Sunday, August 9, 2009

New Horizons Gallery closure

There was some rather grim recent news in our little creative community: one of the more prominent and largest + longest-running (since 1979) galleries in Fairbanks, New Horizons, is closing its doors. This truly sucks in many ways, not only since they represent many personal friends of mine on consignment, and not to mention the economic indicator that this closure portends, but especially given their supportive relationship with artists in this town and what the ripple effect will be. One can see a guiding principle that underlies such a decision - one rooted in the philosophy that art is valuable as a commodity and represents more of an investment in terms of money as opposed to intangibles like actual aesthetics and such artsy-fartsy.

While some folks might be tacitly dismissive of the overall collection of pieces in New Horizons as being typically staid, safe, and traditionally representative portraiture of Alaskana art (ie. stereotypical wildlife art mostly seen adorning banks and doctor/lawyer offices) along with the requisite tourist-fodder, the gallery boasted of a reported 1.5 million dollar inventory and is the one place that carried noted regional artists such as Randall Compton, Byron Birdsall, Dan Kennedy, Vladimir Zhikhartsev, Heidi Hahn and many, many others from across the state. They also have been consistent purveyors of high-quality Alaskan Native art and also host studios for various local non-profit agencies and individual artist studios in the same building.

Sandy Jamieson made a dire prediction to me over coffee last year on how the economic downturn was going to ripple out and hit artists and smaller to mid-sized galleries particularly hard, as most folk's disposable income dries up and other expenditures take priority over "luxury items" such as artwork. I've watched it happen to so many individual artists over the years as they make the same choice between a livelihood and a hobby, it follows that businesses fall on the same sword of fiscal reality. And this isn't on the level of big-ticket sales and acquisitions seen at the corporate and institutional level, like say at museum collections (which are also taking major hits); this is the middle-class market which specializes in comparatively cheaper works such as signed lithos and Giclée prints.

Indeed, after shoveling through the usual load of stupid, ignorant crap commenter's left on the ensuing thread for the News-Miner newspaper article about the closure, one person had a provocative note:
"Art is the flower of civilization" instead of "Art is the flower of subsistence."
Art does indeed nourish the soul, but when it comes to nourishing the physical body, better to buy food and fuel than pigments and paper."
I've ranted plenty here on this blog about the debatable commercial viability and difficulty of choosing a career in the arts, and this development throws the factors behind such an endeavor into stark relief. The reporter for this article noted this unpleasant economic reality and further quoted gallery owner Jinx Whitaker to that effect:
"Art galleries are among Fairbanks businesses dependent on discretionary spending that are having to shift strategies as clients and customers adjust to life in a recession. Whitaker said visitors and regular customers are still coming to the gallery, which moved into the downtown Lathrop Building in the early 1990s. It’s just that not as many people are visiting, and those who do are showing caution with their money."
Unfortunately reminds me of the opening lecture I give to most of my Beginning Drawing classes: an observation based on years of experience in that if one is pinning hopes on being a successful (ie profitable to some degree) artist by showing and selling pieces in a gallery - lotsa luck. The vast, overwhelming majority of people in this (or any other) city do not ever set foot in galleries, and of those that do, the vast, overwhelming majority never buy anything. New Horizons has survived so long by simply catering to the predominant buyer's market for traditional Alaskana-themed works; paintings and photographs of Denali, landscapes, grizzly bears, the aurora, pretty flowers etc. and simultaneously tap into the lucrative tourist market. Doesn't bode well for the remaining, smaller galleries in Fairbanks who don't have the benefit of state and federal grants to help keep them afloat and who exhibit contemporary works which are largely undecipherable, unappreciated, equally unaffordable and are disconnected from the community's sophistication and taste. Perhaps there will be some reshuffling of deck chairs as artists are absorbed into other vendors, or if they will take a more proactive stance and begin self-marketing instead.

More importantly, I feel the crucial message here for aspiring talents to not depend on or look to anyone else for their success. Much like the accelerating implosion of the big recording labels in the music industry, and likewise the digital revolution's effect on print media, the time for galleries' traditional role as influential arbitrators of art while serving as a sort of gatekeeper + buffer zone between the public and creators is on the wane. Skills such as self-marketing and self-promotion are as equally vital as the requisite talent in creating the works themselves for a professional artist. It'll be interesting to see what ripple effect this closure will have on both the remaining galleries in Fairbanks and with the artists who were formerly represented by New Horizons.

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