There are jobs. And there are jobs. Jobs have—or used to have—stability, benefits and boundaries. Jobs have panache.
And Gunnar Nordstrom has a job.
Falling somewhere on the spectrum between fashion model and international spy, art dealer has that intangible allure as a cultural gatekeeper. Tailored suits. Exclusive parties. Cheese!
While the reality of running an art gallery might be more wall hanging than jet setting, Gunnar still spends his days surrounded by pretty things. And he throws pretty parties. With pretty people.
But he’s not pretentious about it.
“Call me a merchant if you like,” he said.
Gunnar first opened the Gunnar Nordstrom Gallery in 1991 on the Kirkland waterfront and moved to downtown Bellevue in 2008.
Surprisingly, Gunnar isn’t related to the other local Nordstrom family—the one with the little chain of retail stores. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?
No, Gunnar grew up in the small mill town of Camas, Wash., on the shores of the Columbia River. Although there is a small art community downtown, Camas primarily existed on a rough pulp and paper economic canvas.
Despite these unlikely surroundings, Gunnar gravitated toward art at a young age.
“Even in high school, I had desires of being an art dealer,” he said.
Playing on the high-school tennis team, Gunnar talks about how his first major art purchase trumped sports.
“This was back in the day of wooden racquets, and I saved up to buy my first metal racquet. I went to Portland to the sports store, but there was an art gallery nearby,” he said. “I ended up spending $180 on a painting and didn’t buy the racquet.”
Studying fine art and education at Washington State University, Gunnar points to a trip to Europe as a catalyst to his future career. While most college backpackers are buying beer steins and Eiffel Tower postcards, Gunnar was snapping up Scandinavian art pieces.
“I bought five paintings in Denmark and shipped them home,” he said.
After college, Gunnar moved to Vancouver, Wash., with the intention to become a teacher.
“My goal was to teach art, but most art teachers hold on to their jobs for a long time, so I taught social studies and history,” he said.
Three years later, he moved to Bellevue to be near friends and landed a position at Kenneth Behm Galleries as director.
Although he counts Kenneth Behm as a mentor and friend, Gunnar has a different philosophy on running an art gallery.
“He had a highly merchandised gallery. It’s hard to sell a $50,000 Rembrandt when you have six of them hanging on the wall,” he said. “It’s not simply to be exclusive and snobby. You want to have something for everybody. I don’t want to be so exclusive that I alienate any part of the population, but I still have to show what I like.”
Gunnar’s favorite piece in his gallery as of press time is a painting by Thom Ross of a staid Wyatt Earp in dangerous Tombstone, Ariz., with a double-scoop ice cream in hand. The top scoop is pink.
“It’s actually historically accurate. Wyatt loved ice cream,” Gunnar said. “My tastes have been described as whimsical. I like brightly colored and playful work, but it has to be well crafted.”
As far as sales, Gunnar said it’s all about building relationships. Proving his point, three separate longtime clients swing by the gallery during the interview. They banter with Gunnar. One of them sticks a bottle of wine in the gallery refrigerator. They make plans to meet up later.
Gunnar built his client base through popular events, such as his regular “Vernissage” gatherings for each new artist exhibit opening. Vernissage is the French term used for a preview of an art exhibition. Friends and clients gather for cocktails, wine and a presentation of the art. Likewise, he holds a “Finnisage” when the exhibit is about to close.
“It’s the second best bar in town, because it’s free,” he joked.
When asked about art buying tips, Gunnar has one rule:
“Buy work that you like. Don’t buy artwork just to get something.”