Archive for the ‘art buying’ Category

Last month, a friend phoned to ask my advice about the price of a Northwest Coast mask that he had commissioned. The price the artist had quoted seemed high to him, but he was still interested in the mask. Thanks to my frequent gallery browsing – both in person and online — I was able to reassure him that, for a piece of that size by an artist of that reputation, he was getting a reasonable price.

More recently, I saw a piece by a new artist and instantly recognized the price as too high for this moment in the artist’s career.

From these two experiences, I realized that, not only is the price of Northwest Coast masks is determined by a couple of factors – the artist’s reputation and the size and finish of the mask – but that there is a rough consensus about how those factors affect the price. This consensus exists throughout British Columbia, so, contrary to what you might expect, you are unlikely to find many bargains outside of Victoria or the Lower Mainland regions. It is undoubtedly due to the fact that galleries and artists are always comparing notes and the fact that a handful of artists are widely viewed as a guide to pricing. In particular, Beau Dick, although widely recognized as a leading carver, has never priced his works as high as he probably could, but varies his prices according to the complexity and size of his work.

As near as I can construct it, here is a list of what you can expect at each price range when you buy a Northwest Coast mask. All prices are in Canadian dollars:

  • Under $2000: The largest group in this category are masks for the tourist trade, generally by artists who have few chances of selling to upscale galleries such as Douglas Reynolds. New artistically-oriented carvers and minis (masks 7×7 inches or smaller) – also fall into this category.
  • $2000-$3000: In this category, you can find average-sized masks (roughly 12-14 inches high) by artists who are starting to gain a solid reputation, or simple or experimental masks by established artists. Most artists’ work does not stay in this price range for very long, except for some long-established carvers for tourists.
  • $3000-$6000: This category is by far the largest. Most masks in most galleries usually fall within it. Here, you find works of average size and complexity by artists who have a modest reputation for their carving. You also occasionally, large works by lesser-known artists in this range, but the restrictions on beginning or relatively unknown artists are tight enough that such works appear only rarely.
  • $6000-$10,000:This price range seems reserved for large or intricate works by artists whose work usually falls within the previous category. One of the signs of consensus is that you find relatively few artists whose prices fall consistently within this category.
  • $10,000 and above: Only large and elaborate masks or normal sized ones by master carvers fall into this category. Very few masks sell above $18,000, although I have seen a Beau Dick mask over four feet tall selling for $28,000.

These ranges are only generalities. A lesser-known carver making a bid for more recognition may temporarily or permanently raise their prices, while a more established artist may lower the price on a specific piece that they feel does not represent their best work. Similarly, a smaller or larger size may bump a specific mask from the artist’s norm. Almost always, reputation trumps size: for instance, I recently saw a mini by Dempsey Bob selling for just under $5,000, a price that reflects both his fame and the fact that these days he does little non-monumental work in wood.

I should also mention that artists do not necessarily view this consensus as fair. They argue that, especially in the lower categories, it hardly pays to take the time to finish the mask – and no doubt they are right.

However, other artists figure that selling in the lower categories is a part of their career that they simply have to endure – and they are right, to. Unless an artist is lucky enough to live on commissions or has another means of exhibiting work to the public, they have little choice except to participate in a market in which both they and their work are evaluated in detail by the market.

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Around the turn of the millennium, the Haida clothes designer Dorothy Grant had a shop in the Sinclair Center in downtown Vancouver. When she moved, we lost track of her. But I noticed her at a lecture a few days ago at the Bill Reid Gallery, where she was flashing a pair of earring by Gwaai Edenshaw, and yesterday we made a point of dropping by her new store and studio just off Broadway and Main.

Grant’s downtown store felt like a small clothing boutique, differing from countless of others only in her designs and impeccable tailoring. Her new location feels more like a work space; you go down a hall into a retail space, but the activity seems to be taking place either in the studio and meeting place up the stairs or the work area on the other side of it. The entire area is dedicated with art from Grant’s personal collection: A mask by Beau Dick, a print by Robert Davidson, a glass box by Alano Edzerza, and some recent glass plaques by Grant herself (which leaves no doubt that she could have become a gallery artist rather than an applied artist, had she chosen).

The location is open to the public, but you have to ring for entry, perhaps a reflection of the fact that the space is in the middle of an industrial area that, while not seedy, has probably seen better days.

Or perhaps the locked door reflects that this is more a work space than a retail outlet. It certainly seemed so during our visit, with Grant planning with a couple of other people (for a photo shoot, I think), and only stopping briefly to greet us in the friendly and energetic way that, from the little that I’ve seen, appears to be her most common public persona.

Whether you are female or male, you could easily drop a few thousand dollars going through Grants’ racks. But that few thousand would be exceptionally well-spent, especially compared to what you would get elsewhere for the same price in terms of cut and sturdiness of material, let alone the designs. And if you can’t afford that sort of money, you can still find blouses, shirts and jackets for a few hundred dollars, some of which will be heavily discounted if you arrive at the right time of year.

Even as an old-married, I can’t really speak to Grant’s line for women, although nine years ago I bought several blouses and vests as presents. But, from a male perspective, Grant’s line is a relief from mediocrity. Most men’s clothing is drab and unimaginative, and the most you can hope from more upscale offerings is better tailoring. But Northwest Coast designs are one of the few options for men who want a bit of flamboyance without being inappropriately dressed or having to fend off taunts about their sexuality (the sort that are supposed to be jokes but aren’t, if you know what I mean). And Grant’s simple, but bold designs are works of art in themselves that lend an elegance that nobody would dare to question.

Personally, I have arranged my life so that I only need a suit – much less a tuxedo – only for marriages and funeral. However, if I ever did, Grant’s versions of either, with designs on the lapels on one side would reconcile me to the uncomfortable garments. I might still feel uncomfortable wearing them, but at least I would know that I was artistically and well-dressed, and perhaps signaling to the world that I was indvidualistic, if not outright eccentric.

My life being as it is, I will settle for buying two or three buttoned shirts or polo shirts from the store – and I don’t especially like polo shirts.

I did succumb to a light black jacket with an eagle design on the back and a raven wing design on the left arm. Julie, the store manager insisted that I could carry off the look, and a survey of my image in the mirror suggested she was right. A look at the price tag reinforced her view, so I left with a different jacket than the one that was on me when I came in.

“That will bring all the ladies to you,” she said as we were leaving. I started to mutter about how little good that would be for me as a married man when an old customer arrived wearing a similar jacket.

She turned to him for reinforcement of her claim. He agreed, and called after me, “Better stay away from my part of town, man!”

I’ve looked in a mirror. Given the human material that the jacket has to work with, I remain dubious of Julie’s claims. All the same, I’m sure that I’ll return to Dorothy Grants’ the next time that I want well-made clothes with a bit of flare. When we have so much Northwest Coast art on our walls, why shouldn’t I be wearing some as well?

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As I go through Northwest Coast galleries and web sites, one of the things I am always looking for are miniatures masks – ones under about eight inches in height. We have several wall areas – mostly above doors – that are too small for anything else. Even more importantly, a miniature is a sign of a carvers’ skill. Yet I don’t see many worth buying, perhaps because miniatures tend to be either student pieces or ones designed for the tourist trade, and experienced carvers cannot charge enough for their time to produce many. As a result, I was especially pleased when I noticed that Ron Telek’s “Transformation Mask: Human to Eagle” had come back on to the market. It’s an unusually fine miniature that shows his customary skill and imagination.

How the mask came from Terrace to Vancouver and I picked it up at the South Terminal of the Vancouver airport (which was not, to my disappointment a foggy runway used by single prop planes like something out of Casablanca) doesn’t matter. Enough to say that it did, and I did, and the mask now resides at the busiest crossroads in the hallway of our townhouse.

What makes the mask so haunting is its ambiguity. Although a human is turning into an eagle, the dominant face is more of an eagle’s. From the left eye, whose socket is lined with abalone, a human shape with a bird’s head seems to diving. Or so it appears; if you look at how the spirit’s head and arms are arranged, you’ll notice that they suggest another beak. You have to wonder, too, if the shape is the departing human soul or, given the deepness of the eye socket, if the transformation is being achieved by the plucking out of an eye.

Then, if you look at the right eye, you’ll notice that it is bare wood. However, in the eye’s lower third, like a cataract, is a piece of leather with a small shape that resembles the one leaving the left eye. Does that mean that the transformation is all in the eye of the imagination and not literal? That the transformation, or the need for it is based on faulty vision and understanding? Or is it a supreme act of will?

Also, despite the title of the mask, what dominates is a largely bird-like face with a full beak and one taloned foot where its left ear should be. So who is transforming into what? Perhaps the transformation is of the human into the form of his helper spirit or true self. Certainly, the bird face seems serene, perhaps even amused to judge by the line of its mouth on the beak. It is the human spirit that seems in pain or exaltation. By contrast, the eagle seems more stoic and less affected by the transformation. Perhaps for the eagle’s nature, transformation is natural, and it is the human spirit that finds passing from one form to the other uncomfortable.

These ambiguities make for an asymmetrical design – something that is relatively common in Northwest Coast art, but which is part of the foundation of modern mainstream design. By showing elements of both, the mask increases its ambiguity even further. To a certain extent, the asymmetry is reduced by the long cedar braid on the right, but the mask remains, like the figure it represents, halfway between two different states.

In the end, you can say so little about the mask that the uncertainty adds to its fascination. The only thing that you can say for sure about the mask is that it is finished with Telek’s usual attention to detail.

I don’t know why the previous owner decided to sell the mask, but I’m glad he did. Unlike the previous owner, we don’t plan to let it out of our hands. We wonder, though, where we will find other miniatures to match its complexity.


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I could be wrong, but I’m starting to see a darker side to art galleries – at least, the ones that specialize in Northwest Coast art. If you are a potential customer, you are unlikely to see this side. Most of those who work in a gallery are as passionate about the art as the customers, and – especially if you are a returning customer – will happily talk for hours. I wish, though, that I could be sure that the artists receive the same courtesy. I’m starting to wonder.

This doubt began to flicker when I first became aware of a common figure in the galleries: A first nations person – almost always a man – hovering around a gallery, looking as though he feels out of place. Sometimes, such a man has a knapsack or even a large duffel bag that he lays very carefully on the floor. If he doesn’t, at some point he will take out a carefully wrapped bracelet or other piece of jewelry from his pocket. Typically, he waits until the gallery is mostly deserted, and then gingerly approaches the nearest gallery employee. He is, of course, an artist hoping to make a sale, and his manner is very much that of a supplicant, nervous if not outright afraid.

Then, yesterday, a gallery owner regaled me with stories of how artists used to be lined up outside his door in the morning. Sometimes, he said, there would half a dozen in line, including many famous ones. The first one or two might make a sale, or even the first three, but, after that, the owner said, he usually lacked the money and was suffering from too much sensory overload to buy anything else. So, at least half the line would have waited hours for nothing.

At the same time, I’ve heard grumbling from several artists. Sometimes, they’re talking about how they feel that a particular gallery has cheated them. But, just as often, it’s grumbling against the gallery system in general. They complain that the galleries sell their work for three times what they were paid for them. And the younger ones especially complain that no major gallery for Northwest Coast art in the province is owned by a member of a first nation (although perhaps Alano Edzerza’s new gallery will change that).

I don’t want to be dramatic, but such scenes make me uncomfortable. Not only are the artists at the hub of the system, but Northwest Coast art is an assertion of identity — both personal and cultural — for many artists. It’s an assertion that, despite everything, they and their culture are still here, and being respected. Yet the scenes are not so different from those associated with day-laboring farm workers. Not that people doing piecemeal work aren’t entitled to dignity – they obviously are – but it seems an added injustice that people who are the main producers, people of real talent and sometimes genius should be subjected to this kind of treatment. Yet some don’t even feel at home in the places where their work is being displayed.

Not all, of course have this reaction. Some artists are capable of handling the gallery system with skill and finesse. Others hire someone who can do the business of selling for which they personally have no aptitude. Still others either have enough talent or reputation that a gallery will adopt them and do everything in its power to promote them. But many aren’t so lucky, and they resent the situation without feeling that they can do much about it.

I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe galleries can be justified as a form of promotion that ultimately helps artists’ careers. But I’m starting to think that more artists need to learn more about business so that they can hold their own. Or maybe more Northwest Coast artists need to become gallery owners themselves. Others might group together to form an online co-operative and create a market for their work that bypasses the gallery system.

Personally, I am listening to the artists, trying to separate out individual animosities from trends in the hopes of finding which galleries, if any, are the most ethical. I am also starting to wonder if I should be dealing more with the artists directly – although I’m not much for negotiations myself, even if I have some experience with them. It’s not a situation that has clear answers, but I won’t be easy about my art-buying until I have some.

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A carver who has just started selling his work asked me yesterday what I look for in a mask or sculpture. I hadn’t thought beyond the fact that, like any piece of art, a mask must give me a thrill of recognition on first or second glance, so I replied by pointing out what the masks of his that I like best had in common. But sometime in the night, my mind started turning over the question as I slept, and, by morning, I could send him a far more detailed list of what I look for.

A few weeks ago, a gallery owner said to me that a good mask must tell a story. I agree with him, but the way I would phrase things is to say that a good mask must let me see through the artists’ eye. That is, the subject matter must inspire the artist, whether on a personal or a cultural level. I might not know exactly what meaning a mask carries – particularly since some artists still conceal some of the meaning, on the grounds that the meaning is tied up with titles or rights that belong to a particular family. However, I know when that sort of meaning is there, because, if it’s not, a mask is just a piece of wood with a couple of holes in it, and probably designed to sell to tourists.

In addition, the subject matter must be either a new treatment of an old subject or a new subject altogether. For instance, in two-dimensional design, I could live quite happily without ever seeing yet another version of Dogfish Woman based on Charles Edenshaw’s design of over a century ago. But, while I thought I felt the same way about Raven stealing the sun or moon, Alano Edzerza’s “The Thief” (search on the page that the link leads to) proved to me there was still outstanding work to be done on the theme.

Completely new work is more difficult, but there are enough myths that are not depicted these days for dozens, even hundreds of work. For example, ever since Bill Reid did “Raven and the First Men,” that particular creation myth has become the dominant Haida one, despite the fact that at least one alternative exists.

In the execution of a design, my tastes are wide-ranging. I can enjoy equally a modern work that hints at the tradition rather being in it, like much of Ron Telek’s work, or a work done along traditional lines, like some of the work of Henry Green (who, in other moods, can have his own share of innovations).

However, I am still learning my way around the various traditions – so far as an outsider can – so I am on firmer ground when it comes to technique. The artists I most admire, I find, do not carve lines so much as surfaces, giving their work a subtly different orientation from two-dimensional artists. They do not use garish colors or coat the wood as if it was the bottom of a fence post intended to be buried in the ground, opting instead for either blended, subdued colors, like the best of Beau Dick’s masks, or else being content entirely or partially with the bare wood, taking advantage of the bare grain to enhance their carving..

Finally, for me, the best-carved masks are revealed in their finishing details. It is not just a matter of careful sandpapering, or making sure that no stray blobs of paint have fallen unnoticed, although that is part of it. I have seen surprisingly poor finishing on expensive masks in some galleries, with prices that were the same or higher as much more careful work.

However, for a mask to be really first-rate, its artist has to regard the finishing details as another opportunity for creativity. If there is abalone, the pieces should be matched. If a strip of copper is used, it needs to be exactly the right size.

At times, the finishing details alone can make a mask succeed. For instance, there’s an eagle head dress by Norman Tait and Lucinda Turner whose quality is raised even higher than most of their work because of two details: The horse-hair eye lashes that conceal the eyes, creating an impression of blindness, and the random bits of abalone in the carving representing the head feather that occasionally catch the light the way that the highlights of a bird’s feathers sometimes do.

I’m not sure this detailed list is much use to the carver who received it. I assume that he was looking for hints of what might appeal to potential buyers, and I doubt my tastes are typical. For a lot of people, including some collectors, art is a high-priced form of wallpaper, and what they want is something pretty and safe, or possibly simply exotic.

By contrast, what I want is something that catches my imagination and eye in equal measure – something that I can see every day for years and appreciate a line or an imaginative touch. Realizing that I hold this ideal, I suspect that, while my answer may not have useful to the questioner, it has been useful to me in intermittent efforts at self-knowledge.

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After several months of down payments, we’ve added the first mask to our collection of Northwest Coast art: “Spirit Moon Mask” by Ron Joseph Telek.

Telek is a great original – perhaps the great original in Northwest Coast art today. Inspired, they say, by a car accident in which he was legally dead for a few minutes, his work is largely concerned with images of transformation and shamanism. While his work obviously comes out of the northern tradition in British Columbia, it breaks with the tradition as much as it keeps it.

His work is quirky, asymmetrical, and fully of little details, and often more than a little disturbing. I’d call it the carved or sculpted equivalent of a Gothic novel – a dark, romantic, and highly individualistic style. Others have called him the first surrealist of the Northwest Coast, and likened some of his more disturbing images to Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

His imagination alone would make him one of the top carvers and sculptors on the coast today, but Telek is also a painstaking craftsman, much like his uncle Norman Tait, whom he once studied under. Like Tait, Telek is a master of using the grain of the wood to enhance his subject matter.

The same is true when he turns to other materials – there is a walrus tusk he did a couple of years back languishing in a Vancouver gallery which is so eeriely beautiful that it had to be moved further away from another piece of ivory so as not to outshine it.

Another characteristic of Telek’s work is that, in contrast to what might almost seem his imaginative excess, his finishing details are always meticulous and restrained – you won’t find any tarting up of a mask with rings of unmatched abalone or endless cascades of horse hair in Telek’s work, the way you do in less talented artists. And you never do see paint, which other artists sometimes cake on to hide defects. Like Tait, if Telek adds a finishing detail, it’s for effect.

And if all this wasn’t enough, Telek’s imagination seems endless. Other artists may have periods in their development, in which work after work resembles each other, but Telek’s periods don’t seem to last for more than a piece or two before he moves on to something new. Possibly, this restlessness works against him in the galleries, where many buyers want something familiar, but, I prefer to think of it as one more sign of an inventive and agile mind.

“Spirit Moon Mask” is one of Telek’s smaller, tamer pieces, but it strikes an interesting balance between tradition and the west coast contemporary style of architecture. But the type of odd details that make his other work so lively are there. The wall-eye, the bit of abalone that could either be a nose-piercing or a wound, the strained-looking cheekbones, the arms of the spirit rising from the moon that look like tentacles, the spirit’s arched back and round-mouthed scream — for such a simple piece, the number of unusual touches crammed into the mask is overwhelming.

Since our townhouse is small, we had been thinking of limiting ourselves to one work by each artist who attracted our attention. But, already, we are talking about making an exception in Telek’s case. Perhaps, too, we’ll save for eight or nine months and buy one of his really big works, even if we have to rent the townhouse next door to display it properly. Frankly, we’re hooked.

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As I wrote a few months ago, how a building is used can create an atmosphere. A hospital, for instance, nearly always make you uncomfortable, even if you are not involved in anything going on there. After thinking for a couple of weeks, I can think this same truism helps to explain the appeal of buying art.

For me, buying art is not an investment. Nor is it a hobby like collecting coins or stamps, in which you try to collect a complete set. Still less is it a sense of ownership; I firmly believe, for instance, that you should not buy art that you have no room to display properly, which is why we wouldn’t buy a Northwest Coast button blanket – even if we could afford it. We simply don’t have the fifty square feet of wall space to display one properly.
Instead, buying art is an effort – a slow, piece by piece one, in our case – to transform the atmosphere of our living space. Consciously or unconsciously, everyone does something similar if they live in one place long enough.

But, in most cases, furnishings are chosen because they are comforting or show an awareness of the latest trend. You find very few people, even interior designers, who create rooms that are a bold statement of personality or aspirations.

About the closest you usually get to such a declaration are the people who buy an antique house and spend years living with sawdust and the noise of construction until they have refurbished it into as close a replica of the original as modern tastes can stand. In effect, such people make the house itself a work of art.

Living in a townhouse, I’m not in a position to do that. Nor do I have the tolerance for breathing dust and living with table saws and lathes for years on end. But, what I can do is decorate my living space with what I think is the most inspirational or provocative art that I can afford.

Some of the art that we have bought or hoped to buy is not comfortable – some of it makes people whose idea of decorating is pretty pictures very uneasy. But what it all has in common is that it is the product of the human mind at its best, If some of it is challenging, that is all the better, so far as I am concerned. I want to be challenged and inspired by the best as I go about my daily business. I don’t want merely pretty pictures.

In fact, I am convinced that you are better for surrounding yourself by art. Where a prison or a hospital upsets, art soothes and relaxes. It makes you more observant as, living with a piece day by day, you slowly unravel the secret of why it is a triumph of design. It also, I find, inspires you to live up to it, not only in little ways, like trying to keep the place neater so it is a suitable environment for the art, but also in large ways by challenging you to do your best in your work or pastimes, to make yourself worthy of your surroundings.

That is why those who think that art is only the concern of a small elite, as well as those who mistake art for fashion are both wrong. Art, like exercise, is good for everybody, and you can’t replace excellence with conformity. Really, it’s as simple as that.

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This weekend, I scouted the Northwest Coast galleries around the south end of the Granville Bridge. Here are my impressions:

  • Eagle Spirit Gallery: Located on the edge of Granville Island, this gallery is one of the pleasanter viewing areas that I’ve seen, with lots of natural light and indirect sun. It seems aimed at the corporate or public buyer rather than the individual, with many larger-than-life plaques, masks, and sculptures. Its selection includes some of Robert Davidson’s recent sculptures (which you don’t see much of), as well as works by Lyle Campbell, but, for me, Francis Horne, Sr.’s “Spirit Raven” was the only really exceptional piece. Even browsing casually, I saw a surprising lack of finishing detail on some pieces, including some by artists whose work is usually more polished. In general, the selection seemed a little too safe for my taste.
  • Edzerza Gallery: I discovered this gallery by accident, occupying the space that used to be occupied by the Bentbox Gallery, a block from Granville Island. Owned by the young artist Alano Edzerza, it displays mostly his prints and jewelry, but includes selected pieces from up and coming artists. For a young artist, running your own gallery seems a daring move, but, I’m proof that it pays off, since it means that I noticed Edzerza’s work for the first time, and he’s now on my list of artists whose work I want to buy. While I was there, I also met another artist whose work I admire. The selection is relatively small, but I am sure that I’ll be coming back, both to support the venture and to buy.
  • Latimer Gallery: A block from the Edzerza Gallery, the Latimer features moderately priced limited edition prints, masks, and jewelry I remember this gallery as being more touristy than it was today, so either my memory is faulty or else its stock has gone upscale a little. I had no trouble finding some small treasures, including some old Bill Reid prints, and some very affordable crayon sketches by Beau Dick. I don’t think I’ll be a frequent visitor at the Latimer Gallery, but I will be dropping by now and then to check what they have.
  • Douglas Reynolds Gallery: Located in gallery row a block up from the south end of the bridge, this shop is aimed at the high end of the market. Besides the inevitable Robert Davidson and Susan Point prints, it includes a number of masks by Beau Dick, and at least two striking wall plaques by Don Yeomans. It also includes a selection of gold and silver bracelets, rings, and earrings, including a few small pieces by Gwaai Edenshaw. The stock seemed a little safe to me, but was adventurous enough here and there to make me want to return occasionally.
  • There are still Northwest Coast galleries I haven’t visited in Vancouver, but these four, together with the ones I visited last week in Gastown, are some of the better known ones. Besides finding which galleries seemed right for my own art buying, visiting a number of them has helped me to understand the market a bit better, including such as who are the established and upcoming artists, and what are the going prices for each artists’ work. This knowledge makes my visits well worth the effort, especially since you can easily see a number of galleries in an afternoon without doing much travelling.

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Years ago, when we were buying Northwest Coast limited edition prints, our main criteria was often whether our budget could stretch to buying one. That is still a consideration, since although we have more spare cash than we did then, we are still far from wealthy. Besides, I’m born of Depression-era parents, so getting value for my money is as reflexive as breathing to me. But, the limited budget aside, I am starting to articulate my philosophy for buying art.

To begin with, I will buy nothing that I don’t like. I am not buying for an investment, even if it is at the back of my mind that in four or five decades I might be glad to be able to sell a few pieces so that I can buy the necessities of life. I am buying to bring a new strain of enjoyment into my daily life, something that can catch my straying glance or surprise me with its line or color or concept when I rediscover it in passing. I suppose you could say that I am more of an aficionado than a collector.

Second, I am not much interested in safe art that does what I have seen before. Some people want safe art as a kind of wallpaper, and there is no shortage of artists to provide it. But I want art that challenges or provokes me in some way. For example, one mask by Norman Tait has long eyelashes of hair that cover the eyes, giving a disturbing sense of blindness, or, perhaps more accurately, the sense of someone peering out from behind the illusion of blindness. The mask unsettles me, to say the least. If I can ever afford the mask, I’ll probably buy it, just so I can wrestle with why it makes me uneasy – and I’m guessing that understanding my reaction will take years. I’m fascinated with the surrealism of Ron Telek’s sculptures for much the same reason.

These two principles lead naturally to a third: I will not buy a piece simply because of the artist’s reputation. For one thing, buying work by artists like Robert Davidson or Susan Point, as talented as they are, is like buying Sony hardware – you are paying a premium for the name (or perhaps I should say brand).

More importantly, buying for the name means that you are letting someone else do your thinking for you, that you are becoming a consumer. Seduced by the name, you could just as easily buy a good piece as a bad, and third rate art by a first rate artist is still third rate. I consider art the antithesis of consumerism, so I refuse to hunt for art by brand.

That’s not to say that I reject buying anything by well-established artists. Currently, I have my eye on half a dozen well-known artists whose work intrigues me enough that I might buy one of their pieces if I find the right one. But I would rather wait for that right piece than buy something that pleases me less – even if I never find that right piece.

As a corollary to that third principle, I would rather find small masterpieces by lesser known artists than buy a piece from someone with an existing reputation. In the same way that I would rather discover a small, ethnic cafe with superlative food than eat at the latest trendy restaurant, I would rather find a largely unknown carver with superb finishing details or a quirky piece outside what a famous artist is known for than buy something safe and famous.

It’s not that I want a bargain, because I could just as easily wind up overpaying as finding a strong investment. Rather, half the fun of strolling the galleries for me is to find the unusual and go beyond the commonplace. Northwest Coast is an especially appropriate field for this habit, because it is full of newcomers, all determined to make their names – and many of them are succeeding. The discovery of such artists and their works is one of the pleasures of appreciating it.

Looking back, I’m afraid that these principles sound hopelessly unaesthetic, to say nothing of overly-suspicious and in the worst middle-class traditions. Tell you what, though: I bet that they give me more pleasure than buying from the exhibit book does for a dozen wealthier connoisseurs.

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