Archive for the ‘art galleries’ Category

Not too many years ago, you only had to walk down Government Street in Victoria to find more shops selling Northwest Coast art than you could properly absorb in a day. Looking back, I’m not sure of the quality of some of the shops, but they were there. But times are harder, with many store fronts along Government empty, and now you have to search for galleries.

Descending on Victoria yesterday, these are the galleries we managed to find:

  • Art of Man: Located in the mall in the basis of the Empress Hotel, the Art of Man specializes in Inuit and First Nations masks and sculpture. The pieces for sale included four or five from Ron Telek, including a meter high blue shaman (this from an artist who rarely uses color), and a shaman marionette fending off a spirit attacking his foot with other spirits resting in his hand. Daryl Baker, the nephew of the LaFortune brothers Doug, Perry, and Aubrey, is also represented by highly-detailed designs that border on the surreal, and that are all marked by a close attention to finishing details. The Art of Man also seems to get first pick of Tim Paul’s work – so much so that I realize that only his lesser pieces reach Vancouver. Other artists whose work is available at this gallery are John and Luke Marston, whose work shows an awareness of history that I had never realized before that it possessed. In general, the quality of the work at the Art of Man is extremely high, making it by far the premier gallery of Northwest Coast art in downtown Victoria.
  • Hill’s Native Art: Like the Vancouver store, the Victoria Hills is mainly a tourist shop. However, the Victoria store seems to have a slightly better ratio of art to high-end tourist pieces, as though it gets first choice of all the locations. But perhaps this impression is due partly to the fact that it is less crowded and better lit.
  • Alcheringa Gallery: From the web site, I had the impression that this gallery was huge. The reality, though, is that this is a gallery with only a few of its pieces on display – and about half of those are given to works from Papua New Guinea, which is worth seeing, but doesn’t engage my interest the way that the Northwest Coast tradition does. Still, you can see some works by Tim Paul and John Marston there. I was also interested in seeing two works I had seen on the Internet, one by Ron Telek and another by Dean Heron.
  • Pacific Editions: Unfortunately, this story is closed on Mondays, which meant that we walked six blocks out of our way for nothing. But what we could see through the window confirmed the impression I had from the web site: Pacific Prints has a huge collection of limited editions prints. I look forward to spending a happy few hours there the next time I’m in Victoria.
  • Eagle Feather Gallery: A mixture of art and tourist pieces, this gallery is only a block from the Empress Hotel – but on a side street that you may have trouble finding. It specializes in the work of Doug, Perry, and Aubrey LaFortune, especially Doug (in fact, he was due to drop by the day that we visited, although we missed him). Daryl Baker and Pat Amos also have a couple of pieces, while Francis Dick has at least a dozen 2-D works from throughout his career at the gallery. Whether the gallery is worth a visit probably depends on your opinions of these artists, although its stock gives you a good opportunity of evaluating Doug LaFortune thoroughly.
  • Out of the Mist Gallery: This gallery specializes in antiques. Its modern selection is devoted largely to the Hunt family, and includes a few curios like a mask carved by Richard Hunt when he was a teenager, a formal, somewhat stiff print from the start of Beau Dick’s career, and a two meter-long eagle by Roy Henry Vickers. The quality of the antiques is completely indiscriminate, and includes some pieces from across North America. If your taste runs to antiques in Northwest Coast art, you could probably find something to your taste, but the somewhat dim lightning and the bored staff makes the effort hardly seem worthwhile.

As with previous lists I’ve made of galleries, this one makes no effort to be comprehensive. We did not, for instance, have to visit the Provincial Museum’s gift shop, which I seem to remember as having a few art pieces. So if you know of any other galleries in the Victoria area that might be worth a visit, please add a comment and let me know.

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As I visit Northwest Coast Galleries in Vancouver, I’m starting to notice relations between certain galleries and certain artists. Out of friendship, enthusiasm, long-term business relations, or a combination of all three, some galleries simply carry a better selection of some artists than others.
Here are the specializations I’ve been able to detect so far:

  • Coastal People’s Gallery: This gallery has a good general selection of artists, although it seems to be buying less recently, possibly because it’s overstocked. However, it is the main exhibitor in town of Henry Green, especially for his carved and increasingly colorful panels. Coastal People’s also favors Chester Patrick, a less well-known artist who has done a number of acrylic paintings notable for the complex grouping of characters, as well as panel carving. Since the summer, the gallery’s Gastown store has had space set aside for Patrick to work. I’ve heard at least one patron refer to Patrick as the store’s artist-in-residence, although I don’t know whether the arrangement is formalized.
  • Douglas Reynolds Gallery: Douglas Reynolds seems to have first right of refusal on works by Beau Dick, the Kwaguilth mask-maker and Haida artist Don Yeomans, possibly because the artists have a long friendship with the owner. At any rate, the selection of works by both Dick and Yeomans tends to be larger and more varied than at any other gallery – so much so that, in Yeoman’s case, I tended to think that he was past his creative prime based on his work in other galleries. However, based on what I’ve seen at Douglas Reynolds, that’s far from true; I just wasn’t seeing his best work. This same gallery has also started carrying a good selection of jeweler Gwaii Edenshaw.
  • Edzerza Gallery: As you might expect, this new gallery is mainly a showcase for the work of owner Alano Edzerza. However, it has also had the work of newer artists like Ian Reid and John P. Wilson.
  • Inuit Gallery: The Inuit Gallery seems to have good connection with the North, including Alaska artists like Clarissa Hudson and Norman Jackson, whom many galleries neglect – even though importing First Nations art from the United States is supposed to be duty-free. Recently, it has also had a couple of new masks from Tlingit/ Northern Tutchone artist Eugene Alfred, and a number of playful masks from Kwaguilth carver Simon Dick. Other with whom the gallery seems to have a good relation include Salish artist Jordan Seward and Nuu Chan Nulth artist Les Paul.
  • Sun Spirit Gallery: Located in West Vancouver’s Dundarave strip, this small gallery currently has a strong selection of Klatle-Bhi’s work, particularly masks. Much of this work is in Klatle-Bhi’s apparently favorite white and light-blue palette.
  • Spirit Wrestler Gallery: Robert Davidson seems to offer new works to Spirit Wrestler first, and to have an arrangement with the gallery for prints as well. The gallery also gets the pick of new works by Norman Tait, and currently has more work by Dempsey Bob than any other gallery in town. In addition, the gallery seems to cultivate some of the best of up and coming artists, such as Dean Heron and Sean Hunt, making it more adventuresome that I originally thought from my first visit.

As I was making this list, I realized that it represents my own interests as much as each gallery’s specialization. Very likely, I have left out some specializations either because I am not interested in them or haven’t got around to them yet. Still, it’s useful to know which gallery to go to if you’re interested in a particular artist, so I’ll let the list stand, even while acknowledging that it is probably incomplete.

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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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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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As part of my recently renewed interest in Northwest coast art, I’ve been making the rounds of the local galleries, trying to get a sense of their specialties and whether I want to deal with them. This afternoon, I made the rounds of the Gastown galleries, which are conveniently within a few blocks of each other.

Here are my impressions – partly for my own sake, but also for anyone else who might be interested in Northwest Coast art. I say nothing about the galleries’ Inuit collections, which I am even less qualified to judge:

  • Hill’s Native Art: Coming from the Skytrain, this was the first gallery I came to, and also the one I spent the least time in. It’s basically a high-end tourist shop, and so crowded that the main impression I took away was of art as a commodity. You could probably find some reasonably decent work if you searched, but, you would have to make an effort. Hill’s has a number of two or three meter high totem poles, but if you’re willing to spend over ten thousand, you would be better off spending a little more and buying one from a name artist elsewhere.
  • Spirit Wrestler Gallery: With over two decades of experience and a number of well-regarded shows and books behind it, Spirit Wrestler is at the opposite extreme from Hill’s, appealing to the serious collector with money to invest in art. Its selection of artists is small, but carefully chosen, and it has a varied selection of work from top artists such as Robert Davidson, Norman Tait, and Susan Point. Currently, it has more Tlingit work than any other gallery that I’ve seen, and a small but select collection of bracelets. The gallery also sells (but does not always display) pieces that have just come upon the market again, so a serious collector might want to keep in touch to hear what is available. The gallery also contains a few Maori works, which should interest many people who have a passion for Northwest Coast art, since the two cultures have a lot of similarities. It’s perhaps the premier gallery in the field in Vancouver, and deservedly so.
  • Inuit Gallery of Vancouver: This gallery has no more than a fifth of its space devoted to Northwest Coast art. It does not carry jewelry, but does include a collection of Northwest Coast masks and prints, as well as some other forms of carving mostly from the Nuu-chah-nulth and Salish nations. Although the selection of artists is comparatively small, you can find some interesting pieces without searching hard.
  • Coastal Peoples Gallery: In many ways, Coastal Peoples is the most interesting of the galleries in Vancouver. In both its Yaletown and Gastown locations, it carries everything from high-end tourist pieces to work that will appeal to museums and connoisseurs. To make things even more interesting, Coastal Peoples has by far the broadest range of artists of the four galleries mentioned here, with up-and-coming artists as well as established ones represented. The newer artists are especially interesting if you have any understanding of what you are buying, because their work is reasonably priced and some of it will undoubtedly rise rapidly in value. The jewelry on display is especially fine, especially in gold, and so is the sculpture, including everything from desktop pieces to bentwood boxes and three meter poles. The sheer variety at Coastal People’s is amazing, and is one of the reasons why the gallery is my current favorite.

There are, of course, other galleries that carry Northwest Coast art outside of Gastown in Vancouver. But they will be a subject for another day.

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