Survival of the Hippest

Galleries now face bigger challenges to stay afloat.

Suddenly it's 2003 — a time to look back in anger or forward with renewed hope. Chances are we'll do both.As if 2001 didn't deliver enough grief for a lifetime, 2002 spawned the worst American economy in three decades, record unemployment and colossal corporate corruption. And now — like a distant drumbeat slowly closing in on us — the war machine revs up.

Ominous vibes for a New Year.

Ditto for an art world that's highly susceptible to a slumping economy. Once again, an imploding Wall Street signals that this time around is no exception.

On the national and international front, shrinking art budgets mean severe belt tightening. The word Guggenheim became a metaphor for grand possibilities. Once cheered as an ambitious concept to export art beyond the museum's New York base, it's now synonymous with overzealous globalization. Whether we were in the cheering section or siding with the skeptics, we're watching it unravel, as are their satellite museums and plans for a Big Apple Gehry-designed mega-facility. Closer to home, the latest retrospective of Aripeka's Jim Rosenquist, originally scheduled for the NYC Guggenheim in October 2002, was scrapped. It's now planned for May 2003 at two non-Guggenheim museums in Houston.

All this trickle-down budget-snipping means the seemingly unabated national museum-building spree and trophy architecture is also over. Or at least significantly scaled back.

To pervert a popular adage: When the going gets tough, the art world finds it tough going.

Even so, it's not all doom and gloom out there. Miami Herald art critic Elisa Turner reports Art Basel's stunning sales and talk of a possible Whitney satellite right in downtown Miami. Of course we don't know the art buyers' identities — whether they're individuals, galleries, or museums and institutions with still-secure art budgets. Nevertheless, it seems that economic uncertainty is still countered by a liberal dose of America's good old optimist spirit.

How does all this translate into the local art scene?

New galleries keep popping up despite odds against survival. And we really take them too much for granted.

Here's a heads-up on two new galleries and two that have folded.

Among promising local venues, Tampa's brand-new, 6,500-square-foot Beaker Gallery is a standout. Its' uncrowded walls and floor exude a nearly Spartan cosmopolitan ambiance, comfortable but with no sense of urgency to over-pack the space. It occupies one of the best locales in the city's high-rent business district, the northeast corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Drive, diagonally across from the new Tampa Museum of Art site. All of this makes foot traffic a sure bet, an advantage many galleries sorely lack. But a sterling location is only one factor. Director Amber Evans' marketing degree is another. Ultimately, the gallery plans no in-house framing, so art sales will be the test for survival. Still, I applaud her gutsy move.

Beaker curator A. A. Rucci reports that the gallery's focus is contemporary art, particularly "group shows of emerging local artists with respected national and international artists." Beached Not Stranded, its opening exhibition, features painters the caliber of Mernet Larsen and Leslie Lerner. There's also conceptual and installation art and digital imagery, mostly from a crew of artists recently curated into the Gulf Coast Musem of Art's Freshly Squeezed show, many of them from the hot Miami circuit.

Rucci's large-scale color photos of his past performance events included reminders of his versatility and meticulous attention to aesthetic detail. Still splitting the year between his home base of Tampa and Vienna, Rucci is increasingly an important presence in the Bay area arts community.

The nearby Matthews Gallery, just across the Kennedy Boulevard bridge, opened in September 2002 with Ruby and Friends: Folk Art Festival, drawing approximately 500 people over the three-day run. With owner David Matthews' background selling imported picture frame molding, he's a natural for continuing a framing business within the gallery. He admits that custom framing "helps facilitate exhibition costs close to the $3,000 range."

Matthews plans diversified exhibitions; a "keep 'em guessing approach," he calls it. Folk art was followed by Rucci's solo exhibition featuring digital prints and his signature miniature headless acrylic paintings on paper. Among Matthews' digital prints is a beautiful abstract work printed from a video made by the artist. Next, the Matthews gallery will unveil a traditional watercolor landscape show by an artist from Ireland's County Donegal.

Meanwhile, the Beaker Gallery presses for significant collaboration with the downtown arts community. This includes initiating a Downtown Cultural District that would also include Matthews Gallery, Christina Burdick (executive director of Tampa's Downtown Partnership) and the Tampa Bay Business Community for the Arts. One idea under consideration is coordinating simultaneous opening nights for downtown Tampa galleries. (Make this happen. There's no doubt that consolidation and collaboration nurtured St. Petersburg's cultural success story.)

OK, the Beaker and Matthew galleries represent new energy. But two other galleries have all but disappeared — for a variety of reasons, all having to do with money.

Studio Gallery on Azeele quietly closed its doors, though owner/artist Karen Solomon is still showing prints privately. Her gallery, set in an old house with polished wooden floors, had a unique style for this area. Why did it fail? "I don't think people buy artwork as a priority," she said. "When I was first married I'd rather buy art than put in flooring. People are sad because the gallery's not here, so I guess it did have an impact."

In addition to mounting shows every six to eight weeks, Solomon absorbed the expense of writing press releases and mailing invitations. She also created panels and gallery talk-backs to help stimulate attendance. In the end, she "wouldn't carry tchotchkes to help pay the rent."

Drew Smith is just plain bitter about losing his New Heights Gallery on Nebraska Avenue in Seminole Heights, where he built his glass studio. The gallery was filled with his furniture designs, glass pieces and an overly crowded gallery space. With his savings "down almost to starvation," he says, he and wife, Kirsi, have thrown in the towel. Drew's off to run tour boats in Jamaica, and Kirsi is blowing glass in Oldsmar.

A venting Smith does not waver when placing the blame: "The city of Tampa kept us from opening for a year and a half. Their passive aggressive behavior of building services added unnecessary roadblocks to the opening of our studios. We opened our Logan, Ohio, studio in two weeks. They [Tampa city officials] should bend over backward for young urban entrepreneurs."

He believes "the city has given up on Nebraska Avenue." He cites "their failure to create strong zoning and limit pawn shops that prey on local neighborhoods and bring crime to the neighborhood. In retrospect, I'd open in St. Pete or Pinellas."

Despite these two setbacks, other facilities hang on. Clayton Galleries, a South MacDill Avenue success story, has lasted 16 years. Mark Feingold, gallery manager for nearly nine years, says of the current economy, "You have to be resourceful. You have to weather it out. We have to be realists. We're not an art museum here for just viewing art. We are a business and there's certainly a lot more lookers than buyers." Clayton has regular collectors, but Feingold adds, "having framing is a nice fit with selling art."

Their framing business clearly helps during the lean times.

In St. Pete, the promising Merrick Gallery closed last year after shelves of boutique items failed to rescue slumping art sales. In Sarasota, the prestigious 12-year-old gallery, Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art (formerly Mira Mar), is also experiencing a leaner spell. Gallup feels that even people of significant means are conserving: "I continue to hang on, and sometimes it's little better than hanging on."

Bottom line: Few of us consider the critical role of galleries in contributing to our communities' cultural health. Imagine, just for a moment, the Bay area minus its galleries. That's just scary.

Adrienne M. Golub can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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