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Locals look, but dont buy 

The Johnson Gallery. L.A. Santa Fe Gallery. Exhibition Ten Twenty-Two. Gallery Machbitz. San Luis Artists’ Gallery. Compact Gallery. Art Lives Here. Arternatives. Rococo. McConnell Gallery. Ramos Gallery. Kolliner Gallery. Courtyard Gallery. Isis. Kidzart. Nature Gallery. Landon Gallery. August Editions. L’Artiste Gallery. Firewalk Gallery.
 
What do these names have in common? They’re all San Luis Obispo fine-art galleries that have gone out of business in the past dozen years.
 
Why, as a rule, do galleries in SLO Town fail? And what are struggling galleries doing to survive and thrive?

The exception to the rule
First, one must admit, not all SLO galleries have faded into

click to enlarge BIG DOG:  Ralph Gorton of Just Looking Gallery runs SLO Towns most successful gallery. - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photo by Christopher Gardner
  • BIG DOG: Ralph Gorton of Just Looking Gallery runs SLO Towns most successful gallery.
# oblivion. Without question, the big dog in SLO’s gallery scene is Ralph Gorton’s Just Looking Gallery, which opened its doors in 1984. Currently located on Higuera Street, just inside the Mission Mall, the gallery has evolved into the most successful purveyor of fine art in the city.
 
It began in a space near the creek side of the mall, selling mostly posters and numbered-edition reproductions. But, Gorton said, about 85 percent of what now hangs in the Higuera Street gallery is original artwork. The business also offers framing—a practice that also subsidizes other local galleries, such as the Frameworks’ SLO Art Gallery—but Gorton explained that framing is but a small part of his gallery’s income.
 
“I don’t have a formula for success or a business plan,� said the gregarious Gorton, settling into one of the modernist chairs in his gallery. “We wing it as much as anything, but we know how to wing it, and we know how to pick talented artists.�
 
Because Gorton also has a successful publishing company, rumor has it that business subsidizes his gallery—but that’s not so.
 
“Forget the publishing,� he said. “That’s a completely separate entity and has nothing to do with paying the Just Looking Gallery bills.
 
Look, I know what you want me to tell you,� he continued, “that galleries fail because of high rent or a lack of parking, but that has nothing to do with it. I pay the highest rent of anybody. But I have a prime location and talent and passion. My mother said, ‘Ralph, you have a good picker,’ and that’s what it comes down to. I know how to pick art that sells. Take Mark Ruzinski, for instance. He’s new to the area, a plein air painter painting local scenes, and last year I sold 130 of his paintings, and they’re priced right: about $750 for an original framed oil.
 
“Here’s another one of our artists, Ron Rogers, who’s from Utah,� Gorton elaborated. “He’s also in galleries in Park City, Palm Springs, Vail, New York, and here in San Luis Obispo. And do you know who his agent is? Yours truly. It’s about developing relationships. It also helps that my gallery director, Ken McGavin, brings a fresh perspective. He’s as talented as I ever was at 25—maybe more so—and he’ll eventually be an owner here.�
 
But what does Gorton think of the innovations other galleries employ to stay in business?
 
“I’m only trying to do one thing well, which is sell fine art,� he said. “I don’t want to sound too elitist, but these days, every hair salon has art on the walls—but the art you’ll buy in a hair salon is about as good as the haircut you’ll get in our gallery.
 
“Anyway, not only has our gallery evolved, but our community has evolved,� he continued. “San Luis is a much more affluent place than it was in 1984. Still, it’s about passion and talent. I’m here at 8 a.m. every day, and I know I’m beating other gallery owners to work by two hours. The location helps, too. When we were remodeling this place before moving in, we took a 20-minute lunch break, and I decided to count how many people walked down Higuera Street: 108. Do you know how many turned down Mission Mall? Four. Four out of 108! Location, location, location. That, and being a good picker.
 
“I’m just a lucky guy,� Gorton summed up. “I have one of the best jobs in the world, and I’m lucky to be living in San Luis Obispo.�


Going, going, gone …
For every Just Looking Gallery, however, there are a dozen failures. Even a long-running business like the Johnson Gallery, which opened in 1985 as a frame shop with fine art, had to radically transform itself to stay in business.
 

click to enlarge GALLERY BE GONE:  Gail Johnson has returned to her picture framing roots abandoning the unprofitable fine art gallery side of her Marsh Street business - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photo by Christopher Gardner
  • GALLERY BE GONE: Gail Johnson has returned to her picture framing roots abandoning the unprofitable fine art gallery side of her Marsh Street business
# “I had three businesses going there,� said Gail Johnson, who recently closed her Marsh Street gallery and relocated her frame shop to Sueldo Street. “We had framing, the gallery, and gifts, but I spent the last two years with a new bookkeeper assessing what parts of business were profitable and determined I had to perform surgery and cut out what wasn’t working.�
 
The gallery simply wasn’t making money for Johnson, who grew tired of having to subsidize the business with framing and gifts.
 
“I wouldn’t ask, ‘Why didn’t we survive?’� she said. “I’d ask, ‘Why didn’t we thrive?’ You can survive if you’re willing to put in the time and sell your soul. It became too much. With Art After Dark [SLO Town’s gallery-wide open house], we were always on deadline, never able to make the artists happy—and if you’re not selling their work, they think you’re not working.
 
“The problem with galleries is you have to pay the bills, and the bills are so high,� Johnson continued. “You pay $3 per square foot, triple net, which is about $3,500 a month just to sit there. Then you pay someone $10 an hour for seven hours, which, after taxes, is $100 a day. It’s impossible unless you sell high-ticket items, and you have to sell lots of them. I think the plight of galleries is the same as all small businesses: You’ve got to sell your product to pay the bills.�
 
Johnson got the idea to create a fine-art gallery in 1995, thinking that she could tap into a burgeoning collectors’ market.
 
“I used to see people coming in to have me frame things they bought in Carmel or Santa Monica, and I had great art on the walls, but I didn’t have status, which is when I realized I had to sell art—not in a frame shop—but sell framing in an art gallery. I was trying to get people to buy art here instead of out of town. I think people with money want a place with a little snob value, and I could never catch up with that flow of snobbery.�
 
Johnson also felt—as do a lot of gallery owners—that people took advantage of the amenities she offered but didn’t support the gallery monetarily.
 
click to enlarge WOMAN WITH A PLAN:  Julie Dun one of three owners of The Gallery in the Network rents display space to other artists to keep the gallery afloat
  • WOMAN WITH A PLAN: Julie Dun one of three owners of The Gallery in the Network rents display space to other artists to keep the gallery afloat
# “Keeping art in the public eye isn’t rewarded with some sense of loyalty and need to buy, and then art becomes entertainment,� Johnson lamented. “I was trying harder and harder to lure these people in, but all I succeeded in doing was turning them into eaters. When I finally decided to close the gallery, I wanted to go out with bang, so I did live music during Art After Dark for several months. I had people who would get there early, park in the best spot, wait on the lawn, and then walk down the driveway and sit on their fat asses and drink free wine and listen to free music … and never buy a single thing.�

 
Unlike Johnson, who was born and raised in San Luis Obispo and created her gallery out of a pure passion for the arts, Shelley McConnell opened the now-defunct McConnell Gallery on Monterey Street with a  sound business plan.
 
“I had a gallery in Sacramento—one that’s still open and successful there—and I pretty much replicated what we were doing in Sacramento and brought it here,� said McConnell, now president of the SLO County Arts Council board of directors. “And here’s what I learned: Sacramento has 2 million people, and we have 250,000. I thought tourism would make up for the shortfall, and the tourists who come here—well, let’s just say that they tended to buy Thomas Kincaid stuff. So I think that’s it. There’s a lot of wealth here, no shortage of money, but people tend to buy out of the area.�
 
That’s not to say McConnell didn’t sell a fair amount of art.
 
“I did well for here—$20,000 to $25,000 a month in sales here. But that’s not enough to make a living. The rent was high, and I did a lot of advertising, and once I did all that, there wasn’t enough for me to live on.�
 
She also couldn’t conceive of how to change the market she found herself in.
 
“I didn’t think any amount of time was going to make my gallery do any better than it was doing,� she explained. “I think I finally realized that when I went on one of those home tours, and we visited a beautiful 10,000 square foot filled with beautiful antiques, and there wasn’t one piece of original art on the walls. Not one! It was all framed posters in aluminum frames.�
 
SLO County Arts Council Executive Director and Cuesta College photography instructor Marta Peluso tends to agree with Johnson and McConnell: “I think it comes down to a lack of patronage. I don’t mean in the sense of attending gallery events, as there is a large audience for visual art in SLO County. To witness this phenomenon, visit most galleries on an evening of an opening reception or Art After Dark. I remember when Art Lives Here and Compact galleries opened, there were people spilling out of the spaces filling up the nearby sidewalks. When I directed the gallery at Cuesta College, we’d regularly get over 200 people at a reception.
 
“But, for as much appreciation and enthusiasm county residents have for art, there is a disconnect when it comes to buying works of art,� Peluso continued. “A clothing store wouldn’t stay in business very long if people only came to look at the clothes. When a good restaurant opens, one has to eat there for it to stay in business. The same with art galleries. Until residents start patronizing their own art galleries, it will be very difficult for them—especially galleries that offer art that’s challenging to popular culture aesthetics—to survive.�

The innovators
Despite the difficulties in maintaining a gallery, many  establishments refuse to go quietly, instead reinventing

click to enlarge COFFEE TEA OR ART:  Peter Steynberg of the Steynberg Gallery Tea and Coffee House is installing a cafe in his gallery to help subsidize slow art sales - PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER GARDNER
  • Photo by Christopher Gardner
  • COFFEE TEA OR ART: Peter Steynberg of the Steynberg Gallery Tea and Coffee House is installing a cafe in his gallery to help subsidize slow art sales
# themselves and their businesses in an effort to survive. Peter Steynberg’s Steynberg Gallery Tea and Coffee House is a good example. The Monterey Street gallery began selling African art—masks, sculpture, and the like—6 1/2 years ago. Later, he also began to show fine-art paintings, often depicting challenging and political work. Sales trickled in, but he felt as though many of his opening reception “patrons� were really there for a free meal.
 
“I have people who come to every art opening, and it feels like all I’m doing is giving away wine and food. With the coffees and teas, we’ll always have a little money coming in, and if someone wants to eat something they can just pay for it,� said Steynberg, who’s originally from South Africa but moved his family here 15 years ago.
 
Steynberg owns the building he’s in and his family lives in the apartment above it, but like many struggling SLO residents, a sizeable mortgage payment looms over him very month.
 
“I decided I’m not going away,� he said. “Even if I have to sell coffee to survive, I’m not going away. I’m just trying to find the right mix of business. You have to keep on reinventing yourself. This is going to help us run the gallery better. I won’t have to limit my art and wonder if it’s commercial enough.�
 
Steynberg isn’t alone in his tenacity and creative desire to survive. The three owners of The Gallery in the Network—Julie Dunn, Rosanne Seitz, and Linda Lewis—created a business model that not only sustains them but also offers other artists a chance to be seen: They essentially rent out space to other artists.
 
“We rent space at a reasonable rate in six-month contracts, and we only take a 15 percent commission on the works we sell,� Dunn said. “The leased space helps pay our rent, and the commission pays for the little incidentals like utilities or food for opening receptions. Everyone is an independent. We pay our own sales tax, so there are no employees. A few of our artists might work a little in exchange for reduced rent.
 
“The whole idea is to help people be successful, and we think we have a good model for artists who want to sell their stuff,� added Dunn, who’s been in the Network for four years.
 
Ali Semon, owner of Frame Works on Marsh Street—which houses the SLO Art Gallery—has also made a commitment to local artists, even though that commitment may not be financially advantageous.
 
“We made a commitment to support local artists by providing an avenue for promotion, showing, and selling of their work,� Semon said. “We have a choice as a gallery to show reproductive art on paper that is marketable and comes from outside the area, but we have made a conscious decision to show original work from local SLO county artists. It’s difficult to stick to that decision. There’s significantly more money to be made in reproducible artwork rather than original work by local artists. But we’re measuring our success by the level in which we promote our numerable talented local county artists.�
 
Yet another innovator is Jason Mayr, who—with wife Cindy—runs the Mayr Gallery currently located on Morro Street, though not for long. They’re moving to a larger location on Granada Street, combining Jason’s art studio and teaching facilities with a larger gallery space.
 
Mayr, a talented still life and landscape painter, offers painting lessons, which help bring in a steady income. Due to a small studio space, however, he could only accommodate six students at a time. His new location will fit up to 15 students. Jason also noted that though their gallery is located downtown, it’s off the beaten path, which brings in very little foot traffic.
 
“We’re paying downtown rent without downtown benefits,� he said.
 
Another downtown gallery off the beaten path is the Jeff Claassen Gallery on Higuera. The upstairs gallery boasts an entrance right next to Moe’s BBQ. The 28-year-old maverick sells mostly his own work—pop art with an edge—which he keeps reasonably priced.

“There’s nothing like this in SLO,� he said of his hole-in-the-wall space. “I’ve had people come in and say, ‘You should really raise your prices,’ but I always say, ‘Then you wouldn’t buy it. If it was $100, you’d say no, but at $60 … .�
 
Clearly, many local gallery owners are making a go of it, even if they’re working outside of the traditional gallery model.


Epilogue
Even though galleries seem like losing propositions in SLO Town—at least in their purest sense—the challenge doesn’t stop people from trying. The newest entry into the local gallery scene opens next month in the Creamery, when Anam Cre’ owner Shevon Sillivan joins forces with Nicole Watson and Stephanie Raser to open Shee, next door to Anam Cre’s pottery studio.
 
They plan to carry work by out-of-the-area artists, such as Salma Arastu and Santiago Martinez, and prints by Australian artist and former SLO Town resident Catherine Able, plus work by African artist Abbey Onikoyi, who has a stand-alone gallery in the Creamery. They also plan to show their own work.
 
“We’re going into it optimistically,� Raser said, “and there’ll be three of us.�
 
Here’s hoping there’s strength in numbers—and a willing public with an appetite for art. ∆

Glen Starkey loves art—even the bad stuff. Tell him he has bad taste at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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