Beth Cullom is a polite, pretty, neatly dressed lady keeping one eye out for the authorities. She's staked out a spot at the Olympic Sculpture Park pavilion, a privately owned place like any cafe or bar suited to freelance wheeling-and-dealing, but full of natural light and with incredible views of water and mountains and monumental outdoor sculpture sometimes foregrounded by a couple practicing tango in full view on the patio or people doing tai chi. Cullom has not asked permission to be here. She plans to stay four hours, the duration of a single parking sticker.
This is not what Cullom had in mind when she opened an art gallery in the International District five years ago. Before that, she apprenticed with elder Japanese prints dealer Carolyn Staley, a job defined by the study of beautiful arcana and jetting off to Asia and Europe.
Cullom's own gallery, Cullom Gallery, specialized in art on paper, mixing antique prints with delicate works of today. When sales didn't pay the rent, Cullom closed the gallery on Main Street. That was July. Now, last Thursday, she enters the pavilion at the Olympic Sculpture Park clutching a large white portfolio marked "MUST RIDE FLAT." Out of the portfolio she slides a pile of original drawings, paintings, and prints. She sets them on the table, all the ingredients of a full tabletop art exhibition—one that can be packed up in a hurry, like a display of knockoff watches glinting in a trench coat in an informal System D economy on a city street anywhere in the world.
This isn't really System D: Cullom will pay taxes if she sells anything. She just doesn't have permission to be here, which has its own experiential quality, and if someone from the Olympic Sculpture Park is reading this, one hopes that person will not begin to spoil anything by either explicitly furnishing permission or denying it, that s/he will put down this story, walk away, and forget this ever happened.
Other equipment: a checklist of titles and prices for the art, a Square credit card reader, wrapping materials. Once set up, Cullom sits down, begins typing on her laptop to keep a low profile, and waits for her first customer to arrive. She's told Facebook she'll be here 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It's her first time doing this, but she plans to make it a twice-monthly event.
Her first customer approaches shyly, wearing a baseball cap over a long gray ponytail and sneakers, as if she, too, is incognito.
Art dealers like two things: presenting art—discovering it, learning about it, hanging it, talking about it—and selling it. Even after Cullom closed her gallery this summer, she made clear she'd continue to promote her roster of artists online and through house calls. She had two more ideas, too: unsanctioned stakeouts and Amazon.com. What one has, the other lacks.
Amazon promises the potential of a mass audience but brings some weird circumstances. There's a function where you click to see a photo of an artwork hung in an upscale room—the room is always the same: gray chair, ottoman the color of pea soup, art above soup—a function that has the effect of rendering artworks indistinct specks unless they are a certain size and type. In a short time, Cullom has sold two prints on Amazon. Both were antique prints that went to faraway buyers, one-click transactions that ended there, slightly to Cullom's disappointment, though she is quick to say, with hope, that it's too early to know anything about Amazon art, really.
The unsanctioned stakeout—a sort of art fair in dark glasses—is another float in an endless parade of attempts to find ways to sell art outside The Old Model (the gallery system, although artists have also sold on streets for centuries). It seems people will do just about anything to get art attention. Artists give it away in the mail, just give it away—Seattle's Carl Chew has been doing this to a small crew of devoted, unpaying "subscribers" for decades. This past summer, an art dealer in Atlanta bought a clunking VW bus and drove to 10 cities to show photography, calling it Crusade for Art.
In the food business, a pop-up might be expansionist. Here's another story involving a vintage vehicle: Skillet, the Airstream food truck that's grown into a sparkling (simulation of a) diner in two full restaurant versions. (Your prices make your food taste less cute, Skillet.)
Cullom's pop-up has no "pop" and no "up," being so low-profile that one customer had to ask someone at another table, "Isn't there supposed to be art here?" It's unlikely to generate a shiny new Cullom Gallery. Yet as an art experience, it turns out to be pretty great. Nothing is framed. Nothing's behind glass. Everything's soft and bright as it wants to be.
"I'll start with the really quiet work," Cullom starts, quietly, with a customer.
She spreads out 11 black-on-white-paper prints by Juliet Shen, inspired by an informal residency Shen spent on the polluted Duwamish River. Cullom and her customer sit talking about the ancient waterway, about speaking and painting, typography and art. Cullom turns over the portfolio like book pages, introducing another artist: Mugi Takei, whose eight bizarre, bravely confessional paintings look extra vulnerable this naked and close up.
Cullom's third and final artist—all are based in Seattle—is Robert Hardgrave. She has 18 of his pieces, a full, respectable solo show. One has dark hard forms suspended like fuselage on a milky piece of hand-marbled rice paper. It feels like Hardgrave's work has never looked so good, loose and wild like this.
Hardgrave himself arrives at the end of the day, the last of eight total visitors over four hours. No sales.
"But I did all that," Cullom says, "and I wasn't paying rent!" On October 29, Cullom will set up at a downtown bar for a night for the first time—trying out the nighttime version of the stakeout. Anything could happen. "I suppose if I show up and there's a giant bachelor party going on..."
"I was skeptical at first, but I trust her," Hardgrave says. About the dual experiences of being represented on the world's largest corporate website and in this whispery live show, he shrugs. "This is the world we live in."