Galleries : How Martha's Vineyard galleries survived the slump
Gallery owners on the Vineyard faced the 2009 season with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. After all, the statistics from art capitals around the country were grim: at least half a dozen galleries closed in Scottsdale, Arizona, this past year, 24 in Manhattan, and about 13 in Santa Fe. Many others are hanging on in hopes that the economy will turn around in time to salvage their struggling businesses.
With a peak season that lasts a mere 10 to 12 weeks and tourism projections bleak, Island gallery operators had scant reason for optimism. Yet an informal survey of six galleries from Edgartown to West Tisbury yielded some surprising results: traffic and sales are respectable, if not booming, with the majority of gallery owners reporting that they are pleased.
"We've had a very good summer in light of the economy," says Zita Cousens, owner of Cousen Rose Gallery on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. Now in her 30th year, Ms. Cousens acknowledges that her longevity could play an important role in her busy summer. "I imagine this economy is challenging to new businesses nationwide," she says. "But I have a very loyal customer base. People are still buying their favorite artists. They may only buy one piece instead of two, or a print instead of an original, but at least they're still buying and enjoying art."
Christina Cook, owner of The Christina Gallery on North Water Street in Edgartown, concurs that a long history in the Island art community is a significant advantage in a down market. "We've had a good season," she says. "Our 33 years in the business works in our favor as opposed to a newer business. We have a tremendous repeat client base. I have one artist who's been with me for over 20 years and this has been his best season ever."
Kara Taylor, an artist who opened her own gallery, Kara Taylor Fine Art on Main Street in Vineyard Haven four years ago after five years showing her work at Nip-N-Tuck Farm, says that this year is the worst she's seen, but it's looking up. "It was definitely a little bit of a scare. April and May were good months, but June and July were the worst ever," Ms. Taylor says. "So far August has been very strong. I might be off for the year, but I am selling my bigger pieces now."
Citing the weather as a second major blow to business this spring and early summer, gallery operators relate that business is definitely trending up during August, traditionally their strongest month. Jonathan Ralston, a manager of North Water Gallery on North Water Street in Edgartown, says that although this is the deepest recession he's seen in 15 seasons on the Island, August is showing signs of normalcy. "The Vineyard is insulated from recession, but it's not immune," he says. "Fortunately there's always a market for quality art."
While several gallery owners employed cost-cutting measures in anticipation of a difficult season, Louisa Gould, owner of Louisa Gould Gallery on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, reports that she, like the majority interviewed, "stayed the course." In business for six years, Ms. Gould says she maintained the same philosophy and practices despite the economic downturn. "I try to provide work in a range of styles, sizes, and price points," she says. "Although we got off to a slow start, I think it was the weather that affected sales more than the recession."
Two galleries now rely more on online marketing and less on costly and time-consuming direct mail. Both The Field Gallery on State Road in West Tisbury and North Water Gallery are largely replacing direct mail postcards and invitations with email announcements. Although Mr. Ralston of North Water and Jennifer Pillsworth, director at The Field Gallery, cite environmental consciousness and efficiency as motivations, they both report noticeable savings in their marketing budgets as a result of the shift away from paper, printing, and mailing costs.
Ms. Taylor says that she has economized in two areas in an effort to control expenses. "I spent less on advertising and cut back on my air conditioning," she explains.
Ms. Cousens applies a different tactic: "I considered changing my strategies, but felt I needed to be consistent," she says. "I don't use any gimmicks, I just do what I've been doing. It seems like it's paying off."
Ms. Cook maintained her advertising budget at The Christina Gallery, but increased her promotional materials. "All of my artists are doing well," she says, "just not as well as in the boom years."
The recession is, according to many gallery operators, making art buyers more cautious. The majority reported that customers are taking significantly longer to make a purchase decision, often placing a piece of art on reserve for several days before returning to buy.
As for the future, this group of gallery owners and managers sees reason for hope. All report feeling optimistic that the economy will improve and that Vineyard visitors and residents will continue to support the arts. "If we can do this well today, I'm honestly optimistic," says Ms. Cousens. "I think the hemorrhaging is over. People are spending smarter across the board and I'm all for it."
Karla Araujo is a regular contributor to The Times.