Struggling Portland art galleries look to the city for help
by D.K. Row, The Oregonian
Thursday August 06, 2009, 8:00 AM
Struggling art galleries have asked the city help fund the monthly First Thursday brochure
Don't be fooled by the showy crowds flooding the city's downtown and Pearl District galleries at First Thursday tonight.
Beneath the gloss of high art is the melodrama of gritty struggle. The city's art galleries, like most small businesses, are desperately trying to survive the recession. Events reached a frantic pitch recently when the trade organization responsible for the monthly artwalk, the Portland Art Dealers Association, asked City Hall for money to help produce its lustrous marketing brochure mailed to more than 10,000 addresses nationwide.
The first-ever request by the city's 12 most high-powered galleries for city funds represents the latest financial tussle for a local arts business or nonprofit in these dire times. But the outlook is limned with silver: It's forced a once-timid group of art dealers into political action while also reaffirming the financial and intangible value of arts and culture groups.
Started 23 years ago, First Thursday is, at the most basic level, a marketing event. Galleries open their doors for extra evening hours in order to expose their businesses to the general public.
For many visitors, the artwalk is the only time they see art. The breathtaking diversity and masses of people who visit the galleries ultimately make for free and entertaining public theater. Neighborhood cafes, bars, restaurants and other retail stores have likewise benefited and become the buoyant evening's second act.
The financial activity produced by First Thursday has become so significant that one can confidently say that the monthly artwalk helped activate the rise of the Pearl District neighborhood. The galleries were the cogs in the area's gentrification and its prominent role in the city's cultural tourism industry.
Galleries are proven economic activators. The monthly First Thursday artwalk has helped neighborhood restaurants and retail thrive.
A flier's struggles
For much of those 23 years, the unofficial link between First Thursday and the public has been the sleek monthly, full-color, multi-page brochure listing the art dealers association's new shows. It's First Thursday's tour guide and can be found at most galleries and nearby retailers. The brochure also is mailed to a few thousand individuals and businesses outside Oregon, including important collectors, museums and tourism groups.
"That flier presents the picture of a vital, active city," says Charles Froelick, owner of the Froelick Gallery and the art dealers association's president.
But a few crucial galleries have turned off their lights the past year, and nearly every gallery has seen sales shrink. Other art-related retailers, like frame shops, have stopped advertising in the flier, too.
The $1,250 a month for a full page ad, on top of annual dues and other production fees, has become heavy financial cargo for the galleries in the association. Because everyone is mindful of balance sheets, the art dealers association has downsized the brochure's pages, with some members even reducing once full-page ads, among other things. The association is even courting potential new member galleries, most of them located on the east side and with more experimental programming tastes.
The big ask
In February, the art dealers association that has kept distance from anything suggestive of politics did something it never felt assured enough to do. It asked City Hall for money.
"The public perception of us is that we're all rich people and that this is just about fun or a hobby," Froelick says. "That's not true. We're businesses. We bring money to the region. We employ people. We're an educational resource to schools all over the state. And we draw a lot of people -- money -- into the community."
If other businesses got financial support in the form of tax abatements or tax deferrals, the association reasoned, why not them, too?
In principle, the city of Portland and Mayor Sam Adams agreed.
"The galleries deserve more attention and financial support than they've gotten from the city so far," says Adams, who has been the biggest arts and culture supporter in City Hall the past several years. "Wieden+Kennedy is a for-profit institution. So is the Portland Trailblazers. So is Fred Meyer. We do a bunch of public-private partnerships."
But Adams and his arts policy adviser, Jennifer Yocom, said the options were limited. There's a recession. Social services are being cut. Everyone needs money.
"We don't have a piggy bank, and we don't have an arts bureau," Yocom says. "We have a contract with the Regional Arts & Culture Council, which gives out money only to nonprofits, and we have a chance to get special appropriations on top of that."
Yet, Adams and Yocom managed a cash infusion, sort of: $2,000 in advertising purchases from the Portland Development Commission and another $4,500 from the PDC to help mail the flier outside the region. The art dealers association also got $3,000 from the cultural tourism agency Travel Portland, but through a long-brewing connection of its own.
Sam Adams says the local galleries are small businesses who deserve help -- but he wishes there were more options to make that happen
Arts as economic boost
Still, the association's newfound assertiveness has cast an intense light on the city's long-term strategy for the arts, one that goes beyond still-developing plans for dedicated funding that may produce $15 million to $20 million for the arts annually.
The PDC's new three-tiered economic development strategy highlights small-business support, which PDC officials say includes galleries and other creative businesses.
Some in the arts and culture community have privately criticized the plan for not specifically addressing their sector, especially because the Adams administration has touted the importance of the arts to the city's economy and way of life.
"The arts and culture hasn't been singled out as a special case because the belief is that they should be more integrated into the economy," says Anne Mangan, the PDC's senior communications manager. "This is the city's first adopted economic strategy in 15 years, so let's wait and see if it works before judging it."
Meantime, the city's most powerful art galleries learned a potent lesson that may better guide them in the future as well as offer the public a new perspective on the players behind First Thursday: No one, including the art world, can afford to be cut off from City Hall and related agencies. This is a politically driven world, after all.
"This whole thing made us explain what kind of public service we provided," says Carolyn Butters of the family-owned Butters Gallery. "We had never thought about doing that before. So even though we didn't get a whole lot of money out of this, it made people a lot more aware of who and what we are."