Evolve or Die

Sharon Arnold
Sharon Arnold

My gallery in Georgetown, Bridge Productions, is both a commercial and an experimental space. The shows I exhibit range from video and installation to traditional painting and drawing. My hours run later than most galleries, sunlight pouring in from the large west-facing windows. Informal, unplanned gatherings frequently take place on the couch and floor as visitors—artists, designers, curators, tech folks, writers—
get into deep conversations about racial equity, intergenerational mentorship, the future of the art world. This is success, for me.

But maintaining a brick-and-mortar gallery is tricky in an industry subject to market fluctuations and unstable revenue streams. Survival depends on flexibility and a willingness to embrace dramatic cultural shifts.

In the last 10 years, galleries have been closing across the U.S. and Seattle is no exception. In addition to rent and utilities, galleries spend money promoting artists’ work, publishing catalogs, cultivating collectors, traveling to art fairs and placing their artists in museum exhibitions. Profit margins can get so narrow that many small to midsized galleries have a rough time staying afloat. Fewer galleries means fewer shows for artists; fewer shows for artists means less potential to build a career, let alone make a living.

Not all is lost. The rise of social media allows artists and galleries alike to nurture our fan bases through online relationships. New web platforms make it easy to create commerce sites where clients can purchase artworks. Some galleries don’t even have a physical space anymore and exist solely on the Internet, where they show and sell art. 
In fact, Bridge began this way.

Independent curators are turning unexpected locations into exhibition sites—public spaces with little to no overhead. In these settings, minimal expense allows for a more generous split between gallery and artist. (Traditional galleries usually take 30–50 percent while unconventional venues take 0–20 percent.)

But how do these models remain viable if they focus on enabling artist exhibitions rather than selling artist works? Art-as-object will never go away but art-as-experience is quickly becoming the way people build relationships—and good business is always about relationships. The communities we build today will become our collectors and patrons tomorrow. Some of the people who buy from me now were people I exposed to the art world through my writing and projects 10 years ago.

Let’s look at some examples of emerging models. Vignettes began as a home gallery and now curates exhibitions at partner venues such as the Capitol Hill boutique Indian Summer and the International District’s Glass Box. Its website showcases artists on a curated exhibition page, and enables easy purchasing of individual works. Writers contribute essays that provide a behind-the-scenes view of their studio practice. The Vignettes model emphasizes artist experimentation, collaboration, intimacy and community-building over commerce.

Two Shelves and Calypte Gallery follow a similar model by opening their living rooms to engage with art on a more personal level. They encourage artists to experiment with the limitations of quirky rooms and limited shelving, emphasize collaboration between artist and curator and, during shows, introduce people who might not otherwise intersect.

Season, in the Ravenna neighborhood, is another home gallery. It hosts compelling exhibitions, promotes its artists to collectors and publishes small catalogues, creating a valuable archive for both the gallery and its artists. Season channels its earnings into art fairs where it can expand its audience of collectors to further the careers of the artists it represents.

My Georgetown neighbors at Interstitial began as a pop-up that took over unfilled calendar dates at at Form/Space Atelier in Belltown. It then shifted into a roving 6-foot-tall box showcasing video art, parked on the sidewalk during art walk events and other street celebrations. Now a fully formed nonprofit, Interstitial occupies an upstairs room in the same building as Bridge, spotlighting new media, digital and installation artists from around the world.

Another neighbor of mine, the Alice, is forging a new path as a curatorial collaborative, unique in providing a venue specifically designed to highlight curatorial ideas and analysis. Run by four curators, it emphasizes innovative work by artists from across the U.S. The Alice hosts artist talks and a monthly writer’s residency in addition to programming Project Diana in the main foyer of the Hamilton Studios.

Some of the most exciting art events these days are produced by group collectives, particularly Lion’s Mane Art Collective, dedicated to showcasing socially minded visual art; and TUF, which began as an electronic music collaborative and now produces multidisciplinary shows. These two models represent LGBTQAI people, women and artists of color, featuring installation and digital arts, literature, music, collaborations and workshops. They produce festival-like events which create an inclusive, celebratory environment open to the public for about the cost of a concert.

The cultural capital of a city depends on the growth of its creative contributions. Our success hinges on our ability to connect to people and generate excitement about the arts—which means welcoming our guests to join us in building the way art venues take shape. New forms emerge, and we merge with them.