Business and art in the same sentence—according to some, there is no worse combination. By its very nature, art should be, somehow, above the reigns and influence of commerce. So, it is not surprising that the establishment should ponder its demise.
Blogs, social media, news and review sites have lately been overrun with reports that Atlanta’s gallery system is on the brink of extinction. With all of the negative articles coming one after another and gallerists deciding to close, I have almost been convinced myself that coming to work every day is a lost cause.
What these bearers of negativity fail to recognize is that there is an ebb and flow to all things. Businesses open, businesses close; fashion comes in, fashion goes out—even weather patterns repeat themselves, and so on.
When I first entered the Atlanta art arena in 1980, there was a different crop of dealers than at present. The leaders at that time were David Heath, Eve Mannes, Fay Gold, Louisa McIntosh, Dorothy McCray and Blanch Reeves, to name a few. But as with everything in life, change comes. Some are no longer with us, some retired, some moved on to other ventures in their life. The interesting thing is that when these galleries announced they would close (many within the same period of time), neither the media nor the community predicted that it was the end of the Atlanta gallery scene as we knew it. As history would have it, after all these years, we are still here!
So this brings into question: What has changed and what has remained the same?
Let’s begin with what has remained the same. When we opened Trinity Gallery in an abandoned warehouse on the edgy part of town 30+ years ago—long before it was considered chic or cool—we were young, energetic and fearless. Our opening parties were the event to attend and walls were bursting at the seams with the most popular art groupies. We vowed that we would break new ground and be the beginning of a new and burgeoning neighborhood. We would forge Atlanta’s first art district. But after years of struggling, like a bolt of lightning, it hit us! We were having a good time, but we were starving. The demographics did not exist in our neighborhood to support our efforts. Most days we made phone calls , loaded our beat up blue Chevy van and brought the art north. Clients who could afford to buy our artwork refused to drive to a place where they felt unsafe. And, being off the beaten path for shopping, we sat without collectors who would buy. That became our I.A.B.S. moment! It’s A Business, Stupid! So we moved north to Buckhead where the buyers and most successful galleries were located, complete with our very own parking lot that Atlantans seem to always expect.
As I have watched the ebb and flow of galleries that move into spaces hidden in the corridors of office buildings, whose owners who never seem to be in the country, those that move into the cool project spaces with hundreds of cars passing them everyday (with no evidence of how to get into them or where to park), and those who move into the next hip neighborhood whose residents struggle to make their $149K mortgage…I wonder, as a business model, will they one day they have their I.A.B.S. moment?
The point is not that a gallery needs to move north in order to be successful; they must understand what they are selling, that their visibility and accessibility are key, and to match this model with a demographic group that will purchase what they are selling.
Now, let’s discuss what might have changed. First and foremost there is the Internet. Today, this certainly makes for an easier format to exchange dialogue and ideas rapidly. Social Media is a big part of this sharing process. The question that goes unanswered: Is this really a good thing? More importantly, how do we use this to our advantage? It seems that we have entered an age where everything is instant and reactionary. Writers pump out opinions and conclusions on their blogs without considering the ramifications this may have. Unfortunately, a good bit of what is posted seems to be negative. The Internet leaves us more willing to say things that we might otherwise think twice about if we were speaking in person, one on one.
As one commenter recently wrote in an article on the role of commercial galleries in Atlanta today, the Internet has also opened up the opportunity“for artists to roll out of school and begin the promotional campaign to pedal their goods.” Unfortunately, taking this approach results in a lost opportunity that, quite frankly, could be the demise to an otherwise promising and long-term profitable career. The Internet is a powerful and strong resource, but I think we are forgetting that as human beings we are genetically programmed for human interaction—we need the touch of human experience. The Internet does not allow us to smell the fragrance of a flower, taste the bouquet of a good wine, nor hear the intent or tone of voice that gets lost in the script of an email. Believing that senses and emotions translate through technology is what has gotten so many of us in trouble, countless times, when we send an email that should have been parked in a drafts box to ponder.
The Internet is an invaluable tool. In fact, one that makes us more savvy and puts the resources of the world at our fingertips. The Internet can be a comfortable way for a consumer to purchase affordable wall décor to hang above their sofa, and works from artists with whom they are familiar. But it will never replace the gallery’s ability to introduce young talent, move their career forward and convince the establishment that it is worthy of collecting. Standing before a great work of art is an emotional experience and can never be replaced. It will always be lost in translation by the computer screen.
One of the major differences that strikes me between being a dealer today and the guard of old, is the lack of appreciation and optimism of who we are and what we offer collectively as a cultural community—being actively involved, supporting and promoting each other. I laughed while attending an opening recently when a local art consultant came up to me and said, “Wow, you are everywhere. You are the only dealer I see at other gallery openings.”
This became a further curiosity when I had asked a younger dealer why they did not attend openings at other galleries. Her response was, “I did not think that other dealers were allowed to go to other gallery’s openings.” I said, “Really, why not?” Her response, “I thought it would be frowned upon by the other gallery.” My response was that while there is a protocol—I wouldn’t take my business cards—how do you otherwise expect to know what is going on in the community? And in turn, how to you expect the community to know what you are doing unless you get out there and be present?
On another occasion, when attending a meeting with other galleries, I exclaimed how wonderful I thought Flux Projects was. Imagine my amazement when 90% of the people in the room had no idea what I was talking about. My point is that we are a geographically challenged community. The only way to bridge that is to build relationships that bring us closer. We need to understand our differences and celebrate our strengths. Atlanta is a strong and talented city. Changing? Yes. Evolving? Yes. But, without the support of each of us, for each other, and our differences, we will never be the strong art community that we aspire to be.
There has always been an undertone of elitism in defining good art. This is no different in Atlanta than other places. The question of a thriving gallery community is what makes a business successful. After all, a commercial gallery is a for-profit business, is it not? It is not our job to educate, entertain and push the limits of what is good or bad, or even to teeter the edge so that our patrons are left to ponder. Our job is to succeed both as a viable business model and to represent and elevate our artists’ careers so they will be successful as artists. Take a look around, like it or not, there are many successful galleries in Buckhead, Roswell, Midtown, Inman Park, West Midtown, Marietta and Decatur. Do they fulfill everyone’s expectations and desires? Perhaps not. But there is a gallery for everyone.
In response, for the record, the Atlanta gallery scene is alive and thriving. After 33 years I think I can stand as a testament to this. So, for those of you who are convinced that the Atlanta gallery scene is imploding and obsolete, I say perhaps you do not understand the business of art. For those of you who believe it will not and cannot survive, I say you do not know the art of business. Atlanta’s gallery scene may just not come in the form that you hoped it would.
President, Alan Avery Art Company
Please feel free to participate in the open comments underneath this article, or share it elsewhere and discuss informally with your friends. Talking in person counts!
Our Front Porch is a series inviting guest contributors to share thoughts on local art for open discussion with you, our readers.