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'We had a source and saw a need': Seattle's Art Lending Library

There’s an old school house in the Delridge neighborhood of West Seattle that, in part, is dedicated to artist live-work spaces. Many of the walls are crammed with original art—mostly paintings, mixed media and photography—that is part of the 80 pieces of artwork in the collection of the Art Lending Library.

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Gina Coffman, co-librarian of the Art Lending Library.

Library co-creator Gina Coffman knew that much of the work of an artist isn't seen and wanted to change that. 

"The idea arose from that there's this surplus of work, and there are a lot of people who don't have access to artwork, who, for one reason or another, don't consider buying original artwork or they may be intimidated by going to a gallery. We saw a niche; we had a source and saw a need,” Coffman said.

Gina and her business partner, fellow artist Flynn Bickley, came up with the idea for the Art Lending Library about four years ago. Every quarter, there’s an Art Borrowing Day where library members get to choose a piece of original art. Local artists get their work circulated. People who might not know a lot about art have a chance to learn what they like and don’t like. And library members have the option to purchase the art.

‘This was the perfect way to bring art into my life’

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Charles Schrag, Art Lending Library member.

Charles Schrag is an art novice. He’s also one of more than 200 Art Lending Library members. He works at the Lazarus Day Center, a homeless shelter, in downtown Seattle. For a while, the Art Lending Library had a storefront space next door to the center.

"When I was in the process of decorating my office, I happened to run into the Art Lending Library and saw all the great art they had,” he said. “And I thought this was the perfect way to bring art into my life and into the lives of my clients. It’s not like going to a gallery and buying a piece of art, but it’s a really great experience. 

"It’s just like when you go to a real library and the book you want isn’t there, and you end up checking out a different book that’s equally good.”

'There’s a sense of respect to the work’

Just like at a public library, as a member of the Art Lending Library, you get a laminated library card. Once you choose a piece of art at a lending day, the librarians then come to your home or place of business, hang the art, and a few months later, come back and remove it. 

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Clockwise from upper left: A Star; A Red Wrap; Knossos; Play with Meow by artist Koji Kubota.

I asked Gina, the librarian, if there were any liabilities in taking an artist's work and giving it to someone they don't really know.

"Well, primarily we know where people live, so that has been our insurance. We have your address,” she said. “We have people's information, but we've found that when we show care for artwork and people know that artist's have donated work to the library, there's a sense of respect to the work."

When Gina and Flynn started the library in 2008, there was only one other art lending library in the country. Since then, they've helped others get off the ground in Chicago and San Francisco. They have dreams of an art lending library on wheels—similar to a book mobile—and hope that someday, they'll be able to quit their day jobs and introduce even more people to the beauty of art. 

The next Art Lending Library check-out day is April 2 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in West Seattle.

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