Summing up the gallery season on Martha’s Vineyard

Joan Merry, Gossamer Gallery — File photo by Ralph Stewart

No one would dispute that Vineyard art galleries, as do many off-Island galleries, live in a fragile economic environment. Even in good times, galleristas have to know their customers, calibrate the pesky changes in consumer taste and pocketbooks, and be attuned to the subtle adjustments necessary to enhance their gallery’s appeal. And good times have not been the norm recently.

However, this week several gallery owners expressed relief that consumer confidence has reappeared, following several years of economic decline.

“It’s happier this season. We’re happy with where we are this year,” gallery owner Chris Morse says. The owner of The Granary, North Water, and The Field galleries, he says, “The equity markets are still gyrating wildly but it doesn’t seem to have the Armageddon, end-of-the-world tone of two years ago…People seem to be acquiring things to make their home a happier place.”

But what works for one gallery can be the opposite of another. Some galleries, such as The Granary and The Field, have the advantage of a well-developed brand and a repeating customer base, and have not counseled artists to produce smaller pieces at lower price points.

“We accept that it’s never going to be as good as it was,” Mr. Morse says, “but everyone likes quality. Do what you do and bend a little on price here and there if you have to.”

At PIKNIK Art and Apparel in the Arts District in Oak Bluffs, owner Michael Hunter sees benefits from offering smaller, more price-point-sensitive pieces. He says, “I saw people buying three or four pieces from the same artist to hang as groupings…A lot of houses are getting finished now. That means a lot of empty walls.”

Mr. Hunter has made changes with positive results: “I think I’ve gotten better at promoting core artists, and we’ve moved away from themed openings, other than our Urban Event, to show the artists and their work.”

Elizabeth Eisenhauer of Eisenhauer Gallery in Edgartown admits it was an unpredictable season: “It was erratic — all over the place,” she says. “When I thought it was going to be great, it was nothing. When I had no expectations — business boomed.”

She says it helped to change the focus of her openings from cocktail parties to gatherings about art that engaged the interest of art collectors.

“Now that the business is established, I want less of the party atmosphere. Maybe I’m growing up,” she says, and laughs.

Ms. Eisenhauer continues to stage music on the patio at the Vineyard Square Hotel and Suites (formerly the Colonial Inn) and credits new management at the hotel for creating more energy.

Gallery owner Nancy Cramer of Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven believes in working to keep the gallery’s offerings interesting. She regularly changes the window displays, saying, “Windows are important. They’re part of my advertising. And we do a lot of rehanging to give people a way to think differently about the art.”

This season she scheduled 12 artist talks (double last year’s), 15 solo shows, a trunk show, and produced a show to benefit the West Tisbury Library expansion project.

“After 17 years, I’ve learned that the popular price range changes every year,” she says. “And small things attract new people. It was a strong season financially, but I’m more concerned about the shoulder seasons,” she adds. “We used to have a greater influx of people.”

Ms. Cramer notes the impact of creating relationships among the work of different artists: “Curtis Hoard is good example,” she says. “His hand-built clay works have clout and weight, but sitting on an elegant Bill Nash table with an understated Leslie Baker painting over it works for all of them.”

Island gallery owners have learned to work with reality of the season. “There is less traffic this year. That’s allowed me more time with clients,” says Louisa Gould at her namesake Main Street Vineyard Haven gallery. “This is a relationship-driven business.”

She joins the other gallery owners who believe size does matter. “This year artists are producing a range of sizes and therefore a range of price points. The artist who produces eight- or 10-foot canvasses is also creating smaller original artworks. An example is our current abstract show [through September 15]. Last year we showed works up to $10,000, this year the most expensive price point is $1,500.”

In considering her season this summer, Joan Merry of Gossamer Gallery on South Road in Chilmark, says, “In a nutshell, it’s been a slow year until a couple of weeks ago then we got very busy. But people aren’t going to buy things they don’t need right now.”

She also notes the importance of the gallery not being on one of the Main Street locations: “It’s hard to get them here, but they love it once they come…We’re going to be thinking outside the box for next year,” she adds.

Mr. Hunter, who credits the success of the Arts District as a destination spot, says, “Each year has been better than the previous one. My base is growing exponentially.”

And he sums up the 2011 gallery season: “August is the new July. Summer on the Vineyard is a musical, and September is the third act. It’s my biggest month, has a different rhythm, a more specific crowd seeking me out.”