Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Gayle Marie of Jackson Hole, Wyo., says she had no intention of buying art last spring and certainly had not planned to spend a total of $1,000 on three pieces.
But something happened when she visited Hat Ranch Gallery, about 30 minutes south of Santa Fe on the Turquoise Trail. The gallery’s owner, Sara West, presented Marie and her friends with guacamole and margaritas when they arrived. West later invited Marie to a European-style salon for a light dinner and a discussion with a small group of art-loving strangers.
Marie made multiple purchases from West over the month she was in Santa Fe. She says she plans to return there in the future, though this time she “won’t be unprepared to buy art.”
The guacamole, the salon, the hosting: West describes it as part of her attempt to create a gallery that stands out from the rest. Since it opened in November 2017, West estimates more than 1,000 people have visited Hat Ranch Gallery, and that her average visitor spends between 60 and 90 minutes there.
“No longer are we in the time when you can put a shingle out and make thousands of dollars from walk-in tourists,” West said. “. . . To thrive, you need to give people a different kind of experience.”
West isn’t alone in that sentiment. Gallery owners across New Mexico are tweaking their business models to accommodate a customer base that increasingly buys art online and in smaller quantities than in the past.
Will the new approaches succeed? The answer will resonate throughout the state’s art scene as well as the New Mexico economy.
Simon Brackley, CEO and president of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, describes art galleries as “one of the hardest businesses to track.” Transactions often take place out-of-state, leaving little paper trail available for analysis, and galleries may be inconsistently categorized in economic data, depending on the services they offer. But he said the impact on the state’s financial health is undeniable, even if the numbers are hard to come by.
“(Galleries) are a real job creator, whether it’s selling the art itself, shipping it or having someone install lighting in the building,” Brackley said. “It’s quite a multiplier.”
Jeffrey Mitchell, director of the Bureau of Business & Economic Research at the University of New Mexico, said that multiplier impact is declining as an increasing number of customers purchase online instead of visiting galleries in person and spending money on hotels and restaurants in the process. Still, Mitchell says “galleries are clearly big business in (New Mexico),” though the frequency of out-of-state transactions often means New Mexico doesn’t collect gross receipts tax in the process.
A 2015 report, the most recent year for which such data is available, estimated the state’s 500 galleries generated about $300 million annually in sales. Mitchell says today’s numbers are likely much higher.
It’s not just the shift to e-commerce that is challenging the traditional gallery model. Lauren Tresp, publisher and editor of Santa Fe-based arts publication The Magazine, says while the market for high-end art and those sold at low-dollar points appear to be relatively healthy, the market for middle-range art is collapsing nationwide. Part of the issue, Tresp says, is that younger buyers appear to be more reluctant to own things generally, let alone art that costs thousands of dollars.
“For the upcoming generation, collecting and owning art just doesn’t feel like a contemporary thing to do,” Tresp said. “Everyone, for example, subscribes to Netflix. We’re in this subscription mode.”
Tresp said it’s not yet clear what kind of strategy will prevail in light of that shift. In this state, she said, it will likely require showing the public that art in New Mexico “isn’t just Canyon Road (Santa Fe’s historic arts district) and Meow Wolf.”
The success of Meow Wolf, the Santa Fe-based art collective that has received international attention for its immersive and experiential spaces, is a source of optimism for Gabriel Gallegos. Gallegos, along with Michelle Sena and Greg Tafoya of Chicana lifestyle brand All Chola, run Secret Gallery, currently at the One Central building in Downtown Albuquerque. Like Meow Wolf, Secret Gallery is “all about the experience” of being present in the space, Gallegos said. “Meow Wolf was told so many times their idea was dumb,” said Gallegos, who is also founder of the Enchanted Pop-Up art collective. “But they succeeded. So how can we make something cool happen here in Albuquerque?”
Quite a bit has happened for Secret Gallery since it launched on Feb. 1. The gallery has hosted about a thousand visitors so far, many of them the young adults that Tresp said have been hesitant to participate in the art-buying scene. Gallegos attributes that to the organization’s approach: it’s run entirely by New Mexicans of color, who primarily showcase local artists and host regular, party-atmosphere events complete with a DJ. The revenue stream is more traditional, with Secret Gallery taking a commission on all purchases.
Budget constraints have meant that Secret Gallery’s location has been ephemeral, so the organization has embraced a pop-up model by necessity rather than design. Before it was housed at One Central, the gallery was at 505 Central SW next to Humble Coffee. Though Gallegos said the gallery is interested in eventually finding a permanent home, for now it is happy to use vacant spaces downtown. It’s a strategy in keeping with Secret Gallery’s “punk rock” spirit, he said. “The gallery model that worked forever was, ‘your first step is to collect artists, your second step is to collect collectors,'” Gallegos said. “The contemporary model has to shift. Art isn’t just for a small group of really rich people.”
One day recently, Sallie Scheufler unwrapped an art piece that had been shipped to Richard Levy Gallery and stared at it in wonder.
“I hadn’t realized it glittered,” said Scheufler, the Albuquerque contemporary art gallery’s assistant director. “There’s only so much you can tell from a photo.”
Harnessing the multi-dimensionality of contemporary art on screen has become an increasingly critical challenge for Scheufler, who runs the gallery’s social media accounts in addition to her other responsibilities. For a show that included a series of moving light boxes, that meant creating a series of videos that were shared on the social media platform Instagram.
“It’s still important to see work in person, but online is often the way these days,” Scheufler said.
In fact, at Richard Levy Gallery, a staple of the Albuquerque art scene since 1991, in-person sales are down, but online sales are up in comparison to recent years, according to Scheufler. Gallery staff still spend a significant amount of time traveling to art events around the world, but they’ve also invested in a new website to more clearly display their catalog to online visitors.
Embracing the shift to e-commerce has paid off for the gallery. Scheufler said that in one case, a customer purchased a piece of art online after Scheufler uploaded a single image of it to the gallery’s Instagram account. The price tag was “in the thousands of dollars,” she said.
At Hat Ranch Gallery, West says she spends at least half her day posting to Instagram and Facebook, updating the gallery’s website and emailing or otherwise engaging with customers online.
But when visitors arrive, she abandons the devices and does whatever she can to connect in person. She likens her business to building an eccentric but sturdy house slowly, one with “two-foot-thick walls and a lot of funk.”
“I will still be standing here when the wind blows, because I’ve laid the foundation deep,” she said.