Pour one out for the lost art galleries of the last year—priced out of their spaces, couldn't make sales, or just plain exhausted: Fetherston. Prole Drift. Francine Seders. Grover/Thurston. Seattle ArtREsource. Legacy. Tasty. Bherd Studios. LxWxH. Vignettes. Ltd. Some were high-end downtown mainstays, others were cornerstones of their neighborhood art walks. Some transformed, others retired, but all of them unscrewed the lightbulbs when they left. But before that poured-out drop has even hit the sidewalk, another slew of fresh-faced dealers is already hard at work. What makes them think their fate will be any different?
Traditionally, anyone wanting to sell art in Seattle would rent a Pioneer Square storefront, paint the walls white (or off-white, for the daring), and establish a roster of artists. The artists created the work while the gallerist insured it, handled press and advertising, flung it on the web, mounted monthly exhibits, schmoozed collectors, sold it, and took a cut. Most of the city's major galleries still function this way.
"I had my traditional gallery for five years," Beth Cullom told me. "And I realized, I was stuck on my own little island." Cullom migrated online after closing her eponymous brick-and-mortar gallery in 2013, and now counts herself fortunate. "I couldn't walk out of the gallery to go on studio visits—I had to stay behind the desk. All my time was taken up being curator, installer, preparator, and janitor."
And though she sensed shifts in the moods and tastes of the larger arts community, the faces that came around for every First Thursday art walk tended to be the same. "Arts people can think they're the center of the universe," Cullom said, "and that everyone will come to you. Not necessarily. Seattle is getting bigger and there are more venues all around town: Staying in one spot doesn't work."
So Cullom trimmed her artist list, packed up her inventory, and hit the road to become a mobile gallery. She now sets up her table each month at hotel lobbies, cafes, museum atria, and art fairs. She'll show her entire inventory at a collector's home one morning and then set it up at a neighborhood art walk the same night. The portfolios are accessible to anyone who wants to touch, smell, and buy.
Did the shift worry her artists? "There were some raised eyebrows... but all the artists I asked to stay with me did so. They put a huge vote of confidence in me." She feels the system even works better for some: Rather than putting pressure on them to finish a large body of work in time for a yearly show, she picks up work as it's completed, honoring their pace.
Though she's spent the last two years doing a lot of explaining to collectors (and her own artists) about her mobile model, she wouldn't trade her new flexibility and responsiveness for the reliability of four white walls.
"I'm free to go anywhere now. I'm on the leading edge of what's going on in the city, making connections, attending events. I'm not stuck in my white box anymore."
While some dealers are stepping out, others are staying closer to home—literally. In 2010, Robert Yoder began showing quarterly exhibits in his Ravenna house-gallery SEASON. Simultaneously, Sierra Stinson started installing art in her Capitol Hill studio and sold work in bimonthly exhibits titled Vignettes. They packed viewers in, becoming must-see, one-night-only events. Aside from their scenester hype, Stinson explains their popularity as a rare form of intimacy for artists and viewers alike. SEASON continues its exhibits today, joined recently by month-old apartment gallery Calypte and Two Shelves, which limits artists to the eponymous two shelves on which to display work.
Vignettes, however, has left the home-gallery scene. Stinson closed the final exhibit last year and locked the door behind the last interloper. She and new business partner Serrah Russell have since mutated Vignettes into a web-based company that represents and sells art, conducts studio visits and interviews, and curates exhibits in other physical spaces.
"Vignettes may have begun in a studio apartment, but it's grown beyond us," said Stinson and Russell. "We see physical spaces as important and valued, but not always necessary. Right now, we see the value in the flexibility, freedom, and reach that comes from not having a monthly rent on a gallery space, but being able to share work with a broad audience online and to collaborate with various physical spaces."
Having given up their meatspaces, both Vignettes and Cullom often rely on other galleries to allow them to mount larger-format shows in their spaces. Cullom sees these partnerships as more powerful than the old-fashioned cutthroat competition.
"Why does everyone have to have their own four walls? Traditional galleries hold their cards so close to their chests—the mantra is protect the client list! At this point, with the web and social media, that's delusional. It could be so much easier for everyone. The younger generation seems to intuitively grasp that."
Not everyone is ready to recycle their white boxes—some are doubling down.
Sharon Arnold's experience has run counter to Stinson and Cullom's. In 2010, she started her online-only art-subscription service, where buyers received the art sight unseen. At the time, she questioned the efficacy and sustainability of physical spaces. But by 2012, she came to understand the value and necessity of physical space to a community and opened LxWxH with silent partner Kirsten Anderson. They closed it in 2014 to join forces at Anderson's powerhouse pop-surrealist gallery Roq La Rue.
Packing in crowds during the art walk and boasting an impressive number of red dots each month, the co-owners aren't even a little tempted to trade in their keys.
"A brick-and-mortar space is essential," said Anderson. "Anyone can curate a show or make an online gallery. Having a physical space gives artists confidence that not only do we want to get as many eyeballs clapped on to their work as possible, but that we are successfully discerning and powerful enough to run a good-sized physical venue for as long as we have."
Every approach involves risk.
"Opening a new gallery space is incredibly easy to do," said Arnold. "The hard part is in keeping it alive and getting through the rough patches and sticking it out. You have to do it for the right reasons."
Anderson agreed: "You have to have a really strong vision of what you want to see happen. You have to be absolutely committed."