Visit Seattle Art Fair Like An Art World Insider: Tips from a Critic

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The third annual Seattle Art Fair is at Century Link Event Center this weekend. This is by far the largest art far in the Pacific Northwest, and this is the largest year yet. As you probably know, Team Diva LOVES artists of all stripes. (We even have a couple on our team.) So you can bet we will be there with bells on.

The Seattle Art Fair gives visitors the opportunity to check out thousands of artworks from around the world. Local galleries put some of their strongest work on display, while international galleries find new audiences for their artists. It can be a little overwhelming if you try to do it all…and that is just the main fair! There are lots of other big exhibitions and gallery shows happening around the fair, too.

Our pal T.s. Flock is an art critic who writes for Seattle Weekly and Vanguard Seattle. He answers some questions for all you Divaland art devotees who want to check out the fair, but need a little guidance.


What is the best day to go?

If you can go on Friday, do it. It’s the first full day of the fair, so everyone will be a little fresher, and if you are interested in buying work, you’ll get ahead of the weekend crowd. If you have a VIP pass, you’ll also be able to make better use of it. Last year, people were slow to leave the VIP lounge, so there was often a line to get in later on the weekends. I don’t blame them because the lounge was amazing. We’ll see if they change it up this year.

But really, every day is good. The best is to be there soon after it opens so you can pace yourself.

What is the price range for artwork at the Seattle Art Fair?

You’ll see smaller works for a few hundred dollars, and larger works that…well, if you need to ask, you can’t afford them. Most works fall somewhere in between of course. It’s expensive to make artwork. Good quality materials alone are costly, so when you factor in the time and training required, there’s a good reason that a large painting costs thousands of dollars.

It’s worth noting that many galleries offer payment plans, so you don’t have to pay it all up front. They are more willing to do this when the gallery and buyer live in the same region. There’s less risk involved. That’s something to keep in mind any time you go to a gallery. If you’re serious about buying, it’s okay to ask about these things. Just don’t try to haggle.

Another tip to find more affordable artworks is to go with editioned prints. I always recommend checking out lithography, etchings, etc. to first time collectors. Anything with multiple copies will be more affordable, but with an editioned print, there may only be a dozen or fifty copies made, so you have to weigh that when buying. And when it comes to printmaking, no two prints are truly identical. Print 1 from an etching will be much clearer and crisper than print 50 because plates degrade with each press, but you may find that based on appearance alone you prefer a later press in a print run.

Do you have recommended booths for collectors on a budget?

Yes. For the reasons I just listed above, I say check out Tamarind Institute (Booth D29). They are part of the University of New Mexico, so not a commercial gallery. In past years, they have had a beautiful selection of really accessible works, and they are really friendly.

Another really friendly gallery is KOKI Arts (Booth A19) from Tokyo. They did really well-selling works by Ryoichi Nakamura last year, and they are back with more. Nakamura makes these melancholy portraits by taking vintage photos of children and transferring them onto copper plate via photo emulsion. The transfer is imperfect, so you see streaks of copper cutting through the blurred image. It’s haunting.

What are some of the big booths to see this year?

There’s been all this buzz about Kurt Cobain’s artwork. The New York Times wrote it up. Two small works by him will be at the UTA Artist Space booth (B13). If you are into grunge nostalgia, it’s worth the pilgrimage, I guess.

Blue-chip galleries like Pace, Gagosian, and Zwirner will have big, beautiful, pricey stuff. They are hard to miss because they are usually right near the entrance. One of my favorite booths each year is the Forum Gallery booth (D12). It’s always a really elegant presentation and the works are gorgeous. Same goes for Sundaram Tagore (Booth C18).

I got a peek at the model for James Harris Gallery‘s booth (Booth A4) the other day, and it will be amazing, too. Harris has one of only two free standing booths in the fair, and he is using every bit he can in a really thoughtful way.

I also recommend Rebecca Hossack Gallery (booth B27). For the third year, they are bringing works by Phil Shaw. He makes these large, manipulated photographic prints of bookshelves in which all the titles on the book bindings are cheeky or parodic in some way. As art goes, it’s all a little too clever for my taste. All the same, a crowd will form around the works to chuckle over the titles, and I’m right there with them.

What are the other big highlights?

Seattle Art Fair’s artistic director, Laura Fried, has put together an interesting array of performances, talks, and installations. To be honest, unless you are a die-hard art lover, you can probably skip the talks. And as for the performances, the wildest one in the bunch is actually happening outside of Century Link Event Center. Two artists, Erika Vogt and Dylan Mira, are doing this gonzo immersive installation at Union Station. It’s called Pool and it’s inspired by ancient bathhouses. I’m still not sure how it will look, sound, and smell, but I’m very curious.

Finally, what advice do you have for people who feel awkward walking into booths and art galleries?

It can be awkward, I know. You are in this enclosed space with another human being, but your attention is focused on the artworks, some of which are inscrutable. At some of the booths, the dealers will be standing and greeting people. At others, they’ll be playing on their phones, waiting to be spoken to first. In both cases, they are trying to put visitors at ease. The first group is making people feel welcome. The other is trying to not come off as pushy.

Naturally, they want to sell art. Fairs are expensive and time-consuming for galleries. Just remember that the vast majority of them are in the business because they love art and they want to support artists, so the conversation can stay in that realm and they’ll be happy. That’s less true for the really big galleries, to be perfectly honest. But most of the galleries at the fair work directly with their artists, and they want people to see the work and fall in love with it. Relatively few people can afford to make a snap decision and buy work immediately. Anyone who has ever worked in sales of any kind knows that.

So really, simple etiquette is the key. That sounds very obvious, but it often flies out the window in crowded, busy settings, doesn’t it? If you make eye contact and greet a dealer, you’ll probably hear “Let me know if you have any questions.” If you are curious about something and they aren’t already engaged in conversation, go ahead and ask.

Maybe they’ll ask you if you know about an artist’s work when you’re looking at a piece. It’s okay to say No if you don’t. They’ll probably want to tell you more, and even if I haven’t liked an artist’s work very much, it’s always nice to learn something new. It’s a great way to learn how to look at art, hearing the stories behind pieces while you are with them. So even if you don’t end up taking a new piece home, you’ll go home a little smarter about these things.