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SANTA FE, N.M. — By the time his lease runs out in about a year, Wade Wilson expects he wi ll close down his Santa Fe art gallery. He already closed his successful Houston gallery a little over a year ago.
But he isn’t planning to get out of the art business. Instead, he’s looking to convert to a “boutique business,” perhaps representing fewer artists and selling art in a home setting, either his own or an interested buyer’s residence.
“I can still do pop-up shows,” he added.
His decision reflects what many gallery owners are struggling with in the wake of an economic recession – and, along with it, a ground-shaking change in how art is bought and sold, not just locally, but nationally and internationally.
These days, people looking to buy art may never set foot in a setting where the works are on display, or may never even come to the same state where they are being produced or sold.
Instead, rather than walk into a gallery, many collectors now do their browsing online.
Or, just as likely, they head off to the many art fairs being held around the world where dealers bring works by the artists they represent.
“They’re proliferating,” Cody Hartley, director of curatorial affairs at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, said of such fairs. “Dealers bring their finest pieces or unveil for the first time newly available pieces.” In many places, alongside the main fair, satellite fairs have sprung up offering artworks from specific niches of style or artist. “It’s like an entire ecosystem,” he said.
“That’s where the serious collectors are going,” Wilson said. “Rarely do we see a major collector walk into an opening” of a gallery exhibition.
Some of the higher-end galleries in Santa Fe, such as Peters Projects, take part in those arts fairs, according to director Ylise Kessler. Appearing there helps “get out the word about who I am,” she said. “They (buyers) don’t have to come to Santa Fe; I can go to them at the fair.”
But it’s an expensive gamble, she said, one that’s probably out of reach for smaller galleries or those that handle lower-priced art. Participating in an art fair can be a $50,000 expense – with no guarantee you will sell anything, she said.
Mid-range galleries, selling works in the $5,000 range or so, might go to a regional fair, such as Dallas, she added.
The shift in approach might also reflect a change in demographics of the buyers. The established collectors are no longer buying much new art – indeed, many are selling off what they already own – while younger collectors might be more inclined to buy online or go to the fairs.
In a report on the state’s creative economy put together last year by the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER), one gallery association director said, “Big-time buyers are getting older and dying, or they are slowing down their collecting. … We need to do things to attract younger, more youthful customers.”
Hartley told the Journal, “Up-and-coming collectors are starting at the art fairs. That’s how they’re learning about art.
“The Internet has become a vehicle for finding art and engaging in discussions. The collector can do a lot of homework online.”
Some might then buy a work sight unseen, go see it at an art fair, or have it sent to them personally on approval, he added.
But Kessler said that, even after developing a keen eye for evaluating artwork online, she will still travel to see it before deciding to show it in her gallery. “For now, I think there’s nothing that can replace a physical interaction with a work of art.”
It’s difficult to pin down how the changes in recent years have affected the number of galleries in Santa Fe. While most people anecdotally – along with the BBER report – say that the number of galleries seems to be declining, it’s hard to find numbers.
That report says Santa Fe had 127 art dealers in 2007, ranking it seventh among U.S. cities in actual numbers (not just per capita) of dealers. The Santa Fe Gallery Association reports 200 galleries currently, adding that it does not have historic numbers.
On a national level, the BBER report cited studies that indicated a 7.8 percent decline in the number of galleries from 2010 to 2012.
In 1987-88, Wilson said, he directed Linda Durham’s gallery in Santa Fe and “I didn’t sit down for seven hours a day.” People kept coming in to buy art, he said.
Hartley also noted, “We don’t have the audience and the crowd we had in the ’90s.”
But a lot of that interest might have been driven by a trend of Southwestern chic during the latter decades of the past century. The BBER report suggests that the New Mexico brand may have lost “some of its sizzle.”
“Much of that brand has been based on New Mexico’s reputation in Southwest landscape, and popularized Native American art and culture, yet some feel the brand is rigid and outdated,” the BBER report said.
“I think we’re finding the days of collectors coming to Santa Fe has changed,” Wilson said. “The younger generation isn’t coming here as a destination for art.
“It’s scary to drive down the streets (of Santa Fe) and see the for-rent signs,” he added.
As for the future of art sales in Santa Fe, and even for brick-and-mortar galleries themselves, no one is ready to predict what will evolve.
“That’s kind of the million-dollar question. No one has answers,” Kessler said.
She is taking the approach of, at least through the six slower months of the year, engaging the local community with shows featuring area artists, along with events to draw people in. The current show in conjunction with Axle Contemporary already had 20 sales more than a week before its close, she said.
That show also represents the type of collaboration that appears to be one of the recent trends to stir up interest.
Hartley said gallery owners have been shopping a single work of art represented by one gallery to many galleries’ client lists.
Also, joint promotions are being attempted, such as the state’s “Summer of Color” campaign that tries to lure visitors by tying activities and exhibits at state museums and other properties into that theme, along with displays at many privately owned galleries.
Hartley said he can’t guess if physical galleries will survive or not. “In some ways, it’s an opportunity. If you can’t get folks in physically, maybe the Internet can bridge that gap,” he added.
“There are lots of opportunities, lots of choices,” said David Eichholtz of the David Richards Gallery and president of the Santa Fe Gallery Association.
He cited “skyrocketing” rents as a problem in Santa Fe; Wilson said he would save $22,000 monthly by closing his gallery.
Eichholtz also took aim at what many had seen as a lack of advertising support from the city to draw potential art buyers to Santa Fe. Various arts figures have sat down and talked with the city’s new advertising agency about changing that. Pouring more money into art tourism advertising “would be enormously helpful and beneficial,” he said.