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THE STATE OF THE ARTS: REARRANGING THE PLAYING FIELD

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By MATTHEW NASH


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Lately, there has been a lot of news concerning the closing of a number of galleries in Boston. In issue #80, I wrote about this shake-up, and argued that while it is a shame to lose these galleries, many of whom have been very influential and featured great artwork, this was not a great upset in the larger picture and that Boston's art scene was still very strong. While I still believe this, certain questions have been raised that cast a shadow over the perception of the overall state of the arts, and provoked a number of discussions about where the markets are headed.

In an effort to understand some of the larger issues at stake, I posed a number of questions to three gallerists whose venues are not closing: Kristen Dodge of Judi Rotenberg Gallery, Camilo Alvarez of Samson Projects, and Arlette Kayafas of Gallery Kayafas. Their responses show a strong and resilient arts scene, although one that is going through some tough times. Boston does not need any of what Edward Winkleman calls the "Art Market Deathwatch Cheerleaders."

Arlette Kayafas points out that the number of galleries that have announced that they are closing or moving to new spaces is not a sign of any great economic upheaval. "I believe that the closing of what appears to be many galleries at this time is a double edged sword: It may appear to outsiders that there is a problem but I believe that we are just rearranging the playing field. In the SoWa area all of the leases renew at the same time which gives many galleries the opportunity to rethink their direction, their stable of artists, and their willingness to continue -- also rethink careers!"

These changes, though, are happening at a time when economists are debating daily on television and radio about a possible recession. With gas and food prices up, there are larger forces at play than simply which area is hot for buying art. "The art market is part of a global luxury goods market. I guess Obama questions it best, "As a country, will we honor wealth or work?"" says Camilo Alvarez.

Dodge notes that one advantage of this "luxury goods market" is that it is not deterred by the larger economy: "Looking ahead, the art market in general- and Boston is not exempt from this- will experience some belt-tightening. People acquiring art at lower numbers will likely withdraw from the market first, whereas people who have committed to collecting and designated a substantial amount of money and space to art, will continue to pursue this passion and luxury. They won't experience as much of a hit by the economic downturn."

One of the most important changes in the global art market has been the rise of art fairs. With collectors traveling to these events in search of better deals, the impact on individual galleries has become obvious. Greg Cook, in a piece about The Rhys Gallery leaving Boston for Los Angeles, quotes Colin Rhys:

"At the end of the day, do you need a space like this in Boston? Is there support for it? We do 90 percent of our sales not in this gallery," Rhys says.

Art fairs "are here to stay, a new paradigm," says Alvarez.

"The more the art fairs and the internet become major players in the art market," says Dodge, "the more virtual galleries become. The upside is that local galleries are gaining national and international exposure, developing a broader client base, and coming to the attention of curators, writers, etcetera who otherwise, most likely, wouldn't have been introduced to the gallery. These galleries are bringing attention to their program, and consequently, back to Boston itself. There is an opportunity here for Boston to be on a broader radar, however, if there isn't much of a scene to discover, then we all lose out."

Yet, the art fairs also attract collectors who might buy from local galleries and give their money to local artists and dealers. Kayafas points out that "Art Fairs are places to be seen -- it has more cache to say you purchased at the Art Fair, or in New York for that matter. I think Boston has to work hard to keep up with New York. Art Fairs allow buyers to see things from all over the world. Recently I was at AIPAD in New York and there were many Boston buyers!"

Dodge agrees: "There are serious collectors who live in Boston and travel to other cities to acquire their work. The goal is to get them to turn around and look at what is right in front of them. The notion that you have to travel elsewhere to find great art, or artists who are producing serious work, and gaining international exposure is a trained habit."

The art market is based, in large part, on perceptions, hype and trends. While (as I've previously pointed out) these changes within the Boston landscape are not major or definitive, the perception that Boston is in a downturn lingers. I asked about whether this was good for the remaining galleries, with less competition for collectors and artists, and Kristen Dodge summed it up best: "I am of the opinion that it is not a good thing that so many galleries have closed or are closing this year in Boston. Part of what creates a vibrant art economy is having a collective art scene wherein each dealer or Director is pursuing their own mission or agenda, yet all parties are contributing to the activity and energy of the art scene in the city. Boston is a small city relative to the major art hubs in this country, and benefits by having as many players sustaining the arts as possible whether through non-profit or commercial ventures. The thinner the numbers, the smaller the scene, the less convinced both local and outside collectors will be of Boston's viability in the broader context. In short, I don't like seeing Boston shaved down to fewer venues."

For the artists of Boston, Kayafas points out the obvious: "The one downside: where are all the artists going to go now? So much talent and so little opportunity to have your work seen..."

The galleries in Boston are competing in an incredibly globalized market, in which collectors are now offered a number of opportunities to buy great art from galleries around the world. What we face is not an economic challenge, but a public relations one, as collectors look to the fairs for artists and galleries seek more fair-friendly art.

Looking to the future, both to the impending recession and the economic upturn that will inevitably follow, Kayafas offers this optimistic and encouraging thought: "I believe that there is a group of people that continue to buy regardless of the economy -- but newer collectors are more cautious not just with the expenditure of the money but with the resume of the artist. In Boston, we have a wealth of excellent new talent -- these newer artists are to be watched and collected now along with the known and established. People need to trust their instincts and buy what they like -- looking at a lot of work helps improve one's eye."

While Boston is "rearranging the playing field" and rumors abound, it is important to note that those whose livelihoods depend on this art scene are optimistic. Numerous other galleries remain open and active, and our college and university galleries are showing amazing work. If our non-profit and alternative galleries rebound, Boston retains a strong foundation for artists to launch their careers, and for collectors to pursue exciting artworks. The best thing we can do as a community is support the galleries we love, buy the work of artists who inspire us, and work hard to ensure a strong and vibrant arts scene in Boston.


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About Author

Matthew Nash is the founder of Big Red & Shiny. He is Associate Professor of Photography and New Media at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and was the 2011-12 Chair of the University Faculty Assembly. Nash is half of the artist collaborative Harvey Loves Harvey, who are currently represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston and have exhibited in numerous venues since 1992.

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