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My husband and I invested in a neighborhood slated to become an up and coming “artist district” eight years ago. Had I visited the Art Center Gallery I would’ve saved myself some time and disappointment-especially me, after we purchased our home, I threw myself into helping the gallery, I joined the Gallery Arts Committee, worked for three years presenting a project to receive grants to bring public art to public spaces (outdoor murals), plus I at times supplied the gallery with fine chocolates and desserts for openings and created flyers for the Art Council Gallery events. I also joined the Visual Arts Committee in town where I did receive positive help to move forward with my mural project. Our community had a lot to recommend itself, but in retrospect, this experience taught me why professional artists and artisans shy away from joining any local art councils and committees.
I wish I wasn’t anxious to help out to the point I didn’t acknowledge the painfully obvious examples that clearly marked the community as lacking the kind of support to build a strong artist gallery center to service the public and support local and state-wide talent. So here are my tips to you all seeking an affordable area to invest in, or for those who’ve already purchased a home, the list below gathers experiences I’ve had from more than one town:
• Prior to buying, walk in the Art Center/Council gallery and check the current exhibit-is the work sub-par with a few sterling examples? Did the ribbons go to crafty collages overwhelmed with glitter?
• Are the exhibits always based on a theme, is it a dumb theme? More like a call out to artists to create something not representative of their body of work? Say a theme asking artists to plagiarize a famous painting? Why would a professional artist take time out from a commission to participate in creating something that wouldn’t sell? Are there no serious curated shows featuring top-of-the-line examples of work done in a specific discipline i.e. wood, clay or painting?
• What does the Gallery Gift Shop look like? In our previous town everyone local was obviously invited to put a piece in the new gallery shop which included a stuffed Raggedy Ann doll with garish orange-red yarn-hair-and yes there even was a painting on canvas board of a poorly painted kitten in a basket signed by the artist “Betty”. My digital collage prints and magnets featuring vintage postcards of the area sold very well-yet my work wasn’t given prominence in the shop along with work done by other strong artists and artisans. I’d walk in to find some Sunday Painter propped their workshop flyer on my display, I was always moving that flyer as I didn’t want the public to think I was the teacher, nor did I think sticking it on top of my prints made for a professional presentation. If a town financially supports a building dedicated to local and state talent they need to support the professionals whose work supports them in return i.e. work that brings serious buyers in. And they need to support more quality artists to place work in their gift shop and have pictures of such items on the Art Center website to draw visitors. Some of the amateurish works got weeded out, but unfortunately the damage was done and strong work–one by a popular, nationally known outsider artist disappeared from the shop.
• When consigning your work does the gallery manager expect you to log in everything you’re consigning while she reads a novel? When your work sells does it take forever to get paid?
• How is the lighting in the Art Center Gallery? Is it soft track lighting to highlight the works of art? or severe. color damaging florescent lighting? Do they have proper and protective displays for sculpture? I stupidly encouraged an artist friend who is a member of a prestigious international artist group-(niada.org) to submit one of her pieces for a show. The piece was stuck on a table next to the gallery guest book, at the opening one woman plunked her drink right next to it. I moved the piece to a safer spot and vowed never to promote this gallery to my colleagues again.
• What does the outside of the Arts Council Gallery look like? Especially at holiday time? Are professional pieces of sculpture arranged around the building? Is landscaping kept up? Our former town seemed happy to let the surrounding grounds go, potted miniature pine trees turned brown, and at Christmas time someone would stick garish orange-red bows and tinsel on all trees dead or alive. Yet downtown was another story, the mayor made sure all town-owned grounds were groomed. I emailed the “faceless”sterling committee in charge of this town’s cultural agenda offering to tastefully spruce the area up. I received a curt reply declining my offer. I emailed back that I lived down the street and stated dying trees and run-down landscaping de-valued our nearby property. They then did something about the property and even placed an impressive sculpture outside the entrance. Unfortunately the tacky Christmas display was up every year. Why couldn’t this committee kindly help the volunteer who took the time to put those garish bows up to select something more appropriate?
• What is your local arts council committee made up of? Or rather who? Is it overly ambitious Sunday painters looking to grab the email/snail mail list? Are all the committee members “computer illiterate”? Many are stricken with computer illiteracy to avoid doing any volunteer work that doesn’t serve their own personal agenda. It’s okay to insist on a win-win arrangement as in these hectic expensive times artists are on a limited budget and pressing time schedule, especially those working full or part-time to support their business. Yes volunteer, but the arts council should seek an incentive for quality artists/artisans to volunteer their time, such as waiving a show entrance fee, or yearly membership fee. Otherwise the volunteer turnover rate is high and this impacts the strength of the town’s cultural art’s presence at large. Stability is key. And lack-luster membership discourages valuable non-art volunteers from signing on to help.
• Does the local P&Z stand in the way of the Arts Council hanging a well placed banner at the train station or other high-traffic places? In some Connecticut towns and cities the P&Z seem to turn a blind eye to blight situations but oh would they be insulted at the idea of a well-designed banner promoting a local play, concert or show facing thousands of commuters every day.
• If you’re a volunteer, do your good ideas to build the visual artist presence crash and burn because some faceless committee who had the ultimate say said “no”. Are you never invited to meet this committee? Does this committee sit on art center project-agendas to the point nothing gets done?
• Do your ideas get stolen by a member or non-member with better town hall connections? Artists are small business people who support the local community through their taxes, shopping etc, they deserve the same recognition for their supportive efforts that other small businesses (i.e. local banks, jewelers, lawyers, insurance companies etc.) get when donating their time or money to a local cultural event. I did receive support for my mural project, but I initially put in all the work. After we moved from the town I was disappointed to receive at my OLD email account-I’d emailed them my updated address- a hastily sent LATE invite to the unveiling of the first public mural that went up in the town. I was indeed miffed that I wasn’t personally invited to see the fruition of my initial dream become reality, and a “thank you for starting up this project for our town” would’ve been the decent thing to do. Don’t discourage future professionals from moving to your town by treating them as if they’re invisible.
• Does the (paid) director of the town’s cultural arts center return your emails and phone calls? In our new town the director shoots emails all the time to members and keeps up on correspondence. The director job is all-encompassing and a busy one, but returning emails and phone calls is part of the job. I’ve had past experience from town-hired folk who never return emails.
• What kind of crowd shows up at the art shows? Is the crowd focused more on the refreshments and free wine than what is on the walls? Is work selling? Are they perusing the gallery shop or helping themselves to more fingerfood and booze?
This post may sound harsh, but if any professional out there could avoid wasting their precious studio time than I feel I’ve done my job here. Every town benefits from a strong cultural presence, but to sustain that presence, those in charge of the town need to know how to interface with local, professional talent. Some towns do this successfully. And artists pay attention too, if the town is really trying, respond by assisting in any way you can, they need you as much as you need them. A healthy win-win is for the good of all.