Yes, local art sales have slumped and local galleries are closing. From the perspective of a working artist though, I have been amazed that this area has hung on so well so long. The national scene has been in a slow but continual 20-year decline. Of the 12 most substantial galleries I once exhibited in throughout the U.S., only one is still standing today.
Gabrielle Gopinath's article on North Coast gallery closings ("Artists Without Galleries," April 11) was well written and timely, but I'd like to add a few more reasons for the lack of art sales.
The 2008 (Republican-caused, once again) recession definitely put a damper on discretionary spending. Even worse, it transferred a lot of real estate from the poorest mortgage holders to equity-rich landlords. Here in Arcata, young would-be homeowners are still elbowed out of the market by people (more often than not my own Baby Boomer contemporaries) who already own four or five or eight or 20 other houses.
We are fast becoming a renter's town. It's tough to become a new or first-time homeowner in Arcata. And all new building is rental investment, not the family home building that anchors a stable community.
Who buys art? Not renters — when you don't own your own walls and will be moving soon anyway, you don't make significant art purchases. Not us old people somewhere between retirement and the grave — we're trying to get rid of the stuff we already own too much of. And definitely not the homeless.
So who buys art? The 1 percent. Aside from them, locally, art has traditionally been bought by people with the bare walls of a new home to adorn. Locally or nationally, as living spaces become investment opportunities rather than homes, there won't be a lot of substantial art sold.
Then there's the problem of price when it comes to quality works of art —galleries add substantially to that price. If I as an artist receive, say, $800 for a painting, it will have to go out the gallery door for $1,600. That's a big difference and, for most people in today's economy, it's generally a deal breaker.
Since more and more people are at-will employees, private contractors or simply don't have either benefits or retirement plans, price counts for a lot. I couldn't afford to buy my own art. (Luckily for me, I have quite a bit of it ... or, unfortunately for me, I have too much of it beginning to accumulate here at home.)
I don't bring that point up to discredit North Coast gallery owners. They have done incredible work for decades to present us with the richness and diversity of this art community. I have particular admiration for Sue Natzler — her ability to recognize art of true integrity has been matched by her willingness to go out on a limb to present it to the rest of us.
Whether galleries open and close, though, should not be the real indicator of the health of the art community that has been built here. Our national King Midas culture finds little value in anything we can't turn into money. The real value of living in this little corner of the world is that so many people are working on so many levels in creating every type of art imaginable and that they are supportive of one another. Around town I constantly run into little musical and visual gems by people I had never heard of before — gems whose only profit may occur in our souls.
We are probably closer to the first people scratching images of buffaloes and hunters into cave walls, making images because we can't help ourselves. I can probably also use a cave painter analogy to remind myself that new generations bring their new mediums and new ideas. It's entirely possible the market demand for cave painting or watercolor landscapes is not what it once was.
We live in a bubble filled with paintbrushes and canvases, tubas and fiddles, poets and dancers, young and ancient, journalists and clowns, keyboards and screens. We were all creating long before we could make a dollar on anything we came up with and if the economy completely collapsed, we would keep on creating. We don't wait until retirement to do those things we truly want to do.
North Coast galleries have really honored the unique creativity of Humboldt County — and they hung on as long as they possibly could into the trickle down economy. Now, though, if we want to continue experiencing the wealth of public local art, it is more important than ever to support our local nonprofit arts organizations. Honor the tip jar. Pay homage to Libby Maynard. Buy some new reeds for that dusty clarinet. And real estate agents: Please tip your scales in favor of first-time home buyers.
Alan Sanborn is a local artist who is glad to be part of this community. He lives in Arcata.