Eric Salisbury at C Art Gallery
Eric Salisbury at C Art Gallery Lester Black

There’s a house-sized hole a hundred yards away from Eric Salisbury’s C Art Gallery. It’s one of those boxy depressions that you can see across the city, just waiting to be filled with steel, concrete and a new building. It’s also one of the reasons Salisbury thinks the rent on his art gallery just shot up from $1,140 to $1,500 a month.

“I don’t know if it’s because they’re building across the street and they want to make more money on the corner unit, but I had no notice on the increase,” Salisbury said.

That rent increase is threatening to shut down his C Art Gallery, which is one of the few black-owned galleries in the city. Since 2008, C Art Gallery has shown the work of underrepresented artists of color at its corner unit at Artspace Hiawatha Lofts. The five-story building, one block off Rainier Avenue between the International and Central districts, was built with a mix of public funds and tax-exempt bonds, including a $3.3 million contribution for the city, according to a spokesman for Seattle’s Office of Housing. That project helped establish 61 rent-controlled residences for artists, but that rent control does not extend to the commercial units, hence the nearly 30 percent rent increase Salisbury got hit with last week.

Salisbury claims he is being treated differently than the four other commercial tenants – a dance studio, a nonprofit bike shop, a café and a landscape architect – who saw only moderate rent increases, an assertion his property manager denies.

“The thing that got me a stir was when I met with other business people in the same block, everybody had either zero to three percent increases and I’m the only one that got a 35% increase.”

According to property manager Julie Alexander, Salisbury was benefiting from low rent due to an error in an agreement between C Art Gallery’s previous owner and the previous property manager. The rent increase was only an attempt to rectify the mistake, according to Alexander.

“I’m returning the common area maintenance charges to his rent as the other tenants have been paying,” Alexander said.

Alexander also claims that Salisbury is misrepresenting how he uses the space. She said that it functions only as a private studio for Salisbury, and he has done little to engage the space with the greater public.
“I don’t have a lease with C Gallery, my arrangement is with Eric Salisbury,” Alexander said. “I am renting to an individual artist.”

Alexander said she might negotiate on the rent if she saw more public activity in the space.
“I might be more inclined to giving him a little bit of a break on his base rent if I saw an active gallery,” Alexander said.

On a recent visit to the space Salisbury acknowledged that activity at C Art Gallery has recently stalled. He hasn’t hosted a new art show in the gallery for nine months and his own paintings covered most of the walls and sat in piles at the edge of the gallery, a table he was using as a desk sat in the center of the gallery.

“We haven’t had any gallery opening in about a year, but I have been showing artists work on a regular basis,” Salisbury said. “I showcase their work on the display glass in the windows and I have never given myself a show in three or four years.”

Hundreds of artists have shown their work at C Art Gallery since it was founded in 2008, many of which have used their experience at C Art Gallery into greater artistic opportunities. Admassu Addisu hosted a solo show at the gallery in 2014 before opening his own gallery, Tobya Art Gallery, in the Artspace Mt. Baker lofts. For Houri Ronasi, an Iranian-born artist, Salisbury had his hand directly in furthering her career. After seeing Ronasi sketching at a café, Salisbury offered her a solo show which has since turned into her showing work at Kirkland Art Center, which was written up by the Seattle Globalist.

“It was wonderful because the fact that it was my very first opportunity and it gave me the courage to believe in my work and reaching out more to galleries and becoming the artist I am today,” Ronasi said. “[C Art Gallery] is wonderful for the community because it promotes emerging artists and African Americans get opportunities that unfortunately, they still don’t get elsewhere.”

Cheryl Shaw, who founded C Art Gallery in 2008 but turned the business over to Salisbury in 2013 when she moved to Washington, D.C., said the lower rent was critical to offering a space to unknown artists of color.

“I was noticing there wasn’t an opportunity for artists to show their work year-round, especially minority artists,” Shaw said. “So, the purpose of the C Art Gallery was to provide an opportunity for unrepresented artists to show their work anytime of the year, rather than those times when there were those ethnic festivals.”

Shaw said she had to invest $60,000 of her own money into the space when it opened, and with the help of Salisbury tried to make the gallery a transformative space to address diversity through art.

“Art breaks through those cultural barriers, it [C Art Gallery] is not just a gallery where you hang art and sell it,” Shaw said. “How do you use art to encourage diversity and promote diversity and challenge people to think beyond their lifestyle?”

Debra Twersky, an arts facilities manager for 4Culture, said the public King County arts organization contributed $80,000 to the building when it was built in 2008 but does not maintain any current rent controls on the building. Twersky described Salisbury’s rent increase as unfortunate.

“As far as my own understanding of the whole situation with the gallery, I’m totally bummed that the gallery might be losing their space and it’s hard for me to believe that it’s only a month’s notice, that’s the most egregious part of it for me,” Twersky said.

Salisbury plans on negotiating with Alexander on the rent and has set up a GoFundMe page soliciting donations – he’s raised almost $2,000 of his $5,000 goal. He said he hopes he can lock in an affordable long-term lease.

“I want a long-term lease because I have a lot of plans and goals for this space,” Salisbury said.