The Arts Economy – A Tale of Two Galleries (transcript)
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
By Joe Nolan
As the economic recession continues, the always-risky art business has proved particularly vulnerable. In January, art sales were down by half at the Christies and Sotheby’s auction houses in New York. Here in Nashville, WPLN’s Joe Nolan reports on the fortunes of two local galleries trying to attract the difficult art dollar.
Audio for this feature is available here.
(SOUND: Twist Gallery)
In downtown Nashville, the 106 year old Arcade building has become the epicenter of the city’s latest art scene. The first Saturday of every month, art fans head downtown for a Gallery Crawl, visiting the fourteen art spaces that call the Arcade and Nashville’s 5th Avenue of the Arts home.
Twist Gallery was one of the first venues to help transform the mostly-vacant Arcade, and was one of a handful of galleries that participated in the inaugural Art Crawl.
CARLISLE: “I’m Caroline Carlisle with Twist Art Gallery and we’re standing in the front room of Twist…”
The storefront gallery at Twist is displaying a show of drawings by two artists from Atlanta’s Beep Beep Gallery. Jason R. Butcher’s odd-ball narratives feature characters like a man whose his inner-child’s arms and legs are growing out of his chest. The exhibit spills into the gallery’s back room where an inventory of small retail items helps to pay the rent for Twist’s more challenging shows.
CARLISLE: “….handmade items, artist created things, t-shirts, vinyl record bowls, note cards, handmade bags and whatnot, all priced below $250. It could go from $3 on up, but we try to keep things affordable for people.”
By executing this one-two punch of challenging programming and savvy retail, Carlisle says Twist is effectively weathering a current dip in sales.
CARLISLE: “I would say we’ve seen a little bit of a slow down this year. The funny thing is we’ve seen more people in the gallery – less sales.”
Despite lean times, Twist has added an additional gallery on the Arcade’s upper level, adding to its space in the real world while it simultaneously increase their reach online.
CARLISLE: “We just recently added several features that we’re excited about. One is our shop button that takes you to our Etsy shop. I’ll click on that now.”
Etsy.com is an Internet bazaar where the gallery can sell their artist’s work online. Twist also employs a blog, social networking profiles and Twitter to carry their exhibits beyond the gallery’s walls extending the Twist brand well beyond the Arcade.
CARLISLE: “That’s just how you do it now. You can’t just have a website or just have a blog or you can’t just have a physical bricks and mortar space. We haven’t quite figured out what it is, but I think we’re trying to and I think that’s the next step.”
Another gallery contemplating its next step is only 6 blocks from the Arcade. Although the two galleries are within walking distance from one another, Ruby Green has a different, longer story to tell, one that can sometimes feel a world away from the Avenue of the Arts that Ruby Green also calls home.
CAMPBELL: “I am Chris Campbell and I’m the founding director of Ruby Green, and this is what we call the main gallery. We have divided our entire gallery space into 5 working artist studios. We’re just trying to survive and pay our bills right now.”
The studios recall the venue’s roots as a collection of ramshackle artist spaces that Campbell transformed into a non-profit art gallery in 1998. Ruby Green quickly became known as one of the largest, most engaging art gallery spaces in Nashville. The gallery’s art-for-art’s-sake programming offered challenging installations, video art and experimental live music.
(SOUND OF EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC)
The interest generated by bands like German Castro as well as the gallery’s well-attended exhibits paid off in 2005 when the Andy Warhol Foundation recognized the gallery’s achievements.
CAMPBELL: “It was one of the best things that’s ever happened to I think Nashville’s contemporary art scene personally, because we’re in the books. We’re in the history.”
The Foundation provided Ruby Green with $135,000 dollars, allowing the gallery to hire some of its loyal volunteers.
CAMPBELL: “So for a few years we had paid employees and we were able to reach out and do a lot more and serve a lot more artists. But like all non-profits you still always have to cover all of your operating costs. It’s very rare to get money that’s going to go just for rent and electricity.”
Today at Ruby Green, the main gallery has come full circle. The newly-erected walls fill the formerly spacious room, and the artist studios are linked by a common hallway. Although this latest effort is creating income for the space, the gallery is facing greater challenges.
Campbell worries that possible downtown development plans for green spaces and new Convention Center parking may mean the end of the building that is the gallery’s ten-year old home, forcing Ruby Green to find a new venue even further removed from 5th Avenue and a Gallery Crawl that they already feel a world away from.
CAMPBELL: “I was told that 5th Avenue of the arts is a big elephant and that they can only eat a bite at a time and they’re starting up at TPAC so, you know, we’re at the end of the elephant. The other end (laughs).”
As of the airing of this report, the doors were locked at Ruby Green. The gallery has put in a 30 days notice with their landlord and will be leaving their space to search for a new home in the coming weeks.
For Nashville public radio, I’m Joe Nolan.