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Art galleries sculpt new prospects for success

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 30, 2012 - As they begin to crawl out of the recession, local art gallery owners are getting creative not only in their exhibits but with their business plans.

Two — who hold opposing views about whether a street side presence even matters -- are moving. A third is selling his building to support African-American artists. A group of 16 is finding fiscal strength in numbers as it enjoys year eight of a cooperative venture.

Goodbye Wash Ave., hello CWE

Philip Slein, whose namesake gallery has operated in two different Washington Avenue addresses since 2003, is relocating to the Central West End. He’ll open his next show May 18 in the building where William Shearburn ran his art gallery for 20 years on McPherson near Euclid. Shearburn sold the building to LS Investments, which is leasing the space to Slein.

Slein will continue to live on Washington Avenue, and praises the area as an entertainment district. But in recent years, he’s seen the departure of Ellen Curlee and Third Floor galleries, leaving his the only such business in the area.

Moving to the Central West End location puts him near high-end homes and Chase residents as well as Duane Reed and Atrium art galleries, several antique dealers, numerous restaurants and Left Bank Books. This collection makes it a desirable spot for strolling arts patrons, according to Slein.

“There’s no other block or area that offers art and antique furniture retail like Euclid and McPherson. It’s unique to St. Louis,” Slein said.

A new gallery model?

Jim Schmidt, who left his Schmidt Contemporary Art space in Grand Center last year, will consult and curate for Slein. Temporarily moving into Schmidt’s old North Grand space is William Shearburn, until he finalizes a lease on another spot in the same area.

While Shearburn will maintain a storefront location, he depends much more on ongoing relationships and wider exposure to create sales. Relying on passersby to purchase art is an outdated model for galleries, he said.

“The way the business works today is I have two internet sites and I go to art fairs,” Shearburn said. “The idea that someone would walk in off the street and be remotely interested in what I do is crazy.”

Slein agreed that both fairs and internet sales are important. But he still believes strongly in accessible galleries, which function as incubators for new collectors and artists.

“They are places for the exchange of ideas and knowledge. The physical gallery space is very much alive and will continue to thrive long into the future,” Slein said.

Grand Center’s Bruno David, whose gallery also bears his name, tries to make his Washington Avenue location an open, welcoming space. He bemoans the reputation of galleries as culturally elite, and considers them magical places offering unique opportunities.

“Entering a gallery or museum is like entering into a book, reading a story from the inside. There is no experience like that anywhere else,” David said in an online questionnaire.

Boosting minority artists

Like Shearburn, Robert Powell is selling the building that houses his gallery, located on Delmar behind Powell Hall. Powell is asking $850,000 for the Portfolio Gallery and Education Center building, which has been on the market for a year and a half. His plan is to earmark $200,000 of the proceeds as seed money for African-American artists and arts organizations.

To demonstrate the need for more support for black creatives, Powell is known to ask the question: “Can you name five nationally known African-American artists, living or dead?” Few can, he said.

Powell said his new funding organization would hold black-tie events for the purpose of selling art. That money would be distributed among local visual and other artists and places like the Griot Museum of Black History and Culture and Harambee Institute, which fosters social and personal development through African-focused cultural activities.

St. Louis has numerous world-class cultural institutions, Powell noted, but a well-funded African-American organization is lacking.

“People seem to give you the economy as a reason but it’s really all about who wants to support you,” Powell said. “I’ve met a lot of people in my life and have not asked them for anything. But I’m going to start asking them for support, and if their hearts are in the right place, maybe they will help us.”

Powell compared his prospective organization to the privately funded Arts and Education Council, which has raised nearly $100 million for arts institutions in the bi-state area since 1963. Susan Rowe Jennings, the council’s vice president of administration and grants, encourages Powell as he strives to create a source of funding specifically for African-American efforts.

“The more support these artists and groups can get, the better St. Louis will be as a community,” Rowe Jennings said.

Sixteen heads better than one?

Seven years ago, a collection of local artists who weren’t accepted into the St. Louis Art Fair in Clayton decided if you can’t join ‘em, beat ‘em.

One of the group, whose day job is commercial real estate, found an empty storefront in the middle of the art fair site and contacted the landlord. The artists worked a deal to rent the space for six days wrapping around the fair weekend.

The landlord was so happy with the situation, according to another artist Michele Wells, that he wanted to continue the arrangement. Thus, the Gateway Gallery was born. Today, the 16 gallery co-owners share the rent and other expenses.

“I probably would never have been part of a gallery if we hadn’t already been in there and said, ‘OK, let’s try it,’” Wells said.

Recently, Gateway Gallery moved to a new location, two blocks away. It might seem a daunting challenge to get 16 people to agree on issues ranging from the new space to what color to paint the gallery walls, but Wells said there have been few disputes. Everything is decided by a majority, in regular meetings run in accordance with Roberts Rules of Order.

Wells sells about 20 of her watercolors and pastels every year, more than enough to cover her gallery expenses but hardly enough to pay for her time. She’s glad her full-time job as an electrician pays the bills, and that she doesn’t have to worry that sales of her art have slowed during the economic downturn.

“It’s just too hard to try to make a living at what I would call a hobby,” Wells said.

Full-time gallery owner and manager Bruno David acknowledged the harsh realities of the business of art. The recession that began in 2008 has been “terrible,” forcing David to cut back on many expenses to keep the doors open. But 2011 was a little better and 2012 is looking up even more.

Slein’s sales have also improved in the past few quarters.

“Things aren’t back to how they were, pre-recession,” Slein said. “But I’m definitely seeing a positive trend and we’re hoping this trend has legs and the  worst is behind us.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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