Nancy Guppy's Guide to Art Collecting

Having your own art collection doesn’t require a ton of cash and an M.F.A.

Nancy Guppy bought her first work of art at a coffee shop in 1989.

“I was waiting to order and became mesmerized by a painting of this maternal, Madonna-like figure. I loved the colors, and it felt so safe and loving,” Guppy says. The former Almost Live actress paid $600 for the painting and promptly hung it on the wall of the new apartment she shared with her husband, Joe. The purchase, she says, helped her settle into the space. “It was important to create our own aesthetic.”

The Madonna painting was a seed that grew into a passion for art collecting. More than 20 years later, Guppy is the host of the Seattle Channel’s Art Zone program and lives with Joe in a compact two-bedroom condo on Queen Anne. Her home is like a private gallery, where paintings, sculptures, photos and illustrations enliven walls, tables and even the refrigerator.

There’s the oil landscape above the bed that she bought at an artist’s garage sale for $75. There’s a birch log sculpture by Seattle artist Julie Lindell. There’s a “crazy-great” Gregory Blackstock piece, for which the local autistic artist used Sharpies, crayons and colored pencils to draw “all the firecrackers in the world.” Guppy says surrounding herself with original art makes her feel happy and delighted.

And that, she says, is the whole point of art collecting. It is so personal that you can’t worry about what anyone else thinks about the work. “It’s an artist’s idea. It either speaks to you or challenges you or it doesn’t. It’s really a person-to-person communication,” she says.

Guppy and other local art aficionados insist that having your own collection doesn’t require a special education or gobs of money, just a willingness to go with your instincts. So if your own home is decorated with ho-hum posters or mass-market art—or left bare for fear of choosing the “wrong” thing—Seattle’s thriving art scene is an ideal arena in which to begin your own collection.

“When I first started really looking at art and buying, it was pure gut reaction,” says Laurie Kearney, who opened Capitol Hill’s Ghost Gallery in 2010. Formerly an independent art curator, Kearney set a goal with her gallery to help people follow their own guts and feel less intimidated by art buying.

“My whole mission is to make original art more accessible to more people,” she says. Her shop, decorated with vintage chairs and blue and red walls, has a living-room feel. She sells gifts and modestly priced jewelry, paintings and photography.

Shops like Kearney’s are a perfect place to dip your toes into the Seattle art world. Though works at major local galleries can cost $10,000 and upward, here you can buy inexpensive original art and, in the process, train your eye toward what you like. You can find original art for less than $1,000 (and often for less than $200) at galleries such as Ghost, Capitol Hill’s Vermillion, Assemble Gallery & Studio in Phinney Ridge and Twilight in West Seattle. Both Twilight and Ghost Gallery have sections for “cash and carry” art, which can be taken away that day. (In most galleries and cafes, the art is part of a show, meaning you can’t pick it up until the show ends.)

Another low-pressure way to learn about and buy art is to drop in at one of Seattle’s many monthly neighborhood art walks, where cafes and boutiques showcase local work. It’s likely you’ll meet the featured artist, who can enlighten you further about pieces that draw your eye.

For an even more intimate experience, visit open studio hours at artists’ collective workspaces, such as the Tashiro Kaplan Artists Lofts in Pioneer Square—bursting with small studios and galleries—or Equinox Studios in Georgetown.

If you fall for a more expensive gallery piece, it’s often possible to work out a deal, or at least an extended payment plan, for art you can’t live without. Kearney says that’s especially true in the current economy.

“It never hurts to ask,” she says. Many gallery owners or individual artists will allow a buyer to pay over two to four months with no interest. They may also offer a deal if you buy more than one piece.

If the thought of buying art still has you biting your nails, there’s one more possibility: renting. At the Seattle Art Museum’s SAM Gallery, prints, sculptures and photographs by established and emerging Northwest artists are available for loan, some for as low as $35 for three months.

Part of the rental price can be applied to a purchase if you decide later that you want to own it. And if, on your first art foray, you remain skittish about trusting your instincts, SAM Gallery staff offers a free consultation, which can build confidence for your next purchase.

But as art gallery experts reiterate, you don’t necessarily need a consultation to find something that suits you. “Look at the work of art and if it strikes you and makes you feel something, that’s important,” Kearney says. “Go with that.”