Are you interested in art?
"Yes," he said, giving me a curious look. "Why?"
Had he ever been next door?
Well, sort of. He didn't much like the art at James Harris. He loved Mariane Ibrahim, though. So, he told me, he made it a point to attend Mariane Ibrahim on the evening of every first Thursday of the month—during Pioneer Square Art Walk.
Art Walk is the one night when throngs of people do go to art galleries. Whether they actually look at the art is an open question. It's a social event.
So I asked the barista, whose name is Jonathan Pekar, whether he ever goes to art galleries in daytime hours.
No, he said, just opening nights, same as he did when he lived in New York.
When I asked why, he replied, "Are they open?"
"I'm not clear," he continued. "I get the impression that they're open during the day, but I'm not sure if it's open for everyone at any moment, or if they reserve it for certain people and I would need to make a request, or an appointment."
I drank the very good coffee Pekar served me, and I walked a block away to an art gallery called SOIL. Behind the desk in the back of the gallery, Natalie Jenkins was having a typical weekday. In other words, nobody was walking through the door.
"Maybe we should just put cats in here," she laughed. "You know, like a bookstore."
I asked if she's had other ideas for getting people in the door.
Like putting on a Mona Lisa costume and wildly waving her arms in the street. What about that? She graciously moved on.
"We did a show called Lunch [in September 2015], where we served a fruit buffet every day," she said. "We printed the invitations on bag lunches and invited people to eat lunch here. We wanted to make the gallery like a park."
It turned out the gallery is more of a walled garden. Lunch brought a few people. Mostly it was crickets.
"Maybe we should have done this other idea we had," she went on. "We would invite in somebody from the nonart world, like a fireman, and they could give a talk on any subject at lunchtime, and invite their people."
What if people only paid attention to the fireman and lunch and not the art?
"As the artist, I'd be a little down," Jenkins said, her voice lowering, her shoulders sagging sorrowfully. Then she perked up. "I'd also just be excited someone would be here!"
We fell quiet. Still nobody came through the doors. An old dot-matrix printer on a pedestal in the middle of the gallery started screeching and rumbling. It was a work of art by Jessica Hoffman, remotely controlled.
If a piece of art stirs to life in an art gallery and there's no one there to see it...
The joke was too easy. Jenkins and I both saw it coming, said it at the same time, and burst out laughing.
Yeah, maybe cats, I told her.
Then I left her to sit alone for some more hours, hoping for the arrival of someone. Anyone.
As a full-time art critic, I often leave an otherwise-empty art gallery. And when I leave, I often feel a little protective, like a mother whose child is busking on the street with nobody stopping to listen.
Occasionally in those moments, I want to put on a Mona Lisa costume myself and wander the city flapping my arms, calling out "Art here!" like a knickered newsboy.
Sam Davidson described attendance at his gallery, Davidson Galleries, during its regular business hours, Tuesdays through Saturdays. He used a single word.
James Harris's gallery is also in Pioneer Square.
"Foot traffic is zero," Harris said.
Yes, yes, I know: "The traditional gallery model is changing." I've been hearing that refrain at least since the rise of biennials and art fairs in the 1990s and 2000s.
The thinking goes that old brick and mortar is tragically 19th century. Well, that was when it emerged, after all, as a scrappy entrepreneurial alternative to the stuffy, snooty Academy's stranglehold on art in Britain and France. When I say "brick and mortar," I'm generally referring to a commercial gallery in a fixed location where art is on display and for sale during regular hours.
For a decade, I've been told that physical galleries are so yesterday, so predigital. Everybody's positively over space; it's about time now. Projects, not monuments. Closures are repackaged as advantageous downsizings. This is the age of the pop-up, the one-night-only, the ephemeral online event.
"Every sale we make involves the internet in one fashion or another," said Greg Kucera, the veteran high-end contemporary dealer in Pioneer Square. "Every sale."
"If we didn't have the internet, we'd be out of business," said K.C. Potter de Haan of another Pioneer Square stalwart, G. Gibson Gallery, celebrating 25 years in business this summer.
The disembodied internet now makes even the embodied world of art—of paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, installations, performances, and video and film displays—go round.
One byproduct of the age of the internet is new dalliances with old art values.
"There's something so romantic," said Tracy Cilona of Twilight Gallery in West Seattle, about art shows rooted in a sense of the ephemeral, as more of them have to be when brick-and-mortar shops are untenable.
Cilona loved the old art-show series Vignettes, where every month, inside Sierra Stinson's studio apartment, a solo installation by a local artist appeared for a single night like a phase of the moon. If you missed it, you missed it. Now Andrew Whitver does the same thing at his 1909 Capitol Hill condo, and he calls it Calypte. It has that same magic.
I love the romance and performance of fleeting events, but they also have their old habits and fixed narratives—and sometimes the setting is the draw, rather than the art, breeding predictable artistic moves.
Pop-ups are only one part of the ecosystem, not a substitute for the nutrition provided by another part: brick-and-mortar galleries where I can return more than once, where I can skip the crush of an opening, where there is someone behind the desk who represents the democratic idea that anybody can enter this place from off the street, knowing nothing, having no money, and not needing to be part of a crowd that received an invitation.
Are you surprised to hear me say that art galleries are democratic?
Art galleries have worse PR than sharks. They're still seen as elitist places where high price tags for the work on the walls keep regular people out. And like sharks, they're getting killed out there—especially the midsize commercial galleries. Most of the galleries in Seattle are midsize commercial galleries.
You might consider James Harris a larger gallery, and by some measures you'd be right. Harris does employ an assistant, Judy Anderson.
"She makes more than I do," Harris said, looking over at Anderson.
"Yeah, that's sad," Anderson said.
In the world of retail, art galleries are mom-and-pop underdogs, not Gucci stores.
The foot traffic isn't the worst part, Anderson said. "We'll ship everything out here, we'll set it up, nothing sells, we ship it back."
"Having to report back no reviews and no sales, that's not fun," said Stephen Lyons, owner of Platform Gallery. "The one that killed me was when I had Kelly Mark from Toronto and only two people came [to the opening]. When this place started 12 years ago, there were a lot more people writing about art. Elliott Bay [Books] was down here. It's different now."
PUNCH is, like SOIL, a cooperative, not a commercial gallery. Its members pay dues to cover the rent. Like Platform, PUNCH is located in the arts-focused Tashiro Kaplan Building, and the rent is not rising. These galleries aren't closing for financial reasons. Their founders are just done.
PUNCH's members live in Eastern Washington. One of them, or the exhibiting artist if that person is not in the group, drives out every day the gallery is open—three days a week—to sit at the desk and welcome the public.
"We really scratch our heads when we drive two hours to sit and nobody comes," said Justin Gibbens, founding member. "You feel good about a 10-person day."
Many of the people who sit behind the desks in galleries have plenty of work to do online. But at least part of their job is just sitting around waiting for people to show up, even if those people have no intention of buying art.
Cilona keeps Twilight Gallery's doors open in West Seattle by subsidizing the art in the back with handmade jewelry and gifts up front. "I live on very little," she said. Her focus is on women who make art. Cilona's version of cats/firemen/dressing as Mona Lisa is that she secretly drives around the city writing down the phone numbers listed on new construction projects and cold-calls the developers to sell them art. Sometimes it even works.
Diana Adams of Vermillion supports the art in the front of her gallery with a bar in the back.
"The life span of any gallery depends on a lucky set of circumstances that are very fragile," Adams said. Even with her hybrid business, she relies on a supportive landlord and family.
No other industry would tolerate, even deliberately preserve, the inefficiency of art galleries where so few people visit—and yet art cannot do without art galleries. It must be seen in person.
"It amazes me how much I'll sit here and watch people walk by, back and forth, and nobody really knows we're here," Lyons said about sidewalk passersby. "I started out as a studio artist, and here, I've gotten to extend what I'm good at, which is really graphic design, by arranging the work of better artists. That's what has kept me in my chair. But it's doing the same thing over and over again—isn't that the sign of insanity?"
At the same time, Lyons said that it doesn't sit entirely right with him when he makes a sale to someone who's only seen the art online.
"To be honest, it kind of freaks me out because you're not experiencing the work before you plunk your money down, and I don't get to really cultivate a relationship with you," he said.
And also being honest, he added, "On the other hand, I never turn down a sale." Artists want their work circulated.
And thus, Platform is closing up shop and going online after all these years, with plans to occasionally produce a pop-up or two.
"Going online is the new 'I'm going to be an art consultant,'" Kucera said. "It's the graceful way to exit."
Art galleries are maligned and misunderstood. I would like to clear up a few things about these places I think you will like if you only get to know them.
First, art galleries have hours like any other business. During the hours they are open—most galleries are open Wednesday through Saturday—you can stop by anytime. You can leave after two minutes. You can stay for two hours. You can ask questions and talk to people, or you can remain silent. The person behind the desk will probably say, "Hi, let me know if you have any questions" at the beginning, and "Thank you" as you leave, unless you indicate you'd like more.
The most vital detail: Art galleries are free. They do not charge admission. This is a difference between museums and galleries.
"People will call and ask if there's a charge, or ask at the door," said Shayla M. Alarie at Davidson Galleries, who understands why there is confusion. Museums train people to associate art with money, but museums don't sell any art. Galleries associate art with money by selling it, but they also offer it for free to everyone else, and always have. It's good publicity, and plus, most artists would rather sell nothing and have a hundred people see what they made than make one private sale and not have a show.
At Davidson, Alarie, who handles antique and modern prints, exhibits amazing stuff: Goya, Rembrandt, Escher.
Showing that art for free is what makes art galleries democratic.
Alarie, who studied art history, genuinely wants to share the art regardless of whether you plan to buy it or not. This is why a gallery is not a Gucci store. Your curiosity, not your money, makes you welcome.
Tariqa Waters runs Martyr Sauce. Waters is a painter. For three years, Martyr Sauce was nothing but the stairway leading up to her apartment. But this summer, Martyr Sauce will be one of the few galleries to expand. Waters found a sublease for at least two years in an old music hall underground at Second and Jackson.
"We're gonna be like 'Thriller,' rising up," she said, doing the zombie "Thriller" dance.
She hates snotty galleries. "Don't give me no side eye that I'm wasting your time just with my presence—that I'm imposing," Waters said. Martyr Sauce is near a park where plenty of people without steady shelter, jobs, or art habits congregate. Waters deliberately sits out with a PBR and a cigarette in her baseball cap.
"You've got to meet the grit," is how she thinks about it.
Crossing the threshold is a block. "They come in with their tails between their legs, saying, 'I'm sorry, I'm not gonna buy, I'm just gonna look—is that all right?'" said Miranda K. Metcalf, also at Davidson. "It's like, 'This is for you!'"
Metcalf watches Craigslist on behalf of the gallery, looking for a trailer shell. She wants to buy a cheap trailer, build it out, pack it full of prints on sunny days, and drive it up and park it in South Lake Union with the food trucks. Goya, meet Cheese Wizards. Rembrandt, Thai-U-Up, you are about to have much in common.
Ben Forbes hates First Thursday Art Walk. He goes to the galleries the day after, on Friday afternoons, which dealers say is their slowest day. Forbes was one of the lonely few to show up at G. Gibson that day, so I asked him why he thought people don't go to art galleries.
"You don't know why someone would put that art on the wall, and you're afraid to ask, and you don't think you'll believe the answer anyway," he said.
"You'll like certain art at first, and other art later if you keep looking," he said. The worker at G. Gibson knew him and greeted him, but he is typically not buying. His mother brought him up to appreciate art, so he does.
"I'm not a collector, or I'm a collector who doesn't buy very often," Forbes told me. "I'm a visual collector."
In recent years, Seattle has lost brick and mortars, including Grover/Thurston, Ballard/Fetherston, Bherd Studios, Prole Drift, and Francine Seders, some of them as longstanding as a lifetime, some after a good run of more like five to seven years.
To Kucera, too many galleries are closing and too few are opening up. Food trucks are to restaurants what pop-ups are to his gallery, he said.
Linda Hodges was the one dealer I spoke to who said traffic is fine. She attributes it in part to location; she's right on First Avenue, which is full of tourists and sports crowds.
It's not as if every closure is a tragedy.
"Perhaps if we think of a gallerist as a storyteller...then there is an arc to that story, and when they are done telling it, they are done," wrote Sharon Arnold on Facebook in response to the news of Roq La Rue closing.
Roq owner Kirsten Anderson explained the gallery was actually successful, but she was simply finished and wanted to turn her attention to environmental conservation rather than art.
"Eighteen years is quite a bit of a lifetime, in Kirsten's case," Arnold continued, urging a look at the bright side. "Twelve years is also a big chunk, in the case of Platform. These stories were all compelling, eloquently told, and gently closed without catastrophe."
Arnold has the right to say such things because she's opened her own gallery this year, Bridge Productions, in Georgetown, after having closed a space a few years ago directly across the hall from where Bridge is now. She's still, determinedly, telling her story of the artists of this place.