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Artists without Galleries 

What happens to Humboldt's art scene when its venues disappear?

click to enlarge April Arts Alive! night at Piante Gallery. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA.
  • Photo by Mark McKenna.
  • April Arts Alive! night at Piante Gallery.

Frowny-face graffiti sprouted all over Eureka and Arcata last month. The message was a buzzkill, but anyone could admire the economy of the streamlined bummer emoticon: two vertical slashes of spray paint over a judgmental upside-down banana curve. The effect was striking — suddenly the city thronged with this silent chorus of bad attitude, so many unauthorized bitch faces scowling from the roadside spaces that were supposed to be reserved for signs and storefronts with their frenetic enticements to spend. Some people thought the frowns were a comment on our national malaise but there were potential applications closer to home.

Four of Eureka's exhibition venues for visual art recently announced plans to close. Humboldt State University was on the cusp of this trend in 2017, when it moved ahead with the decision to shut down the popular Third Street Gallery as a cost-cutting measure after months-long demonstrations of student and community support. Within 18 months, several of the city's most prominent remaining art spaces had followed suit. Piante Gallery will be closing soon, as will Swanlund Photo and the associated F Street Foto Gallery — both closures due to longtime directors' retirements. Black Faun Gallery director Kevin Bourque has done much to energize the scene since opening his space three years ago, co-founding the Eureka Street Art Festival and sponsoring the creation of two enormous murals in Old Town to boot. When he made the surprise announcement late last year that Black Faun would soon be closing its doors as well, the cumulative hit to local artists seemed to snowball.

Frowny graffiti on Fourth Street in Eureka. - PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GOPINATH.
  • Photo by Gabrielle Gopinath.
  • Frowny graffiti on Fourth Street in Eureka.

"I think it's going to be very hard for local artists," Piante director Sue Natzler said. "People are extremely upset that Piante is closing." On the subject of her impending retirement she added, "I love the work and I'll miss it terribly, but after 20-plus years I think it's time to let someone else take the lead."

"The loss of these venues in our community is already significant and the impact of this loss will continue to grow, unfortunately in a negative fashion," said Jack Bentley, director emeritus of Third Street Gallery. "With the loss of these venues, Humboldt County is at risk of becoming a fine arts desert — with a few oases that manage to retain state, institutional and community support. Unfortunately Humboldt State University, led by myopic administrators, chose to lead this erosion in the local arts scene — notwithstanding the avowal to be a leader in the arts, as the university declares in its most recent strategic plan."

Emmaly Crimmel, a 2017 HSU art grad, exhibited at Redwood Arts Association last year and will be entering the art MFA program at a major Midwestern research university this fall. She said that after graduation, "I wanted to meet other artists around my age working in galleries and 'fine art' spaces. I booked a show at Black Faun and then was notified of its closure. It was disappointing, feeling that I had made it into one of the largest galleries in town .... There was a feeling of, where do I go next? I knew I had to leave this area if I was serious about my artistic goals and wanted to show more work and build relationships with other artists new to the field."

The exodus of galleries and artists belies Humboldt's artsy reputation. Commitment to the arts is part of Eureka's image and the arts are prominently featured in the city's marketing and branding. We've all heard about the record-high numbers of area residents who self-identify as artists, for what that's worth ("highest number of artists per capita in the United States," according to the county's Economic Development Strategy document for 2013-18). Art is perennially among the most popular majors at both College of the Redwoods and Humboldt State University. The events calendar in this paper is enlivened by occasions for creative extroversion, street pageantry and free-form performance art, ranging from the North Country Fair and the Kinetic Grand Championship to North Coast Open Studios and newer events like the Eureka Street Art Festival. You don't spend long in Humboldt at street level before you start noticing creative expressions of various sizes, shapes and levels of legality around you — from the eye-poppingly painted utility boxes to the crocheted cozies on the downtown parking meters, from Old Town Eureka's showstopping murals to the scraggly tags thrown up by the usual anonymous suspects at the post-industrial margins.

Looked at one way, the problem is simple: Humboldt viewers don't buy art, at least not enough to sustain a non-subsidized gallery space long term. It is no accident that nearly all the dedicated art spaces that remain — including the Ink People's Brenda Tuxford Gallery, the Humboldt Arts Council's Morris Graves Museum of Art, the Studio-affiliated Canvas + Clay, and the Redwood Arts Association Gallery — share nonprofit status and do not depend on sales. Libby Maynard, printmaker and Ink People co-founder, said, "No artist can survive on local sales, or even make enough to buy art supplies."

Natzler concurred, noting, "You really can't open expecting to make any money."

click to enlarge April Arts Alive! night at Black Faun Gallery. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA.
  • Photo by Mark McKenna.
  • April Arts Alive! night at Black Faun Gallery.
For the established artists who have benefitted from the support of galleries like Third Street and Piante over past decades, these closures represent a blow. Several older artists told the Journal they expect this to be the end of their local exhibition careers. Meanwhile, many younger artists who have recently graduated from local college and university programs say they want to remain in Humboldt but can't justify doing so due to the region's short supply of institutional and individual patrons, exhibition opportunities and creative-industry jobs.

People not buying art in small regional cities is not news. Those familiar with the Eureka scene can recite a long list of much-lamented local galleries — Sewell Gallery, Accident Gallery and Dog Gallery, to name just a few — which reaped acclaim, failed to profit and closed. The rash of recent closures may have been unusual only in the sense that several retirements happened to coincide with a regionwide economic downturn. Still, most creative professionals the Journal spoke with feel this downtown may be different, a sign of systemic change.

"Humboldt County has a very small population of people with money who would actively purchase and collect art. So the model of a stand-alone for-profit gallery is pretty much a non-starter here," Bentley said. "Galleries, unlike other kinds of businesses, need a critical mass for all of them to succeed," Maynard observed. "I do think the traditional model is still relevant, but only successful when they have a critical mass." Exhibition spaces draw viewers more successfully in numbers: A certain level of activity is needed to generate buzz.

"People are buying less than they were 20 years ago," Natzler said. "Of course, all of Humboldt's economy has taken a hit, with the legalization of the cannabis industry. We don't know how that's going to turn out."

Maynard, too, sees the impact of legalization on the art scene. "The underground economy previously pumped a lot of cash into the local economy. People had funds to start and run restaurants, clothing stores and, yes, galleries. This past year has been really tough, not only for those businesses and artists who were patronized by growers, but also for nonprofits, which also benefited."

Independently owned art galleries have brought contemporary art to audiences since the emergence of the modern market. Traditionally the gallerist assumes responsibility for promoting and publicizing the artworks in a show, as well as for handling the labor of installation and de-installation. In return for providing these services and lending enhanced credence to an artist's resume through their support, they take a 50 percent cut of sales.

Some gallerists specialized in recognizing and nurturing talent; others in pivoting nimbly to reflect — and shape — changing tastes. Galleries could push the envelope of taste, taking risks on unknown artists and cutting-edge work that museums couldn't. Galleries and gallerists have made careers, anchored famous scenes and shaped the direction of emergent art; for instance, it's hard to imagine the history of art in Los Angeles without the influence of Ferus Gallery, a tastemaking venue during the 1950s and '60s under the inspired leadership of Walter Hopps and Irving Blum.

Like so many business models, this system worked reasonably well until the advent of the internet, which allowed artists new avenues of self-promotion and direct sales. The last five years have seen a dramatic rise in the closures of small and midsize gallery spaces nationwide. The journal Art News publishes regular updates to its feature "A Recent History of Small and Midsize Galleries Closing," and last year a reporter for Artnet queried whether we might be living through "the end of exhibitions," given that small and midsize galleries across America are closing and attendance numbers in decline.

In Humboldt, institutional support has been retracted from the local arts just as small and midsize art institutions have entered a national decline. If gallery spaces disappear, where will Humboldt artists go to connect with the community and exhibit their work? Where will Humboldt viewers go to experience art?

click to enlarge April Arts Alive! night at the shuttered HSU Third Street Gallery. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA.
  • Photo by Mark McKenna.
  • April Arts Alive! night at the shuttered HSU Third Street Gallery.

Humboldt-based artists who are managing to survive and (in a few cases) even thrive outside or alongside traditional gallery networks have characteristics in common: They tend to inhabit a marketing niche, work extremely hard and wield social media like pros.

Painter/surfer Matt Beard spends a lot of time traveling the coast in a van, painting in plein air and selling the finished canvases out of beachfront parking lots at surf events. He has been working for the past 15 years on a project that is nothing if not ambitious: He aims to paint the 840-mile California coastline in its entirety by producing a composite portrait comprised of paintings of unlabeled surf spots, and just published the first volume of a book series that will document the project. In addition he maintains a retail gallery space inside Eureka Art & Frame, where (unlike many painters) he sells affordable canvas prints that typically sell for much less than his original oils.

Beard's Instagram feed, chockablock with dazzling coastal views, intersperses meditations on art, surfing and coastal conservation with behind-the-scenes glimpses of the plein-air painting process, racking up thousands of followers along the way. "With social media, you get to tell your story and it becomes a part of the artwork in a way that would never have been possible before," the artist reflected. "And people are actually interested in it. If you show at a gallery, whether the gallery is 10 miles down the road or 100 miles down the road, the common factor is it's down the road. If you go there, you don't talk to the artist. The artist has no connection to the buyer." That connection seems increasingly important to buyers.

Beard had just heard that his gallery in La Jolla — an independent space opened by friends three years prior — would be closing. He summarized the challenges that confront the would-be gallerist: "People support you, but you struggle. You're losing money. You could be spending time doing other creative things that, at least, you would not be losing money on, so it becomes easier just to walk away."

"I still think a gallery model can still work under the right set of circumstances — you have to have the right mix of location, tourism, foot traffic, art," Beard hypothesized, while acknowledging that this is an elusive formula. "There's no doubt in my mind about the big picture — galleries are struggling nationwide. It's a bummer but I don't think the problem is specific to Humboldt at all."

It's debatable whether a gallery-based model of art sales — always marginally viable in small regional cities — might not finally have outlived its usefulness. Increasingly, when viewers do buy, what they buy is not just the work of art as such, but the artwork as talisman or souvenir of a personal experience with the maker and how it was made.

Marketing consultants B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore wrote in a 1998 Harvard Business Review article titled "Welcome to the Experience Economy" that "The progression of economic value moves: from extracting commodities, to making goods, to delivering services, to staging experiences." The authors predicted — correctly, in hindsight — how uniquely millennial forms of consumption and identity formation oriented around experiences would take over as older attitudes that define status more narrowly through acquisition of goods begin to recede. Millenial and Gen X consumers are less likely than Baby Boomers to spend the bulk of their disposable income on luxury objects like cars, jewels or artworks, and more likely than previous generations to spend on or save up for activities structured around travel or other experiences instead. Going out to Old Town for an Arts Alive! evening of dining, shopping and enjoying art becomes more enticing than acquiring the works of art around which the evening is organized.

"The acquisition of art is not what motivates younger audiences," Bentley said. "They do want fine art in their lives but the way they relate to it is not so much as consumers, more as connoisseurs. This poses new challenges for young artists who need to make a living."

The emergence of a wired, tech-connected world has disrupted the business of art just as it has other fields. "I graduated from HSU in '98 and I was fortunate enough to have really great instructors in the painting program there, like Teresa Stanley and Leslie Price," Beard said. "But man, the world was changing so fast the schools really had no idea how to prepare us for what would happen. What we learned in school was being an artist was all about submitting to galleries. There was no social media — you barely had websites. So the opportunity to connect to the viewer was pretty limited. The people who ran galleries were just trundling along selling art because they loved it, and meanwhile the world was changing."

click to enlarge Swanlund's Camera, home to F Steet Foto Gallery. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA.
  • Photo by Mark McKenna.
  • Swanlund's Camera, home to F Steet Foto Gallery.

As rents balloon, opening an art gallery has become an increasingly difficult proposition. Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, curators of this year's Whitney Biennial, selected one of the youngest rosters of artists in the biennial's history, with three-quarters of participants under the age of 40. In a recently published profile, Hockley attributed those choices to the experience of traveling around the country and seeing artists facing "an incredible amount of pressure coming from all sides," citing the collapse of smaller and mid-size galleries (crucial to sales for younger, less established artists), the scarcity of affordable studio space and the burden of debt from M.F.A. programs. A recent New York Times article documented the increasing numbers of artists in Manhattan who are opting to stage art exhibitions in their apartments because of the lack of accessible exhibition space for emerging and even mid-career artists in the city.

Now that artists are able to sell out of their own studios and promote their work on social media, curation has been democratized. This has devalued galleries' role as tastemakers. In a world where monetization of oneself online with sponsorships and sales is every "creative's" prime directive, the zone that the professional curator once occupied is constantly impinged upon by freelancers. The distinction between artists and curators has quickly faded, as the arrangement of art via compilation of photo, video and audio archives went in a few years from being a niche scholarly activity to a mainstream mode of expression pursued by avid billions assembling Instagram feeds and YouTube chanels.

Crowds still throng the streets of Old Town Eureka for Arts Alive!, where any given first Saturday you can find people of all ages staring at art, taking selfies with it, and debating its merits with friends. The cultural experience appears to be highly satisfactory for everyone involved — except perhaps gallerists, who provide free drinks, snacks and musical entertainment on a monthly basis for an audience that may love art, but has scant interest in taking it home.

"Local art lovers are spoiled; they don't support local galleries [with purchases], but love to nosh on the Arts Alive fare and then get their art at bargain basement prices from benefit auctions," said Maynard. "The real question is why will local arts patrons buy local artists' work, at much higher prices, in LA or San Francisco and not here?"

The shifts currently disrupting the art scene in Humboldt reflect similar developments in regional cities all over the United States. Where they'll leave our local arts community remains obscure. "Do we value art?" Beard asked. "If we as a society value culture, we have to figure out a way to pay for it."

Gabrielle Gopinath is an art writer, critic and curator based in Arcata.

Editor's note: This story was corrected to properly identify the gallerist Walter Hopps, whose name was previously misspelled.

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About The Author

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath

Gabrielle Gopinath is a critic who writes about art, place and culture in Northern California. She lives in Arcata. Follow her on Instagram @gabriellegopinath.

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