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Starving for sales

Columbia is full of renowned artists. But they're starving for sales in the meager local art market. Many find they have to go outside the city to make ends meet.
Sunday, September 17, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:41 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

When Chris Frederick came to MU, she was told the college credit she’d earned in Germany couldn’t go toward the nursing degree she planned to pursue. So she decided to take an art class or two. Since receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1996, Frederick has established herself as one of Columbia’s most accomplished artists. Her watercolor paintings are regularly on display in local galleries and art venues, and the fluid landscapes she is known for are part of private collections in the United States and in Europe.

But, Frederick has to change gears a bit when she’s painting for the masses in Columbia. Enter Frieda, the artist’s beloved dachshund. Compared to, say, her watercolor of Columbia’s Sacred Heart Church, which captures the mid-morning light streaming through the stained glass with incredible warmth, Frederick’s miniature portraits of Frieda seem to leap off the proverbial shelf.

Like many local artists, Frederick’s presence in Columbia is not happenstance. She stayed because the city’s affordability, cultural variety and educated populace make it a nice place to live and work. However, that has not meant increased sales for Frederick, who, along with other Columbia artists, is perplexed by a lack of appreciation for their work. “It’s like how a prophet is never accepted in his own country,” Frederick says. “What do we do about it? How do we open people’s minds?”

Jim Downey, who writes an art column for the Columbia Daily Tribune, says he has heard this complaint countless times. Downey and his partners lost several hundred thousand dollars before they were forced to close their gallery, Legacy Art & Bookworks, in May 2004. Downey says he could never sell enough art for the business to remain viable.

“I think that if you look at Columbia’s artist community, we’re blessed with a phenomenal amount of talent, but not a lot of sales,” he says. “Any artist will say it’s a great community to live in, but not a great place to sell art.”

The same frustrations visited upon Downey present a classic conundrum for Columbia artists, who rely on galleries to both display their work and attract serious buyers. Jane Gideon, who used to operate The Dauphine gallery before its closure, says gallery owners need to be financially prepared for lots of browsers, but few buyers. “In order to have a gallery and make it financially, your pockets have to be so deep that it doesn’t matter if you only sell one painting,” Gideon says.

Columbia has worked hard to promote itself as a bustling, vibrant community with much to offer the sophisticated palette. A few years ago, downtown business owners rebranded the 43-block central city as “The District,” with an advertising slogan that emphasized the area’s “artsy” aesthetic. And for a town of its size, Columbia’s downtown offers a lot: shopping, good restaurants, plenty of live music, plus, according to The District, 5,900 parking spots.

Columbia can also brag about its artists. Frederick, Joel Sager, Paul Jackson, David Spear, Susan Glasgow Taylor and others have all made their mark across the state and beyond. Yet, in the town they call home, they struggle for the kind of recognition that matters most — sales.

Lorah Steiner, director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, says that gallery owners see great potential for the sale of fine arts in Columbia. However, she says, “The actual market is, I’d say, adequate. But just adequate.”

Steiner, in conjunction with local artists and gallery owners, is launching a couple of initiatives in hopes of tapping the potential and, more importantly, expanding it. An art-purchase pledge is quietly taking shape through the Art League to entice residents and businesses to buy one piece of local art each year. So far, about 60 people have made the pledge, which, Steiner says, has already resulted in a small boost to local galleries. Once more data is available, Steiner says the program will be handed over to the bureau’s Arts Tourism Committee, which is being reinvigorated after several years of inactivity.

Although the committee’s standing goal, like all of the bureau’s programs, is to find new ways to bring revenue into the city, it will also look to help Columbia’s artist community by positioning the city as a destination for collectors from around the country. Steiner says attracting more out-of-town buyers of art to Columbia could change how residents think about their artists.

“One of the things we want to see change is that there are many people in Columbia that go outside the market to buy art,” Steiner says. “There is this impression that it’s not worthwhile to buy it unless it comes from outside the market.”

Eureka Springs is a tiny town nestled in the Ozarks at the end of a winding Arkansas mountain road. Couples and newlyweds flock there to enjoy the town’s romantic ambience, taking in the scenery and staying in one of the many quaint bed and breakfasts. They also seem to buy a lot of art, which isn’t surprising since Eureka Springs has some 19 art galleries.

[photo]

Mike Trial, who owns a gallery in Japan, holds a piece of artwork by Columbia artist Mark Nichols. Nichols owns Great Hangups Framing and Gallery on West Broadway. His artwork will be hanging in the Boone County National Bank until late this month.

(LYLE WHITWORTH/Missourian)

The town was actually founded about 60 years ago by two Missouri natives, Lewis and Elsie Frund, who were avid art enthusiasts. Though its population is just a little more than 2,200, the city’s budget provides more than $1 million a year to advertise and promote the town’s artists and galleries. The town is routinely recognized by American Style, a magazine for collectors of fine art and crafts, as one of the nation’s top arts destinations. Its reputation attracts not only buyers, but the work of artists all over the country, including Columbia’s Mark Nichols, who has displayed his multi-media pieces at Eureka Springs’ Quicksilver Gallery.

Nichols, who owns Great Hangups on West Broadway, says he sells more art in Eureka Springs than in Columbia because of the tourist market.

“Tourist markets offer artists exposure to a variety of people from all over, since they are most likely vacationing and from out-of-town,” Nichols says. “It seems that people tend to be a little more impulsive when it comes to shopping decisions when they are on vacation.”

Lynne Berry, executive director of Eureka Springs’ Advertising and Promotions Commission, says the town would be hard-pressed to maintain the art market without a special sales tax, passed by voters in 1972, levied at restaurants, hotels, gift shops and other attractions. The tax not only ensures that the arts and artists receive timely promotion; it also gives everyone in Eureka Springs a stake in the city’s future.

“The joke at my house is the next thing I buy is going to have to go on the ceiling,” Berry says. “I can say that every person in Eureka Springs supports the arts.”

The city of Columbia’s Office of Cultural Affairs was created 14 years ago to help the city’s artists and cultural organizations plan and develop programs that increase public awareness of the city’s creative side. The office maintains an artists registry, publishes a newsletter, offers technical support to nonprofit arts groups and organizes the weeklong Festival of the Arts.

But it provides just $76,000 in funding support to artists and cultural groups, a relatively meager sum that comes from the city’s general fund. That means funding for the arts in Columbia competes with more pressing issues of broader interest, such as sidewalks, recycling and street cleaning.

Marie Nau Hunter, manager of cultural affairs for the city, says that funding of any public need reflects the city’s priorities as determined by its elected officials. She does point out that Columbia is second only to St. Louis among the state’s largest cities in public funding for the arts. Kansas City, Independence and Lee’s Summit, for example, don’t commit any taxpayer funding to help support and promote local arts agencies, relying solely on private sources of revenue.

The city has made a commitment to public art through its Percent for Art program, which sets aside 1 percent of capital improvement projects that exceed $1 million for site-specific artwork. But even that program has come in for some criticism, from the type of work being commissioned — public input about a recent project, “Look Out Point,” at Stephens Lake Park was overwhelmingly negative — to the fact that the largest commissions are open to out-of-town artists. Downey wrote about the issue, saying he wished that the Standing Committee on Public Art, which makes the final decision on the Percent for Art commission had limited the competition to Columbia’s artists.

“I want to see us support our local artists,” he wrote. “And I wish we could get away from needing to buy one large ‘signature’ piece rather than spreading the money around to a lot of artists.”

Daniel Waltman, of American Style magazine, which rates the top 25 arts cities in America each year, says that a good arts destination successfully links its creative talent and resources to its overall identity. Places like Buffalo, Milwaukee and Albuquerque weren’t known as cities with vibrant artistic communities – until they made it central to the re-birth of their central business districts.

“Cities that offer a diverse selection of art and artists,” Waltman says, describing a good arts destination, “cities that tend to support artists living in that city and cities that work towards using art to really foster growth or redevelopment – probably their downtowns.”

Columbia’s downtown has changed over the years, but because its economic base – a major university and two colleges – has never faltered, it has never fallen hard times and therefore never needed a wholesale image makeover that could revolve around attracting and promoting art. This has had an impact on gallery owners, who have either failed or found other ways to keep the doors open. Galleries like Poppy and Bluestem, for example, have developed a niche selling fine crafts, such as jewelry, glassware, greeting cards and wood carvings, alongside paintings and sculpture.

“You do see a phenomenon in this town,” Downey says. “When I opened Legacy I was told this, that Columbia has seen a series of galleries come and go. They seem to flourish for a while and then they are exhausted.”

Indeed, the people who do commit themselves to Columbia’s fine artists tend to see it as a form of civic duty. A La Campagne on Broadway has an entire upper floor dedicated to showing the work of local artists, for instance, despite the fact that the extra space cuts into the profit margin of its main business, antique and furniture sales. Former Poppy co-owner Jennifer Perlow, who recently opened PS Gallery on Broadway, pledged to maintain an inventory that includes 50 percent local art, even though she knows from experience that it’s harder to move.

“Columbia’s is a market culturally diverse and highly educated, so the appreciation is there,” she says. “This market has the money - it’s just a matter of getting them to spend it locally.”

Downey says that the hybrid business model is probably the best approach for Columbia galleries, since anyone who tries to rely on the sale of fine art is going to struggle. But Columbia physician Joe Parks, who collects art, says that a combination of public support and private responsibility will only keep the arts alive in Columbia for so long. “The city can be supportive, but in the end, it’s the buyers who support the market,” Parks says. “If Columbians want to see it around, they’re going to have to go out and buy it.”

And it would help if they bought here, in Columbia. Chris Fredericks and others say that Columbia residents who do buy art – even art by Columbia artists – often buy it elsewhere.

“You know the saying, ‘The grass is greener on the other side?’ I think we’re kind of suffering from that,” Chris Frederick says.

Steiner says, “There are people that buy art from outside the community on a regular basis that haven’t set foot in a Columbia gallery, and it’s disheartening because we have incredible internationally-known artists in this community.”

One of them is painter Frank Stack, who came to Columbia in 1963 to teach art at the University of Missouri and has used that job to supplement whatever he earns from his paintings. Stack says that he is never able to predict what a buyer is going to like. Not that he would want to. “It always shows in the result if you think about selling it when you paint it,” he says.

Stack says that it’s nearly impossible to survive solely as an artist in a place like Missouri.

“People in the mid-west consider buying art a very low priority with their income,” Stack said, “I do about as well as most people - a few thousand dollars a year.”

Painter Joel Sager says that traditional tastes tend to dominate the local buyers’ market. In fact, Sager says he has seen a marked effect on sales since he began working with a new theme: war. His previous work, which features stark and stormy rural landscapes, sold pretty well, he says. However, his new canvases, a series entitled “Destruction of State,” resemble aerial photographs taken from the perspective of a ball-turret gunner or satellite imaging technology and have not been as accepted by buyers. Ostensibly landscapes themselves, darkened by the same sense of foreboding and imminent destruction as his stormscapes, they nonethless represent a departure from the more formal style that marked his earlier work.

But, like Stack, Sager is repelled by the thought of commercial interest influencing his work: “I don’t ever paint for the buyers,” he says. “I paint what I want to paint and I worry about who buys it later.”

Allan and Betty Burdick, Columbia residents who have been buying art for decades, have amassed a collection that includes both local and non-local artists as well as traditional and avant-garde pieces. Right around the corner from a Stack watercolor, depicting the creek that rushes past the Burdick’s home, one finds an abstract French wood-cut dating from the 1950’s. In the mezzanine, a stretched, three-dimensional canvas work titled “The Watchers” makes a silent commentary on the disentegration of the family unit caused by the advent of television. It hangs directly below another formal landscape.

“It may look like it isn’t related, but we don’t choose because it matches something else. We just choose things we see and love,” Betty Burdick says, who is optimistic about the future of Columbia’s fine art market. “I think it’s growing. There are a lot of galleries. I think it will keep growing if people keep buying.”

Steiner’s efforts to bring the sensibilities of local artists and buyers together through the Convention and Visitors Bureau evolved through conversations she had with Patrick Howe, a Seattle gallery owner she came across while seeking out ideas for arts tourism online.

Howe’s background is in advertising and marketing, which he is using to overcome what he calls the elite gallery system. Howe says too many people think art is for the wealthy and the educated. He says this is because, for a very long time, the cycle of creating and selling a piece of art was limited to a single, elite class.

The modern art gallery system still largely revolves on the old belief that the middle-class are not a viable market because their pocketbooks are too small. That’s no longer true.

“The thing is, people really do have money,” Howe says. “Culturally, the elite gallery system has framed in our mind sets that art is for the wealthy. Someone will go out and buy a $3,500 grill for the backyard, but won’t buy a $500 painting because ‘I’m not rich.’ The art world has not made art something that is accessible.”

To overcome this, Howe has tried to market his gallery differently in an effort to connecting with a wider range of people and to make art more friendly and less snobbish. His client list now includes his massage therapist, arts students and even his FedEx guy, he says.

“It has to do with connecting with people in a really honest, genuine, heartfelt way,” Howe says. “When people buy my artwork, they’re buying me. And who would want to buy artwork from someone they didn’t like?”

MU art history professor Kristin Schwain says that, as it seeks its identity as an arts destination, Columbia should consider the culture of the Midwest. The art world is just like any other economic sector, Schwain says; to be successful, the producer must create his niche. Just as Santa Fe offers western style and Eureka Springs offers romance, Columbia could present itself as the foremost destination for traditional arts and crafts.

“The state has such an investment in its history,” Schwain says. “There’s a solid interest in traditional music and traditional crafts. We do have a great amount of success if we’re talking about the traditional arts.”

David Spears’ studio is on the backside of Willie’s Pub and Pool on Broadway, down a narrow alley. It shares a wall with the Regency Premier hotel’s pool and is most easily reached by driving through the nearby beauty salon’s parking lot until you see the tiny red sign above a knob-less door. Spear has to share the windowless space with other artists, but at least he’s not working out of his home like many Columbia artists must do.

[photo]

David Spears is one of few Columbia artists who can afford studio space. His studio is located behind Willie’s Pub and Pool on Broadway. As of July, Spears had had the space for four years. Until recently, he didn’t even have a sign. Spears gets an idea for a drawing, poses the situation for a photograph and then sketches it in his studio.

(NICOLE DEVERICH/Missourian)

“The things that do worry me are the status of the rent and free spaces in downtown Columbia,” Spear says. “For any space, anything that wants to open and have a successful business in downtown Columbia, how are you going to afford it? The real estate market has gone up so much.”

Like artists everywhere, Columbia’s painters, sculptor, musicians and performers teach, wait tables, tend bar or sell services related to their art. Spear was recently able to give up a six-year bartending gig at Addison’s, whose walls still display his work. He survives largely on commission work from firms outside of Columbia. Recreating the history of H&R Block through paintings pays the bills, he says, but it doesn’t require as much creativity as he’d like and it doesn’t leave much time to focus on his own inspirations.

“If I sell one painting that I work on in my own time with my own idea in mind, that’s a bonus,” Spear says. There’s a sketch in his studio that was spawned by his reflections of Columbia as a transient town, but he grimaces a little when he talks about ever getting it finished.

But, even self-supporting artists like Spear need to be prepared for a downturn, says MU art professor Jim Calvin. “Artists are like the canaries in an economic coal mine,” he says. “As soon as the economy even hiccups, people are going to stop buying art. They’re the first people to get in trouble economically.”

Even though Columbia’s economy has remained stable and it has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, Spear says he has seen many artists give up on the city to find a better audience for their work.

“I see a ton of really good artists leave this town and go other places where things are happening,” he says, naming Kansas City, Los Angeles and New York as the top destinations for relocating artists.

While the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau prepares to commit more public resources to bettering the art environment in Columbia, several private initiatives are underway toward rthe same end. A group of old warehouse, just east of the Wabash bus station, are being renovated into Orr Street Studios by developer Mark Timberlake. The project will feature an industrial theme and a combination of studio space, meeting places and a community exhibition area. Though still under construction, most of the planned sixteen 8,000-square-foot studios have been leased by local artists. Teeter, who is a sculptor himself, says rents will be priced affordably, with free utilities, as a way to encourage artists to put a little more time into making art.

“Artists by necessity often work alone,” Teeter says. “But this gives them a chance to part of a group.”

Brian Pape, a developer and chairman of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Committee, has made a similar commitment with his planned reconstruction of the Diggs meat packing plant, the roof of which caved in earlier this year. He’s also included plans for studio space and an exhibition area along with apartments and a café.

This combination of public and private enterprise could make Columbia – always an attractive place for artists – a more attractive place for buyers and collectors, as well. Spear says he is looking forward to the day when “art” will be more than a word attached to the city’s image of itself and actually become an integral part of its culture and character.

“In the next five years, I think there will be a big surge,” he says. “Hopefully, it will be like Austin, Texas, in the middle of a red state. That’s what I’m hoping for, that people will come here.”


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