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Q and A with Portland art maven Elizabeth Leach

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

ElizabethLeach
PHOTO BY MICHAEL HALLE

In 1981, when Elizabeth Leach opened her gallery, there were only a handful of other art galleries in Portland’s Pearl District. There are now 60 and Leach has become the beating heart of the Pearl’s ever-evolving art scene. She serves on the board of the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and has played roles in the development of PCVA and PICA. The art history student who says she learned her business savvy from her father at the dining room table could now teach a few lessons on success of her own. On a recent tour of her gallery, the nationally regarded Leach spoke about the recession’s impact on Portland’s art industry.

Q A recent Sotheby’s auction saw many well-known artists’ work go unsold. Could art auctions start to look more like “half-off sales?” Is the art market’s temperature cooling?

A With certain artists, if the quality is good, the value of the work is always going to be there. The impressionists have been doing pretty well. It’s the modern and contemporary that everyone’s been passing on. Overall, though, it’s definitely a good time to buy. If you have cash and you’re liquid, you can go into the market and negotiate good prices.

Q Were prices inflated because people were looking at art as an investment?

A Well, there was a lot of cash in this country. Alan Greenspan let a lot of cash out. I think people wanted to buy, and they bought what their friends were buying. And they weren’t as educated or knowledgeable about what they were buying. $50,000 didn’t seem like a lot of money to these people at that time because there was a lot of cash flowing. But I never suggest buying art as an investment. You buy art because you love it; you want to live with it. Definitely there is art that will appreciate with time. But always buy art because you want to live with it.

Q What trends are taking shape with collectors in Portland?

A Nationally, painting is coming back. But in Portland painting has always been in. People in the Northwest are buying what they like. Most sales here are under $10,000, and that’s a comfortable price point for many people. Portland’s always been a fairly conservative market. It’s always been about paintings, sculpture and works on paper.

Q Best advice to your clients?

A First, you want to determine what people are looking for and why. Some people have a new home and are decorating, so you want to help them find something they like. I’m always looking and trying to find things before they pop. There are young artists out there that you can – and I hate to use this word – speculate on. I show my collectors what I’m doing, and present options to them. If they’re interested, they’ll buy. But you’ve got to know what they like.

Q If and when we climb out of this recession, what will be the biggest change in art dealing?

A We will climb out of this recession! But we’ll certainly see some people go out of business. We’ve seen this before: Boom and then bang. 2001 wasn’t so bad because it didn’t last. But I’m not too sure what will happen this time.

CHRIS MILLER


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