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Where are all the galleries?

Success with an art gallery in Tacoma and Olympia does not come easy

A gallery that seems to be on track for success is Matter in Olympia.

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Andrea Erickson recently closed her gallery, Flow, which was formerly Lisa Konoshita's gallery, Mineral. Fulcrum is now open only two days a week. In Tacoma, The Helm, Madera, Art on Center (and its various incarnations) and Brick and Mortar are all gone. And does anybody even remember Aesthetics, Commencement, Random Modern, Penny Lucas and Galleria on Broadway - all vital, happening spaces that bit the dust? Success with an art gallery does not come easy.

On the other hand, American Art Company has been in business since 1989 and seems to be rocking right along, and B2 Fine Art, after three years in business, seems to be heading toward a successful lifespan as well.

In Olympia, the picture is somewhat different. Not so many have come and gone. Black Front, a little gallery on 4th Avenue that pushed the work of young and experimental artists, did not last long. And there have been a few other forgettable galleries that never made an impression - I can't even remember their names. But there are a handful that are steady and might be here for a long time.

One cannot help but wonder why some make it and others don't. The key, sadly, seems to be whether they are businesses or labors of love. The Helm and Black Front were run by young artists who were in it for love of art and had little business experience. Art on Center, AOC and Grand Illusions (various incarnations of the same gallery) and Brick and Mortar were also artist-run, apparently a blueprint for financial failure. I miss them all because they took big chances and showed work they believed in. The one I can't understand was Random Modern, which was run by collectors who were also successful businessmen. They seemed to be successful when they suddenly decided to close for good. One of the co-owners told me it was a tax write off and complained when they started making money. How 'bout that? RIP Random Modern.

I asked the owners of B2 and American Art Company how they've managed to stay alive.

"As the economic climate changed, we had to change as well," Tammy Radford from American Art Company said. "We look for creative, low-cost ways to advertise and use social media. We also have the framing side to the business that sees us through tough times."

Radford and her husband purchased the gallery about 10 years ago. My observation has been that they've stuck to showing works by tried-and-true artists and have built a network of collectors over the years. Their shows are generally safe.

"Many galleries open up shop with an ‘emotional connection toward the arts,'" Gary Boone of B2 said. "By the first week of business, we had already observed, listened and joined the most effective arts-driven boards we could locate in the city. Deborah as a fiber artist, me focused on collecting, and our mutual arts giving commitments; I know we certainly fit the description of emotional connectors to the arts. So much so, it became B2 Gallery's X-factor, taking time to understand decade-plus complexities and strengths of the local art community, while not being apprehensive to roll up our sleeves to lend leadership support where needed most.

"There are many kinds of art gallery models, art collectives, some medium and region driven, others by appointment vs. rotation duration, etc.  Commit to what you are, and set goals where you want to go. Many galleries underestimate practical business sense. Having run a number of business operations, and marshaling relevant resources, we counted it among our largest asset."

Boone credits his success so far to being a full-service gallery featuring a mix of established local, regional and international artwork, complete with framing services.

"B2 Gallery curates a specific vision upon each exhibition, publishes a full year's calendar via our own website/social media, and has exhibitions booked for the next three years," he said. "Consistent programming commitments to exhibition visual arts has led to favorable monthly sales, and a fair amount of performing arts through the gallery's ‘vignette series' has allowed B2 to consider a number of innovative revenue streams to assist in stimulating the gallery's bottom line."

Another gallery that seems to be on track for success is Matter in Olympia.

"I have a good eye (I am told). I not only concentrate on the selection of artists and individual artworks, but I pay special attention to the composition of the overall gallery," said owner and manager Jo Gallaugher. "I ensure there is a balance of colors, textures, etc. I group works to create a stimulating, yet comfortable environment. I am surrounded by the artwork many hours each week, so even one piece placed awkwardly bugs the heck out of me.

"My relationships with my artists are more important than anything else," she added. "If I don't cultivate strong relationships with talented artists, I'm dead in the water. An artist who feels an affinity for Matter (and me) will create beautiful work with us in mind.  Likewise, a strong connection with an artist allows me to understand the direction they are headed and how that fits with my customers' sensibilities.

"I like to take risks and show work I feel is important. At the same time, I am realistic about what I can sell and I work to understand our patrons. We have two primary customer segments - seasoned, well-traveled collectors who trust their own taste, and young professionals just learning about original artwork. The trick is to find a balance to surprise and inspire customers without freaking them out."

IMHO, the paragraph above strikes the perfect balance between the commercial and the artistic.

"Underneath the decisions regarding esthetics and creativity - and all the relationships therein - are business fundamentals," Gallaugher continued. "The basic economic laws of supply and demand apply to selling artwork as do location, marketing and controlling expenses. I have a strong business background. In fact, that's what I started with four years ago. All the artsy parts I developed as I went along."

Right now the number of active galleries in Tacoma seems to be at an all-time low. Olympia has been holding steady for years with Childhood's End, Art House Design, Splash, Matter and State of the Art seemingly hanging in quite well. All of these, with the exception of Matter, are either gift shops or galleries catering to the tourist trade or they're connected with framing, or some combination of those, and there's a little bit of the touristy-gifty-crafty aspect to all of them.

State of the Art is an interesting case. The Marianne Partlow Gallery used to exist in that space, and it showed topnotch local artists. After it closed and new owners took over and changed the name, they, at first, handled works by a lot of contemporary local artists such as Kathy Gore Fuss, Louise Williams and myself. But they found that those works did not sell well, and changed their focus to crafty-gifty art.

Galleries on the model of, say, Greg Kucera or Foster-White or Davidson in Seattle have never stood a chance in Olympia or Tacoma. Fulcrum in Tacoma, which may be the closest thing to a gallery of that type, survives only because Oliver Dorris makes his meager living in other ways, including disc jockeying. And since he can't be in two places at once, he has been forced to limit gallery hours to two days a week.

Another new gallery has opened in Tacoma. End 2 End Gallery recently opened at 707 Pacific Ave. downtown, specializing in graffiti art. Who knows? Maybe it'll succeed and spur the success of other art venues.

B2's Gary Boone said he sees a renaissance developing in Tacoma. I hope he's right.

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The photography of Brian Kasnyik

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