Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Bethesda gallery renamed

Today I received a press release announcing "Waverly Street Gallery formerly Creative Partners Gallery's" Holiday Show (a multi media show featuring the work of Gallery Artists) from December 4, 2007 through January 5, 2008, with an opening reception on Friday December 7, 6-9 pm.

What took me a little bit by surprise was the fact that Creative Partners had renamed itself. Their new website (which as of this AM does not work for some reason is

Since I am in a "do as I say, not as I do," mood - and actually thinking about re-naming Mid Atlantic Art News to something more generic in case I spread my wings to New Mexico in the future - this question will sound a little hypocritical.

Why do galleries with a long established presence rename themselves?

Creative Partners is one of the Greater DC area's top cooperative galleries, which means that it is an artist-run, artist-owned gallery, where all members share all of the gallery's expense, and like many of the co-ops around the DC area, and other metropolitan areas, they have been around for a ton of years.

So they have name recognition, which in the gallery world is a good thing.

And thus the question: why change the name?

Creative Partners is the second area gallery to do this recently. Factory Photoworks renamed itself Multiple Exposures Gallery a couple of years ago. Like Creative Partners, Multiple Exposures, nee Factory Photoworks, has been around for decades, and showcases some of the best photography in the region at very affordable prices.

I could call Creative Partners and ask them the question. But it is more interesting to elaborate and guess on a generic reason why an established gallery would change their name.

In the case of a cooperative, I think that the reason may be simply to begin the process to re-invent itself; to attempt to establish a new presence, by disassociating somewhat with the past.

I don't think that changing names is necessary for this; in fact, I think it may hurt the cause (if that's the cause). It is spectacularly hard to do a global change for any and all presences where the "old name" exists: directories, press lists, websites, online resumes, roledexes, etc. Unless you are careful and do it right, you can wipe out an entire digital footprint with a name (and website) change.

I am a big fan and supporter of cooperative galleries. Together with independently owned commercial fine arts galleries, non-profit galleries, university galleries, museum galleries, and alternative art spaces, they make up the visual arts tapestry of a city or region.

All galleries everywhere, including fabled places like New York and LA, struggle to survive and sell work in order to pay the artists, pay rent, pay for publicity, pay for openings, pay for electricity, pay for the plumber the 2-3 times a year that somebody flushes a sanitary napkin (or one of those indestructible hand towels) down the toilet at an opening and clogs the pipes, pay for websites, etc.

Selling art is not an easy task for the most adept of galleries and gallerists. The tales of sold out shows and shows that sell out before the openings are sometimes true, but also sometimes exaggerated as a publicity stunt. I know for a fact of a former DC area gallery (no longer around) that used that storytelling line to create this "sold out" aura around the gallery that was fabricated most of the times.

Selling art in the Greater DC region is a especially difficult task, and a hard one to understand. Selling art in the Philadelphia area appears to be just as difficult, if not more, than the DC region. Both areas have more than their share of very, very wealthy people.

A lots of upper income bracket people as well. The estimated median household income for Bethesda, Maryland (where Creative Partners is located) was around $114,000 two years ago, and the median house or condo in Bethesda is around $850,000. By the way, it's $150K and $950K in nearby Potomac.

And you can research your head off and find out that generally speaking, the Greater DC area is making more money than most of the rest of the country.

But cracking the code and getting people to actually buy a piece of original artwork is a very difficult process, and unfortunately for the galleries and for artists, they only control a small part of it.

The most difficult part is getting people to actually know that there are galleries, and openings, etc. Getting the potential buyer to the gallery, or aware of the gallery or artist, is the key, and of course the most difficult part.

And because most galleries can't afford the rents right on the main commercial streets (say M Street in Georgetown, or Bethesda Avenue in Bethesda), they're usually found in clusters just off the main drags (like Canal Square in Georgetown, R Street in Dupont Circle, or to the side of East-West Highway in Bethesda, like Creative Partners - on Waverly Street I assume). And galleries, hungry for low rents and bigger spaces, are usually the first ones that begin to revitalize a sketchy neighborhood, such as the former Fusebox Gallery did for 14th Street (for galleries anyway) and Conner Contemporary is doing for the entire business community in their new location. And let's not forget that a few decades ago, a handful of artists took an abandoned building in boarded-up Old Town Alexandria, removed forty truckloads of garbage from the building, refurbished it and created the Torpedo Factory and kindled the birth of a new tony neighborhood and destination.

That means that you usually do not have the luxury of "walk-in" traffic of people walking around the nice shops, boutiques, restaurants that line up high end commercial streets like Bethesda Avenue or M Street, etc.

And the stores that sell pretty wall decor pieces on those high rent streets do gang buster business. In them you find every variation of the "painter of light" theme, or the art of rock stars (dead or alive), or TV celebrities artwork, or perhaps Russian kids who paint like Picasso (and have since grown up).

And they sell all of the above for serious money.

The kind of money that could buy serious art, not wall decor.

And the buyers think that they are buying serious artwork.

And then they drop another grand for a rococo frame to go with the wall decor.

And from my own personal experience, every once in a while, a handful of times in a gallery's lifetime, one of those buyers "discovers" a real gallery and then a collector is born, if the gallery is good enough to educate and open the person's eyes.

Why are these would-be collectors so hard to bring in from the dark side? A while back I submitted this thesis:

Because they were not exposed to art in their upbringing. Not because their parents were bad, uncultured people, but because their parents were hard-working stiffs who worried about the rent, the electric bill, the food bill and paying for junior's college so that junior could get a Computer Science degree and go on and invent AOL.

And in college, junior probably was not exposed to art other than the two or three peripheral courses that he needed to get his electives; certainly not to buying art, or even aware that art was for sale.

And then junior works hard and becomes a millionaire, and now has disposable income out the yingyang, and looks around for expensive toys, because as George Carlin is fond of saying, we all love to collect "stuff."

And he sees ads for expensive cars, expensive furniture, expensive cigars, and he reads tons of reviews for the latest trendy restaurants, etc. But he's never really made aware that there's also art out there, for our local media has a spectacular sense of apathy towards the visual arts in our area. The Washington Post is the only major American newspaper that has a freelancer deliver around 25 reviews a year to cover an entire year of DC area gallery shows, and they allow their chief art critic to review only museum shows. Very little attention is placed upon our art galleries by the newspapers, certainly not commensurate with the amount of print space that they give theatre, music, dance, fashion, etc.

So junior doesn't know that the DC area has a really good and creative visual arts scene.

Thus when junior takes a stroll through the city's main shopping streets, he doesn't know about the side streets where the galleries are, but sees the stores passing for art galleries that sell the pretty, expensive "pictures," and then junior assumes that this "stuff" is art.

And he drops a ton of money for a pretty "picture." It happens all the time, otherwise these stores would go out of business.

But instead it is the art galleries that go out of business: Veerhoff (after 125 years), Numark, eklektikos, Fusebox.

Every once in a while, junior - usually by accident - discovers a reputable art gallery, and sometimes a real collector is then born. It has happened to me, as a dealer, many, many times. But for every one of those, thousands of others remain on the dark side, or worse still, think that they have to go to New York to find contemporary art.
The apathy shown by the media towards art galleries and visual artists is multiplied by a thousand if you happen to be a cooperative gallery.

Art critics, writers who write about art, art bloggers, and other assorted scribes in the art scene tend to ignore cooperative galleries and their artist members. It is immensely unfair and short-sighted, and reflects an interesting sort of neo-connish tendency in an otherwise very liberal crowd. Like the same group's general dislike and distrust of any artist who is liked by the public in general; or public art that the public likes. It's an interesting paradox that has always intrigued me.

I've never been a member of a coop gallery, but have juried shows for coop galleries many, many times, and intimately know artists who have and are members of cooperatives. And thus I have some insight into the inner workings of galleries such as Creative Partners is.

Like I said, running an art gallery is not an easy task - as Washington Post Arts editor John Pancake once told me, it is a "heroic act."

Running a gallery by committee, as coops by default are run (and non-profits are supposed to be run), must be the task from art hell. And like any committee running anything, 10% of the people usually end up doing 90% of the work.

It's a paradox of its own. The same strength (equitable distribution of expenses among artist members) that makes a coop nearly invincible to the economic forces that makes opening an art gallery the second riskiest business proposition in the nation (restaurants are first), is its most visible weakness (direction by committee).

Trying to convince 20 or 30 voting members to agree on what colors to paint the gallery walls must rank up there with trying to get any Presidential candidate to answer a "yes or no" question with a "yes" or "no."

Getting the talented bunch over at Creative Partners to change names to Waverly Street Gallery, or the amazing photographers at Multiple Exposures, nee Factory Photoworks, must have been a herculean task.

And if the name change main reason is to set a new presence and a new footprint and a new direction for the gallery, and hopefully generate more noise (reviews in newspapers, blogs, etc.) and more sales, then there's a whole complex set of other issues that would need to be addressed. Issues too long and exhausting to list here, but important for a gallery re-inventing itself. Issues such as preserving online presence, learning how to improve art sales, visualizing and implementing a "new" physical presence, distributing the workload with specific goals, website presence and organization, selling avenues to explore, aggressive press presence, display, etc.

Otherwise, it would be the same as when Esso renamed itself Exxon: new name but same old gas.

Trescott on WPA

The WaPo's Jacqueline Trescott with an excellent article on the WPA's separation from the Corcoran first reported here.

You can also read the official news release here.

WaPo Blog Directory

The Washington Post has started a new blog directory with some very cool capabilities. If you are a blogger, you can register your blog here.