I read an article in my local paper, stating that in spite of the closure of two of my city’s longest running art galleries, the art scene in Concord is thriving. The full article published in the January 29th Concord Insider can be read online here: Despite gallery closures, art scene going strong. If you haven’t had a chance yet, please take a few minutes to read the article, as it will provide context for what I have written below.
Anyone living in Concord for the last few years can attest to the growth of visibility of the arts that have been part of the development projects in town, especially in the South End, where I happen to live. There is more art displayed on Main Street, more art in restaurants and banks, more art on the street during the artist markets and street festivals, and this has been a very important step in creating a “hub for art” as the article attests.
It has been interesting to watch this development through the perspective of being an artist, and all signs point to an increase of opportunities for those creatives among us, except for this one detail – that two of the longest running art galleries in the Concord area were unable to keep their doors open, even during this time of increasing focus on the arts. Why would a community where development is focused on supporting the arts not be a place where seasoned businesses directly connected to the arts are able to survive? The article doesn’t ask or answer this question, but I have an idea myself of why that might be.
It is one thing to increase the visibility of the arts in a community, and quite another thing to support it directly. Concord’s collective efforts to increase visibility of the arts have been very successful, but how much of that has resulted in direct support to the artists themselves? Direct support is measured, in my experience, by the amount of actual dollars put into artists’ hands. What the closing of McGowan Fine Art and Mill Brook Gallery tell me as an artist is that the Concord community may enjoy looking at the artwork displayed around town, but this has not necessarily translated into direct support for the artists themselves through the purchase of their work. One would imagine that Concord should be able to support these kinds of businesses now more than ever, but that has not been the case.
It is wonderful to see new and varied works of art while doing business at the bank or eating a burrito, but these opportunities are somewhat limited for the artist displaying their work. It provides interior decorating for the business space, and increased exposure for the artist, but these types of display opportunities do not build a long-term and supportive market for artists that is needed to sustain a their creative work. Galleries build relationships with the artists they represent, and support them throughout their creative careers – a very different experience from what a small business owner focused on their own pursuits can offer.
What about the League of NH Craftsmen gallery on South Main Street, you might ask? The League is a nonprofit organization that gains support through tax deductible donation and revenue generated by the annual crafts fair they hold at Mt. Sunapee. Their gallery space is generously subsidized by the owner of the building where the gallery is located. The League does many wonderful things to support its members, but this is not a business model that retail galleries in Concord can follow, and is not a level of success that translates to other art display locations in town.
The public art project that provides downtown Concord with its many fine sculptural works pays artists $500 to display their work. This stipend often does not fully cover the cost the artist incurs to install the work, and definitely isn’t enough to cover the expense of materials and the time spent creating it. It provides exposure, and if a piece is sold, the City of Concord keeps 30% of the retail price of the sale to put toward the purchase of future works of public art. This financial arrangement means the city is essentially taking the place of the gallery owner, except without any of the career-spanning support or marketing expertise a retail gallery offers the artist. This also means that artists themselves are ultimately paying to purchase permanent pieces of public art for the city, through the commission on the sale of their work. Why would the city have a public art development plan that is built on the back of the artists themselves? Why wouldn’t they want the artists to benefit fully from the sale of their own work, in exchange for the intrinsic value that having the work displayed on Main Street provides the Concord community? What this 30% commission policy also means, from a practical perspective, is that artists have to raise their prices to accommodate the commission, raising the retail price significantly enough to make the purchase of their work outside of the reach of the average person. Often, this kind of exposure for artists never translates into any kind of direct support for their work.
What I would like to see be part of the thought process of making Concord a “hub for art” is not just more and higher visibility for the arts, but better opportunities for artists to receive direct support for their creative work. This isn’t just about opportunities to display work, it is about educating and encouraging people to purchase the creative work they see around them. It is also about developing community art opportunities that focus directly on nurturing the artist in ways that translate into financial support. Too often artwork is used as entertainment, a value-added visual experience that fails to generate the sales that make it possible for artists to continue to create. Concord has the artists making the work, now it needs to focus on creating a community of people who value the artwork they are seeing enough to purchase it. Until this essential part of the equation becomes just as important to developers in this city, the dream of Concord being an art hub is not a financially sustainable goal.
If you don’t believe me, ask an artist, or better yet, someone who used to run a retail gallery in the City of Concord.