This is an obituary. Like most obituaries, it is paid for by the survivors—in this case, by Michael Rivera-Dirks, the former owner of Viveza Art Experience, the Belltown gallery that closed at the end of 2007. He purchased this obituary through Strangercrombie.
It's an unusual obituary in that businesses don't usually want their demises documented. What use is publicity to them at that point?
Rivera-Dirks has his reasons. He still wants to promote the artists he believes in, chief among them Casey Curran, Francesca Berrini, Raymond Morrow, Doug Smithenry, Eric Olson, and Eva Speer. Plus, he wants to thank and to encourage the 125 people who bought art at his gallery since it opened in July 2003, many of them first-time collectors.
The cause of death is, basically, exhaustion. When Rivera-Dirks opened the gallery, he was a wide-eyed and energetic 28; now, he's nearly 33 and in dire need of a beach sabbatical. He sank $200,000 of his own money into the gallery and didn't earn a cent. This past December, he introduced his artists to the larger art market by taking their works to Art Now, a satellite fair to Art Basel Miami Beach—it took a lot of money and effort, but he only sold two pieces.
"It's a hard business," Rivera-Dirks says with a sigh, giving me a tour of the loft gallery. Art remains on the walls, but the space has been staged as an upscale condo, since it's for sale.
Our meeting was at 8:00 a.m., before Rivera-Dirks commuted to his full-time job as a marketing manager at Microsoft.
"My strategy for Viveza was the belief that if we could set ourselves up to exist for a virtually unlimited period of time, financially and energetically, we'd eventually be able to become successful," he wrote in an e-mail. "We would learn from our mistakes, we would continue coming up with new ideas to tackle the business, we'd learn and we'd grow... This is a good strategy except for one underlying faulty assumption: That I would be able to maintain the energy required to work full-time in a demanding job while still trying to work half-time (with helpful staff) on the gallery business."
Rivera-Dirks toiled for his artists, said Curran, who makes delicate and intricate wire-and-found-object wall sculptures with moving parts. (Curran is now represented at Gallery IMA.)
Rivera-Dirks "discovered" Curran at the Cornish College of the Arts BFA show in 2006—where Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was also checking out Curran's stuff—and offered him a solo show on the spot.
"He definitely went the extra mile for his artists," Curran said of Rivera-Dirks. "He printed up about 6,000 fliers for my show. He bought a piece of everybody's work for his own place. He's an art lover."
When the gallery first opened, Rivera-Dirks slept there, pulling his inflatable bed out of the upstairs closet every night and lying down under the creepy shadows of a Dia de los Muertos show. That didn't last long. Neither did his lack of a business plan, and by the third year, Rivera-Dirks had also developed a guiding aesthetic—he called it "the aesthetic of complexity," meaning that each work fires on multiple levels—and a monthly payment plan for intimidated buyers. (Viveza showed mostly painting and sculpture, not prints, which are less expensive.)
In an attempt to streamline the business through outsourcing, Rivera-Dirks employed a virtual assistant based in Ukraine and a publicist from Dubuque, Iowa. They worked out well, he said. Freelance researchers from India, not so much.
Rivera-Dirks got into the business in the first place simply to be involved in the arts—or to stay involved. In 2001, he had founded the Viveza Friend Film Festival, where he provided equipment and classes to anyone who wanted to make a short video and hold public screenings at Seattle theaters. Back then, Rivera-Dirks was an artist himself, making films and videos exploring "complex systems." He earned double degrees, in film production and computer science, at the University of Iowa.
Getting out of the gallery racket may be good for him. He may make his own work again, or simply rediscover the pleasant labor of amateur appreciation.
"Running a gallery is not like being in the art world," Rivera-Dirks said. "There's nothing worse than: Oh, there's a great work! Now... how are we going to sell it?"