One of the great pleasures that many of Ecuador’s expats discover in their adopted country is art collecting. Even those who were not collectors back home take up the habit, smitten by the quality, variety, and sheer emotional force of the talent in this small Andean country. Another inducement is that good Ecuadorian art is remarkably inexpensive. 

Although collectors will find high-quality work in all parts of the country, the best place to look is in the mountains. Often referred to as the Andean Craft Trail, the route from Ibarra in the north, to Cuenca in the south, offers an artistic treasure trove for those willing to put in the leg work. That bounty represent thousands of years of history and a rich continuum of tradition. 

Ecuador’s modern artistic tradition began with the Spanish in the early 16th century, and the country quickly became the arts center of colonial Latin America. What became known as the Quito School and, later, the Cuenca School, were founded by Spanish priests and missionaries, using native artisans to produce religious paintings and sculpture. Although the schools’ early works were mostly European recreations, the Spanish soon recognized the artistry of indigenous imagery and techniques and these became widely incorporated into Ecuadorian artwork by the beginning of 17th century. 

The great Ecuadorian painters of the 20th century, including Oswaldo Guayasamín, Eduardo Kingman, and Endara Crow, continued to draw on indigenous as well as European themes, their work often expressing the tensions between the two cultures. The tradition of cultural conflict continues to be motivating force today.

Writing in the German newspaper Der Spiegel in May, German art critic Otto Kirchner noted the richness of Andean themes: “In Europe and North America, most artists turn inward for their imagery and the work tends to be psychological, dark, and often boring. Ecuadorian themes are vital and dynamic, drawing on deeply felt cultural conflict.”

In Ecuador to review Cuenca’s Bienal, Latin America’s largest art exhibition and juried competition, Kirchner wrote: “Browsing the galleries in Quito and Cuenca I am struck not only by the exceptional quality but also by the low prices. Here, collectors can purchase paintings at a fraction of what they would pay for comparable work in Europe.”

Although you’ll find high-quality art in all parts of Ecuador, Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil probably offer the best concentration of galleries, exhibitions, and art festivals. Many galleries are located in tourist areas.

Several contemporary Ecuadorian artists worth checking out are Oswaldo Viteri and Ana Isabel Bustamante in Quito, Ignacio Silva in Guayaquil, and Edgar Carrasco, Lanner and Ariel Dawi in Cuenca. All have international reputations and their work is widely available.

For the collector of high-end crafts, Ecuador offers a similar treasure trove … and more bargains. Among the offerings are ceramic pottery, musical instruments, woodcarvings, jewelry, ceremonial masks, religious icons, and textiles.

Small towns outside of Quito and Cuenca are fertile hunting grounds for the craft collector. In Otavalo, a two-hour drive north of Quito, you’ll find a variety of carved, ceramic, woven, and painted crafts. Cotacahci, just outside of Otavalo, offers fine leather goods and wooden, polychromed religious statuary. Farther north, around the central square of San Antonio de Ibarra, you’ll find dozens of shops specializing in museum-quality woodcarvings. Just south of the Colombian border, in the provinces of Imbabura and Carchi, the richly detailed ceramic masks made by descendants of African slaves are also attracting buyers.

Cuenca and surrounding towns provide a mother lode of exceptional crafts. You’ll find metal and ceramic sculpture, hand-made dinnerware, and Panama hats in Cuenca; ikat fabric art in Gualaceao; silver filigree sculpture and jewelry in Chordeleg; and ceramics and musical instruments in Sig Sig and San Bartelame.

The same rules apply to an Ecuadorian art collection as to any other. Put in the legwork and research to make sure you know what you’re buying, and, if you are buying a recognized, more expensive artist, make sure you’re getting the real thing and ask for a certificate of authenticity. Art professors in Quito and Cuenca will be happy to assist you in your efforts. Concentrate on a style and time period. If you’re more ambitious, consider making yours an Andean collection, including work from Peru and Colombia.

Most of all, buy what you like. You’ll find plenty to choose from in Ecuador.

By David Morrill; Condensed from an article published in the Los Angels Times, 2006; photo captions: Mosaic by Romanian - Ecuadorian artist Liza Wheeler; oil by Endara Crow