
He believes that galleries play a bigger role than they used to, with the art industry turning increasingly online.
“Those who have a space with an ongoing exhibition help keep alive the tradition of the audience being able to appreciate the artwork in person,” he said. “This is a very important missing part of the online art market.”
Ginny Clarke of Mercer Island’s Clarke & Clarke Art + Artifacts believes galleries are not an “industry,” but rather an important part of supporting artists by providing services beyond the production of gallery openings.
“The role of a gallery is not an obsolete format,” she said. “But many traditional models have had to adapt to remain relevant.” She gives examples such as moving into smaller locations and using technology to make direct connections.
Clarke emphasizes that collecting art welcomes fantasy and opens doors to discovering other cultures, too. “It’s inspiring,” she said. “We need this to make our lives more interesting and pleasurable.”
Clarke’s selections are based on several factors, including whether the artist is reliable, interesting, and “someone you would enjoy learning about and also shares our dedication to integrity in our practices.” She believes an art investment should be based on how the piece makes you feel. A potential profit is merely a bonus.
“Surrounding yourself with things you love is the best criteria,” she said.
Anne Hritzay is a community arts organizer and artist at Mercer Island’s MIVAL Gallery, a cooperative of about 20 local artists. She credits galleries for initiating events such as Art UnCorked and First Fridays on Mercer Island.
“These activities create a more accessible way for regular folks to be introduced to the gallery world, which can feel a bit intimidating,” she said. Meeting the artist makes buying more meaningful, too.
“Most of us produce art fueled by our love of creating,” Hritzay said, “but the income certainly does not sustain us. The gallery offers us a chance to offer our art to the public, and to create a community for mutual support and connection … One often thinks of artists in solitary studio settings, but when they gather around other creatives in art venues, the inspiration for new ideas and directions is inevitable.”
Julie Sanchez, multimedia artist and owner of Elias Shawn Studio, agrees that the role of galleries has changed with the progression of social media and ease of access through online resources. COVID has further expedited this progression. However, the value of galleries remains strong for serious collectors who seek to expand their collections — and investments.
Many artists prefer working with galleries responsible for the distribution to — and interaction with — collectors, so they can focus purely on work.Sanchez feels torn: “As an artist, I enjoy connecting with my collectors as much as I do painting … I have a background in business and sales, so I am not intimidated by the ‘business of art.’”
Sanchez likens being an artist to being a member of any other community: There are many avenues to success, and it’s never a solitary endeavor.
“Behind every piece of art acquired,” she said, “there are many, many ‘invisible’ faces that championed the effort.”