SAM Gallery Turns 40

SAM Gallery exhibitions director Barbara Shaiman (right) shows off the rentable art
SAM Gallery exhibitions director Barbara Shaiman (right) shows off the rentable art

In the dating world, many consider the three-month mark a pivotal moment—when paramours have learned enough about each other to decide whether it’s worth going forward or cutting bait. As it turns out, that time frame makes sense for art lovers, too. SAM Gallery, Seattle Art Museum’s rental and sales sibling (housed in the Seattle Tower, just a few blocks away), has been helping people ease into art relationships for the last 40 years, renting out works by contemporary local artists for three-month stints. It’s the only Seattle gallery that offers a rental option, but it seems like a natural to manager Jody Bento. “People need to spend some time with art,” she says, “and figure out if they’re in love.”

Love can’t be forced, of course, and even Bento, who’s worked at the gallery for 13 years, admits she’s had whirlwind affairs with certain paintings that, after a few months, fizzled. But there are plenty of other fish in the sea: SAM Gallery has more than 1,000 artworks for rent (a SAM membership is required, and available on the spot), about half of which—paintings, photography, drawings, limited-edition prints and mixed-media works—are off-site, being rented by individuals or businesses, at any given time. Some 200 artists are on the current roster, all from the Northwest. Bento says that since the gallery’s inception (as the “rental loft” in the Modern Art Pavilion at Seattle Center), “The mission has always been to support local art and artists.”

Exhibitions director Barbara Shaiman, who has been with the gallery a whopping 24 years, was the first paid curator. “Over time, SAM Gallery has put millions of dollars into artists’ hands,” she says, and in so doing, “We contribute to a thriving local arts community.”

It works like this: Artists selected for the gallery (by Shaiman) set the selling price for their work, based on which the gallery sets a price for a three-month rental (always less than 10 percent of the full price). A small watercolor portrait by Claire Cowie, for example, sells for $1,625 total, or $137 for a three-month rental; a large-scale photograph by Bailey Russel sells for $2,400, and costs $192 to rent for three months. At the end of that period, renters can either return the piece, buy it (at least half of the rental price goes toward the purchase; payment plans are also an option), or renew the rental agreement once, for a total of six months. In addition to getting a percentage of each sale, the artist gets a percentage (based on a sliding scale) of each rental—which can be a big boon for artists whose work tends to get rented over and over again by different parties.

“It brings in a lot of income for artists,” Bento says. “It can generate the equivalent of a paycheck.” Patrick LoCicero, a Seattle collage painter who’s had his work at SAM Gallery for several years, often has six to eight works rented out at one time. “I receive a rental check every month from various clients,” he says, “from private first-time collectors to large-scale businesses.” Local photographer Mel Curtis has worked with SAM Gallery since the late 1980s and says experience has taught him that it takes “about five three-month rentals to cover the production costs for one piece.” Over the years he’s had to face the disappointment of bringing the gallery a piece that never gets rented, but says, “On the other hand, I have several pieces that have rented well for years, and those are little cash cows.”

Painter Kate Protage emphasizes that for artists, the advantages of the rental system aren’t just financial. Since SAM Gallery rents work to businesses, artwork gets rotated into the lobbies of places such as the Alexis Hotel, Washington Athletic Club and the Washington State Convention Center—which amounts to countless eyeballs seeing it. “People’s awareness of my work has increased exponentially since I started working with [SAM Gallery],” Protage says. “Placement of one of my paintings in a public place results in a surprising amount of outreach, which leads to sales—not just of the piece that’s hanging but also other work—which leads to referrals, and more sales…It keeps paying out.”

Ryan Molenkamp, a Seattle painter who’s been with the gallery since 2011, echoes the sentiment: “I’d love to sell every work immediately after my last brush stroke, but in the real world, this model pays all kinds of dividends,” he says. “If someone rents a painting of mine and hangs it in the lobby of their office, and tons of people come through and see that work—then what is that worth?”

The rental system also keeps the gallery inventory fresh, and allows Bento and Shaiman to showcase different artists. The Introductions show, which takes place once or twice a year, highlights artists new to the gallery. For the 40th anniversary edition, the duo wanted to emphasize both aspects of what they do—support established artists and give emerging ones a try. So they invited five of their current artists to pick one each of their favorite up-and-comers. Called Artists’ Choice, the show will be a vibrant mix of work by all 10. While it’s not likely that all five new artists will end up on the gallery’s roster, Bento says, “A little experimentation is a good thing.”


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