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Art for Sale Instructional Theory into Practice By: Serifatu Alaka Introduction

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art for sale

Art for Sale

Instructional Theory into Practice

By: Serifatu Alaka


Your art brokerage firm has been contacted by a rich entrepreneur. She made millions of dollars developing computer games, but her real interest is art. Currently she owns a vast European art collection including pieces by the famous artists VanGogh, Miro, DaVinci, and Rembrandt. However, her recent travels to the Pacific Northwest have piqued her interest in the cultures of that area. She has decided to add three pieces from that region to her collection. It is your job to research the art of the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, and other tribes of the Northwest Coast and to select three pieces from that culture to add to her collection.


Your client makes a habit of spending her money wisely and has therefore approached several different firms with this task. Select three artworks: one that reflects the Northwest Coast natives' religious beliefs; one that communicates social status; and one that is functional. Prepare a presentation that will persuade your client to contract with your brokerage firm. Include the following in your presentation:

  • A brief history of the people and art from the region
  • A map of the Northwest Coast region indicating where the main tribes live
  • A chart showing how the artists used the elements of art

4. A spreadsheet indicating pricing trends and how your art selections compare


Northwest Coast Natives lived in villages in plank houses. They used canoes to hunt, fish, trade, visit, and make war. Art was not thought of as something extra, but as an important part of everyday life. The people lived in an environment created by the artisans in their village. Northwest Coast symbols adorned oil bowls, pipes, masks, combs, the outside of their houses, and their canoes.

Their sculpture and graphic arts were the "written" record of the people. One purpose for creating the art was to make the spiritual world visible and present to the people. The Northwest coast people believed in animism, an early form of religion.

Another purpose for creating art was to make the social system visible. Emblems were used to distinguish different social groups and to symbolize their history and privileges. They were shown on many material possessions, from ceremonial robes to totem poles. Often these possessions were given away in a ceremony called a potlatch.

background con t
Background con’t

A third reason for the Northwest Coast people creating art was to decorate functional objects, such as food baskets, canoe paddles, eating utensils, and wooden boxes to store blankets and clothes.

Northwest Coast artists distort figures in nature by using only essential parts (i.e., eyes, joints, ears, and feathers) and rearranging (splitting) these parts within the design. (Can you think of a 20th century artist that is known for doing the same thing?) Sometimes the artist put faces in body spaces, ovoid joints, or at the base of an arm, leg, or tail. They also stylized, or simplified shapes as opposed to picturing them in a realistic fashion. Animal and human designs represented either totems or spirits.

some questions to consider about northwest coast art elements as you progress through this project
Some questions to consider about Northwest Coast Art elements as you progress through this project:
  • What main colors do they use?
  • How is their use of line unique?
  • What shape is most commonly used?
  • How do they use space?
  • What texture patterns occur most often in their art?
the process
The Process

Include the following steps in your process:

  • Establish the roles each of your team members will assume: historian, graphic designer, and broker. Select a name for your brokerage firm and design a logo for it.
  • Learn about art brokerage by visiting Art Tips for Collectors.
  • What does an art broker need to know?
  • How does an art broker determine the "fair market value" of an art piece?
  • What is an acceptable commission for an art brokerage firm to charge?
3. Keep a team project journal to record your thoughts, questions, information you find in your search, and where you go to find that information.

4. Prepare a brief history of the people and the art from the Northwest Coast region. First, brainstorm in your team everything you know about that culture. Next, develop questions that would lead you in your search for information, such as:

  • What was the topography of their land like and how did that affect their society?
  • What was their social structure?
  • What were some traditions specific to that culture?
  • What were their relations with surrounding peoples?

5. Create a map showing where the main tribes in the area lived.

6. View examples in the resources listed below. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • What was the purpose for creating the art: religious significance, illustrating social status, or functional?
  • What do you know about the artists who created these works?

7. Create a chart showing how five typical artists used the elements of art (line, shape, space, form, color, and texture) to create their pieces.

8. Create a spreadsheet recording the current pricing trends of masks, totems, jewelry, sculpture, and prints. Based on the data, create a graph of these pricing trends. Once you select art pieces to recommend to your client, indicate where the selections fall on the graph. Provide your client an explanation for their relationship to the mean price.

  • If your selections cost more than the mean, why should it be worth more than the mean?
  • If your selections cost less than the mean, are you getting a deal or is it lacking quality in some aspect?
9. Select the 3 art pieces you recommend for your client. Remember to represent each of the purposes for art in your final group of pieces - religious significance, illustrating social status, or functional. Record your reasoning in your journal to use later in your presentation.

10. Download and print copies of the images you chose.

11. Prepare a presentation persuading the client to choose your firm based on your professional knowledge and understanding of the Northwest Coast culture and art, and your ability to critique this art.

resources visit these places to get information about the northwest coast natives and their art
ResourcesVisit these places to get information about the Northwest Coast natives and their art.


  • The Northwest Connection tells the brief history of the Northwest Coast people in addition to featuring stunning examples of contemporary work. Be sure and check out the "symbols" link.
  • Northwest Coast Tribal Art features both traditional and more "avant" works.
  • Northwest Page offers a collection of Northwest Coast stamps.
  • Island Art Publishers offers a view of the Northwest Coast terrain and wildlife through artists' eyes.
  • Visit the Douglas Reynolds Gallery in Vancouver, British Columbia for fine examples of Northwest Coast art.
  • The Seattle Art Museum hosts a student tour that will give you great background information on the Northwest Coast people.
  • Visit The Royal British Columbia Museum to view historic totem poles.
  • In the Galleries provided by the Alaska State Museum includes exhibitions on Alaska's native peoples and natural history of the area.
  • Pacific Northwest Coast Gambling Game features a traditional Northwest game with game pieces and rules.
  • The American Museum of National History reveals an outstanding example of a Haida Canoe.