Published on September 3rd, 2015 | by Katy Evans3
Tacoma artists versus the art world establishment
It’s been more than three years since Tacoma has a reliable, respected local art gallery. Three years ago I wrote about the closing of the Tacoma location of the William Traver Gallery and the questions I posited then are still relevant today.
Does the lack of reliable exhibition space impact Tacoma’s art scene? What about the collector scene? And what does it mean to Tacoma that we can’t keep a high-end gallery open? And do any of these “scenes” actually exist?
No traditional galleries, no problem?
The conversation regarding art, commerce, and artists in Tacoma is still relatively young and regularly debated: events like a gallery closing help continue the discussion, focusing our contemplation and interaction with our local art scene.
Where can the art-curious look for guidance in collecting and exploring Tacoma art? And are high-end galleries even the right place to look?
Tacoma has seen galleries come and go with an alarming but not, even at a national level, uncommon rate. Some have concluded brilliant efforts with much collective hand-wringing, some have flickered out with little notice, some have stormed out and perhaps a few of us thought “good riddance.”
None of these reactions exactly describes mine to the 2012 closing of the Traver Gallery. I loved Traver. As a former Museum of Glass employee and fan of glass art, Traver’s exhibitions and openings were regularly a favorite happening for me. But, as a poor person, there was never an opportunity for me to truly consider this kind of art ownership, making my presence and enthusiasm at an opening not particularly meaningful. I was just there to be excited, appreciative, and to enjoy free snacks.
In contrast, I have on multiple occasions, walked away from a show at Fulcrum Gallery with a coveted new piece for my collection; I write, exclaim, and speechify eagerly about local art; I try to recommend my favorite artists and creators to anyone and everyone looking for freelance contributors; I’m committed and vocal about supporting Tacoma artistry.
But outside of our local university art galleries, we don’t have a Tacoma gallery. Our art museums both have sophisticated gift shops that feature regional art at a high price, perhaps leaving little need or demand for pricey art in Tacoma’s downtown. Gallery representation is a part of one equation to realize one’s dreams of conquering the art world, but more and more we see different strategies achieving success.
Inspired by the shifting tides in Tacoma’s art scene, I asked for thoughts and opinions from a few of my favorite local artists, many of whom create and survive full time on their art.
What our artists have to say
As local artist Chandler O’Leary puts it, “It has always been true that galleries are dependent on artists for survival. And for many, many years, the reverse was largely true as well. But thanks to the advent of artist-entrepreneurs, widely available business resources, social media, and the like—the artist-gallery relationship is changing.”
Tacoma artist Lance Kagey puts it, “The traditional model of an artist doing their art and then having it presented by a stand-alone gallery is no longer a working equation to create living wages for artists. At least not around here.”
Between all five artists there were a few areas where their unanimity was telling: namely, none of these artists have regular Tacoma art-buyers above the $200 level, none of them are represented exclusively by any gallery, and they all have strong opinions about the efficacy and place for a traditional gallery in Tacoma.
“To be brutally honest, I don’t know anybody who frequents commercial galleries, including myself and other artists and collectors,” Chandler pointed out. “Unless there is a specific exhibit to draw one-time viewers, there are fewer and fewer reasons to visit commercial galleries—especially since there are more and more excellent shows at non-commercial (or non-art!) venues.”
Fulcrum owner Oliver Doriss succinctly states: “It’s just like those condos down there [Tacoma’s downtown waterfront] and much of the 2003 development boom. You can’t force a California business model onto a Tacoma City. It just won’t work and it ain’t Tacoma’s fault.”
Oliver has proven that he knows what he’s talking about, having for years maintained a brick-and-mortar gallery in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood with little to no neighboring businesses and no traditional customer base.
Oliver’s effort has not gone unappreciated. Says Lance, “Fulcrum is a great example where Oliver has another source of income and he uses the gallery not so much as a distribution point for art collectors but as a gathering place for the art community.” (Not only is this a validation for Oliver and his hard work, it also affirms my commitment to events-based on art-looking and snack-eating.)
As Chandler explains: “The Traver Galleries of the world wouldn’t dream of talking to me, but I’ve found that that doesn’t matter, because I’ve found a niche without them. And when I do have work for sale in galleries (or even regular retail shops), it doesn’t sell nearly as well—if it sells at all.”
For Chandler, about half of her overall sales every year are to Tacomans and her most successful means of selling in Tacoma are through annual studio tours, craft/art fairs, word-of-mouth, and Etsy. Lance Kagey and Beautiful Angle also find the most success selling online.
Chandler’s local income is made up of lots and lots of low- to mid-range buyers, but the vast majority of those are return customers.
Lance affirms this model, “I believe the working artist/creatives of today need to have a range of economic streams in order to create an eco-system that sustains their work. For example; several artists/creatives that I know who live in Tacoma own small business enterprises, vie for public grants, sell online, have gallery shows as well as do significant self-promotion in order to create the lifestyle they desire. I don’t know any who survive on the charity of a wealthy benefactor. I think this model is more challenging but more rewarding as well.”
Where is the local avant garde?
Tacoma’s landscape for artists and creative small businesses continues to evolve to a point where the difference between the possibilities for revenue generation by an independent salt and spice blender, a hyper-local cheese maker, a Dome District brewery, and a letterpress artist selling online and at local markets has blurred to near indistinguishability.
Of course, this model is pretty specific to more consumable artwork (prints, posters, jewelry, small, 2D artwork); what happens when your medium falls under the definition of a more avant garde or fine art (large scale paintings, sculpture, or experiential)?
Both Holly Senn and Elise Richman create complex, time consuming works of art, none of which can be easily replicated as prints or another low cost option in order to cater to Tacoma’s $40-$200 art-buying community. When it comes to the market for their work in town, their buyers tend to be friends and colleagues.
Holly and Elise exhibit regularly in the Northwest and are well-regarded throughout the region; as Holly says “I’ve found a lot of success exhibiting my work in Tacoma and Portland. And although I occasionally sell work, sales of my work are hard to come by, irrespective of the city where I exhibit.”
Although I wouldn’t be surprised to see work from any of the artists I spoke with in a traditional art space, Elise and Holly both create work that resonates with a clear contemporary “gallery” or “museum” feel: sophisticated, challenging, academic, often avant garde and of surprising size or shape, their art is definitely something I want but would think twice about touching.
Holly affirms the need for the art gallery space: “I think that galleries showing edgy, thought-provoking, contemporary art are necessary for a visual art culture to develop and survive. The galleries don’t need to be high end, they need to be risk takers.”
This subtle dichotomy between our more “accessible” (handheld/frameable art) and our more “contemporary” Tacoma art (art that doesn’t easily sit on a shelf) isn’t problematic but the spectrum deserves attention.
It’s important that we continue to exhibit artists like Holly Senn and Elise Richman but more than that, we have to discuss why their pieces challenge and engage us. At the same time, we have to continue the conversation of the importance of print and letterpress to our art community, and to reflect on the avant garde elements regularly displayed in Chandler’s, Beautiful Angle’s, and other’s work.
Addressing the need: Spaceworks, Tacoma Art Walk, and the City of Tacoma Arts Month
It’s clear we need and want access to a variety of spaces and places where we can explore and consider art and its creation.
Our museums, the annual open studio tours, and Spaceworks Tacoma are confirmed vital, valued, and exciting entry points for Tacomans and visitors to explore expression.
Elise echoes this need for variety, “It’s great to have a spectrum of venues for visual art. I think Tacoma would be even better served, however by a vibrant nonprofit space than by an established commercial gallery. I’m more interested in spaces that are driven by ideas and vision than the market.”
Spaceworks Tacoma is working overtime to bring this dream to life.
The Spaceworks effect is clear in the vital, potent 1120 Creative House, established by Spaceworks in March 2015. Between Spaceworks and the work of the revitalized Tacoma Art Walk, downtown Tacoma comes alive with emerging artists, performances, and installations in a way it hasn’t in recent memory – and possibly not ever.
This concept for dynamic, interactive arts space is a need we’ve heard expressed with growing regularity and it shares sentiment with another fantastic idea I heard from both Lance and Holly.
Holly imagines Tacoma hosting an art fair to encourage both local and visiting buyers.
“I’ve thought it would be interesting for Tacoma to host an art fair like Art Basel Miami–to bring in hundreds of local, national, and international galleries and artists for a huge event. I could see the event capitalizing on Tacoma’s water location by having events and exhibits on the Ruston Way waterfront and the Thea Foss waterway.”
“I do think there are things that could be done to develop the art scene in Tacoma. One major concept that should be explored is the idea of a nationally recognized festival of art/music. I know we have a lot of festivals in Tacoma, probably too many, but what I’m talking about is a major city-wide arts festival – think Venice Bienniale.When the broader region begins to see Tacoma as an art center, then the galleries and other arts enterprises will have a chance to flourish.
“But this kind of effort can’t be done by the artist community alone. It would need the Arts establishment (Tacoma Art Museum, Museum of Glass), it would need the real-estate developers, property owners, it would need the educational entities, it would need the business community and the government working in collaboration to really make it work.
What can we do now? Continue talking, dreaming and striving. Create new ventures, try new things, see if there is someone else doing something interesting that you can support or join in with to create the critical mass needed to sustain these efforts. It is very easy to get involved in Tacoma – something unique from other urban settings.”
I’m not sure a fancy, curated, internationally recognized art fair is the answer but it’s definitely a spectacle I would love to attend in Tacoma.
We have made some steps in a direction that could result in such an event.
Tacoma Art Museum annually hosts the respected Northwest Biennial; the University of Puget Sound, University of Washington Tacoma, Pacific Lutheran University, and Tacoma Community College all have strong, reputable art programs with talented faculty; the City of Tacoma hosts an entire month of art activities each November with regular impressive attendance; Tacomans regularly flirt with and produce many, many art festivals each year. What’s to prevent these forces from joining?
Like Chandler, Lance, Holly, Oliver, and Elise, I very much look forward to more continued experiments, innovation, and conversation about what art means and can do for our city.
The Travers may come and go, but Tacoma continues to mature and grow as a creative community and I can’t wait to see where we go next.
Originally published June 13, 2012 and modified with new information.
Featured image of an 1120 Creative House Art Walk poster.