January Issue 2002
by Teri Tynes
I work as the director of a large art gallery,
and I often greet individuals who have never wandered in such
a place. On more than one occasion, a new visitor has nodded at
me or another member of the staff, smiled, and said politely,
"I love your museum!" Now, I have often wanted to run
after this person and yell, in a most impolite fashion, "This
is not a museum! We actually SELL these things in here!"
Most recently, a woman gingerly entered the gallery, took one
look around and announced, with some desperation, "No, It's
not me!" She didn't even see what was there, but I realized
that I could not make this woman less afraid.
For those of us in the art trade, some forces are beyond our immediate control. We do what we can as artists, arts administrators, gallery owners and directors, etc.- to forward our own goals, but someone out there, in the great beyond, should have already taught someone the difference between a museum and an art gallery. Someone should have also helped that woman be less afraid.
Those of us in the art community always need to remember that we function within a larger political, social and cultural context. History, events, and trends often shape the way we do business. Take, for example, the context of the South. This is an area of the country in which commercial life and urban development took root much slower than in the North. In the planter's economy, business was often conducted at the auction house. Artists, who were around to ply their trade, looked for affluent patrons, not art galleries. Cities, by and large, the entities that would support a vigorous retail business, did not fully develop in the South until World War II. Public education, too, was a latecomer to the South. For art galleries to really become part of our landscape, we need a much more vigorous retail and urban market and with it, a smart populace that can tell the difference between a museum and a gallery. We do have to catch up. Some smart-thinking chamber of commerce types here do know that art galleries and museums can be a powerful tool for economic development, and we should encourage them. Still, the heritage lingers. Many people, acting as their patron forefathers, directly buy their work from artists, or at auction. The heritage also means struggling with a de facto segregation of the art market.
Outside the context of the South, a larger context emerges that deeply affects all those in the art business. The combined events of September 11 and the persistent recession have made our work that more challenging. At one of the most exciting times of the year for most galleries, when shows are fresh and exciting, many potential patrons stayed home to watch on television the unnerving sequence of events. The effect of terrorist bombings made many uneasy with going out in public, and it is often said that one of the results of September 11 is that people want to stay at home. This does not bode well for those of us in the gallery business who best thrive in a vigorous and lively urban culture with people mingling out in the public space. Like with the woman who was too scared to enter the gallery, I can not make so many people less afraid.
Now, with the recession, many people find themselves
reluctant to spend money on anything they do not deem as a necessity.
Even among the affluent there's discussion about priorities and
choices. Along the South Carolina coast, thousands of second homes
have gone on the market. Many people are choosing not to travel
far for the holidays. But what are people buying? In many cases,
people will buy what they perceive to be necessities and that
is usually shaped by what is most successfully mass marketed.
This may mean that people are more likely to buy digital cameras
than original art, a new computer with a name brand over an original
artwork by someone they do not know, or at the very least, a print
by Thomas Kinkade over something wonderful by the craftsperson
or artist in their own community.
As a result of the recession, state legislators throughout the country have chosen to take the politically expedient route of cutting programs and agencies rather than raising taxes. This, in turn, means that there will be less funding for education, less for arts agencies and historic commissions, and less for public-supported museums. The boards of trustees at state supported institutions are then examining how to function, and it is not surprising, given the overall climate and values, that they are looking to cut spending on the arts and museums there as well. This deeply affects all of us in the art business. We can't educate audiences all by ourselves. Schools need to do most of that.
While I have painted a gloomy picture of the overall climate in which the arts must operate, I do think there's a way out. All of us in the art business must realize that our own problems are shared by others, that our individual problems of running a gallery or trying to sell our own work are deeply influenced by forces outside ourselves. This helps us to think of ourselves more as part of a shared community. When we begin to think this way, that our problems (they ARE "problems," not the cheery "challenges" championed by corporate manager types) are collective, then we can begin to think about how we change the big picture. Write letters, visit your local congressman, support your downtown development association, lobby for greater education spending. Go into a store and buy a beautiful piece of art by someone you don't even know. Hang out downtown. Talk to strangers. Encourage others to do the same. If we are shaped by a larger landscape, then that is where we also need to work.
Teri Tynes is Gallery Director at City Art in Columbia, SC and an arts writer.
Mailing Address: Carolina Arts, P.O. Drawer
427, Bonneau, SC 29431
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