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Persistence of Chicago Art Galleries

I’ve spent the quarter compiling and analyzing data exploring the persistence of Chicago art galleries, as a way of exploring CAR for the arts.  I found a list from the Chicago Artists’ Coalition of 96 such businesses that existed in 1990, and tracked their fate.  A story summarizing the trend follows (an assignment for my Arts Reporting class).  You can see the accompanying searchable database here.  That page will also soon include a Flash visualization exploring the decline in those original galleries over time, sortable by area and medium. (UPDATE 3/7/10: The Flash visualization is now posted.)

Gallery owners: Flexibility necessary for survival

Chicago’s local art gallery community is a tight-knit group.  Ask them about the industry’s history. They’ll tell you this city was once seen as a mecca for new, up-and-coming art galleries – but that was in the mid- and late-1980s.  And things have changed since then.

There was a time when dealers at these personalized institutions sold everything from paintings to kaleidoscopes to cards – all to a stream of clients with a variety of interests from across the globe. The pieces they sold gave customers a respite from the large-scale department stores that had emerged in earlier decades, where so many items were mass-produced.  Art collectors knew they could get something special at one of the at least 96 galleries that existed in Chicago as of 1990.

In fact, the Chicago Artists’ Coalition put together a list of these galleries that were within the city limits, as well as others in the suburbs and further downstate. It served as a resource for their members to learn where they could sell their work.

Fast-forward to 2010, and some gallery owners will tell you the heyday of the 1980s has vanished, and Chicago isn’t able to support galleries the way it once did.   Others don’t bemoan the health of the gallery industry.  They say it’s manageable, if you’re smart about your expectations for your business.

Deven Golden, director of the Compassrose Gallery in 1990, said, “We used to say we were an international gallery that just called Chicago home, but that dried up at the end of the ‘80s.”

Golden, who managed the River North gallery that closed in 1992 after founder Jim Rose’s death, has since moved to New York to pursue his career as a gallery owner.

The persistence of these galleries, their ability to survive, is one way to measure the health of the visual art industry in Chicago.

The Medill News Service followed up with representatives from the 96 galleries listed in the city as of 1990, to find out their fate.  Analysis of a database created from this information revealed that six other gallery owners had similar thoughts to Golden, and they have moved their galleries out of state since 1990.  And 34 of the 96 galleries have relocated within Illinois, often remaining in Chicago.

49 galleries from the original list are now closed.  That’s just over half of the total.

To survive the change in the economic climate in the past 20 years, some gallery owners say they have expanded their inventory into other areas. While they still consider their businesses galleries, they have other interests.

Karen McCauley is the manager of Gallery Genesis, located on the South Side.  It’s one of seven galleries to stay in its same location since 1990.  McCauley credits the business’ success to a shift in focus.  “We’re more of a church goods and religious supply store now, than anything else.  But we are still a gallery.  We keep artwork on display upstairs, and we do sell it.”

She said the gallery was successful with its original focus on religious art until the early 2000s, and then it just wasn’t bringing in enough money in its current form.

“We’re in a niche that’s very small and specialized, it’s definitely hard,” McCauley said.

Gallery 1633, located on the Northwest side, is one of the nine galleries from the 1990 list that has closed in the past five years.  It closed in 2007 when co-founder, and then-owner, Montana Morrison decided to move it to Red Bluff, Calif.  Bill Dixon, husband of the late Morrison who died in late 2009, said that the gallery was affected not just by the artistic market in the area, but by the neighborhood as a whole.

“It just wasn’t like it used to be, wasn’t the same experience to live or work there,“ said Dixon.  “It was overcrowded, generally.  It wasn’t a comfortable place to shop, or to live.”

Others thought the prevailing issue was the lack of visibility for the gallery community in Chicago by the public at large.  And that’s a problem for a business in an industry where so much relies on word of mouth.

River North’s Center for Contemporary Art closed in 1996.  According to Cheryl Pelavin, who worked at the gallery in the 1990’s, the reason was clear: “Lack of prestige,” she said simply.

For many gallery owners, these issues meant that their love of art dealing often took them away from the city they called home, as they found the market increasingly difficult throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s.

Golden of the Compassrose Gallery now owns his own gallery, Deven Golden Fine Arts, in New York.

“In the ‘90s, we sold 60 percent of our art to people outside of Chicago, “ he said of his work at Compassrose.  “I don’t think we were alone.”

Golden said that for many international clients, it was often easier to get to New York from Europe.  The Big Apple also created a certain experience for these collectors, which Chicago simply didn’t have, he said.

“Collectors like to go to New York,” said Golden.  “When people were starting their collections, they’d go to Chicago, and it’d be fine.  But when people started to buy enough, suddenly it would matter and click, and they ‘d move on.”

At the end of the 1980’s , the gallery scene was on its way up,  Golden said.  At that time, he thought it might meet the success and prevalence that theater now enjoys in Chicago.  But that would have required more substantial backing from the city.  “We never got to the critical mass that we needed.  It just didn’t happen,” he said.  “The city had a lot of trouble forming its own identity as an art community.”

And Golden said he wishes that weren’t true.  “I could’ve stayed in Chicago.  But I liked the gallery thing. I thought to myself, ‘I want to have my own, and in Chicago, it’s just very difficult to do.’”

The declining climate for galleries isn’t specific to Chicago, though. Golden owned a gallery on Manhattan’s 57th Street for five years, and in the early 2000’s, he lost his backer, and had to close that gallery.

He’s now opened a new one, but he sees it as more of a side business that supplements his work at Artsystems, where he designs software for art dealers.

Yet others have made it work in Chicago. One such gallery owner is Cheryl Pertl, whose A.E.S Gallery has persisted in Chicago since 1990.   The business has moved three times, but has always stayed within the city limits.  “We go where the customers are,” she said.  She added the key is being flexible as the market shifts.  While she previously focused on mediums, such as painting and sculpture, now she carries works across media but only covering one topic: McDonalds. She said that attracts a specialized, and dependable, client base.

Pertl now also owns the Ogilvie-Pertl Gallery, which opened in 2000 in the River East Art Center.  As opposed to the modern incarnation of A.E.S., it has a broader specialization.  Her tip for success is to recognize that treating a gallery as a sole source of income may not be feasible.  “I make my own art, too.  If you think you can just exist on the money you make from a gallery in Chicago, well, it’s not that you can’t, it’s just extremely difficult.”

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