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The Business of Art


May 2014

Written By
Lauren Hunsberger

Michael Matti

Gunnar Nordstrom's Gallery photo

When the economy struggles, mid-range art gallery owners are among the first to feel the impact. Local art expert Gunnar Nordstrom shares the story of how a little whimsy and a lot of smarts helped him survive the most recent storm.

The Gunnar Nordstrom Gallery currently resides in Bellevue Place, an upscale shopping district. The space is modern, clean and crisp with white walls and large windows. Nordstrom says it’s the perfect place for him now, although it’s a far cry from the business he started almost three decades ago. 

“It was the early ‘80s when I started, and the art collecting world was exciting,” he says. After a few years of operating out of a small office in Bellevue, Nordstrom opened an art gallery in Kirkland. 

“I was located on the marina. I had a 30-foot sailboat that I kept behind the gallery and my cordless phone would reach out to the boat,” he says. Back then, he explains, this was how the local art community and industry operated. 

Gunnar Nordstrom“Kirkland was known as the arts community of the Northwest,” he says. “Try to find that many bronzes in any other city; you can’t do it. There were 17 galleries, regular art walks and events, people coming from all over.” 

Nordstrom was also an active member of the downtown association, which he says supported a thriving local arts scene that everyone in the community could enjoy. The personal, community-centered approach to the art business was perfect for what Nordstrom envisioned.

“I’ve always been a middle class gallery,” Nordstrom says. “While I have billionaire and millionaire clients, the predominant source of collectors is mid-range.”

He decided to go with this approach because he says the most rewarding part of his job is helping average people acquire art that has a positive impact on their lives. “It brings me a great amount of pleasure to allow people to own something that they really wanted,” he says. “It has somehow made an impact on them through emotion. It has created some impact on their lives.”

While this was a good model for both the middle class art collectors as well as for Nordstrom during the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was tough to sustain as times began to change. “We saw from the 2000 stock market and tech market crash, people’s attitude changed,” he says. “In retail markets, when something happens, people clam up. … Being a small business owner, I feel every ripple.”

Within a short period of time, Nordstrom understood the art retail business had changed forever. And that meant he had to change with it or go the way of many small, independent galleries during that time and close the doors.

“I learned the art business from a retail merchandising standpoint as opposed to a purely aesthetic approach,” Nordstrom says.

And from a retail perspective, he decided he needed to do two things to make sure
he survived the economic storm. The first was to make a move. He says as the recession lagged on, less and less people came to Kirkland for art.

“The location became hugely important. I needed to have a location with traffic as opposed to being a destination,” he says. So in 2008, Nordstrom made the jump from the sleepy waterfront gallery in Kirkland to a shiny new gallery in Bellevue. To this day, he says he believes it was the best decision.

“There were 17 galleries in Kirkland in 1999. When I left [in 2008] there were two,” he says. “And I was there a good eight years longer than I should have been."

Gunnar Nordstrom galleryHis other focus was to craft his collection for a changing audience. While he maintained access to works by blue chips artists like Chuck Close and Andy Warhol, he needed a body of work that would raise people’s spirits, while being affordable and also still be new and exciting.

“There’s a different mindset in being an art for art sake dealer, or a highly merchandized, retail-orientated gallery,” Nordstrom says. “People make decisions about art based on economics, what they can afford, but more so what it does for them, how it impacts them.”

Among the many featured works he refers to as “whimsical,” the latest example of his vision and direction for the gallery was the Art of Dr. Suess exhibit, which features highly collectible, limited edition replications of the author and illustrator’s personal works.

“I kept them in the window, and immediately I started getting hotel guests in,” Nordstrom says, adding that they hit all the right notes. Clients are already familiar and have an association with the artist, and they are reasonably priced.

Six years after the move, Nordstrom says he continues to struggle at times, and that things aren’t exactly back to where they were in his early days.

“Auction markets worldwide couldn’t be better, but the middle-class galleries are struggling. They are still closing across the country in rampant numbers. … Galleries that have been in business 30 years,” Nordstrom says.

But, he’s hopeful that the emotional power of art will prevail and keep people active in the Pacific Northwest art scene.

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