Walking into the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall for the Affordable Art Fair, one is struck by the radiant and lively atmosphere. Replacing the expanse of the typically dingy hall are booths upon booths, nearly reaching the ceiling, of white, well-lit art displays. Complete with a lounge in the center of the floor, this is no longer an exhibition hall–it is a swanky gallery.
Swanky, yes, but also decidedly un-snobby. Displayed on these walls are hundreds upon hundreds of paintings, photographs, and sculptures, priced from less than $100 to $10,000. Bright pink labels affixed next to artworks indicate pieces under $100, and every piece, no matter the amount, is clearly labelled with a price tag. The goal here is for people to have an easy experience purchasing art. Will Ramsay, founder of the Affordable Art Fair, longed for such a positive experience in the art galleries he visited as a collector. He often felt excluded by the gallery experience, which is how he came up with the idea for the Affordable Art Gallery, back in 1999. “We want to make the process fun, warm, and welcoming,” says Nikki Iacovella, Fair Director. “People might be curious, and it helps that you know how much the pieces are.”
Melissa Netecke, Marketing Manager for the Affordable Art Fair Seattle, adds, “We’re breaking down the barriers.”
The concept has traction. The fair is currently held in 13 cities–some cities hold more than one–with new cities added frequently. In the past two years, Hong Kong, Stockholm, Hamburg, and Seattle have joined the list. “One reason we wanted to be in Seattle is that it has an amazing art scene,” says Iacovella. “We couldn’t do the show without the local art scene behind us.” As for future plans for expansion, Iacovella points out that the AAF is outgrowing the Exhibition Hall space, featuring 10 more artists than last year.
So who shops for art at an Affordable Art Fair? The crowd is diverse. Melissa points out, “You might be young, holding your first or second job, like I was when I bought my first piece. It cost $75. I knew I could afford that.” Others enjoy buying art from up-and-coming artists, then watching as their career takes off. “You don’t know where that artist is going to end up,” says Iacovella.
“One couple went to the New York art fair right after their wedding,” says Netecke. “They came again, every year, for their anniversary. Each year, they buy a new piece. When you get more income through the years, you ‘graduate.'”
Several events going on this weekend highlight the importance and accessibility of art. Collaborating with the fair, Junior League will provide children’s programming through the weekend (ages 4+, free admission for children under 12). On Sunday, a Seattle artist named Jean Bradbury will speak about her latest project. She worked with Syrian refugees in a camp in Jordan, helping children and adults make their own art pieces.
Several of the pieces on display seem to have provided a form of therapy for the budding Syrian artists. At a quick glance, the drawings are innocent–your average child’s drawing of a house, a tree, and a family. The labels on the wall tell a different story: the house was destroyed, the family members all gone. This section of the fair is a vivid reminder of the vital importance of art as a human endeavor. “This ties into our ethos of educating young children,” says Iacovella, “and an international humanitarian perspective.” Guests are invited to donate to Bradbury’s website.
Talking with Iacovella and Netecke, it’s easy to understand their passion for this field. Says Netecke, “Falling in love with a piece is instantaneous.” Adds Iacovella, “You get hooked. You get bitten by the bug.”