Wormley's Black Period

In the Eighties he was a rising art star on the downtown gallery scene. In the Nineties he was a stalwart of independent exhibition. Today Bill Wormley is sick, broke, and unsure why he should keep painting.

"It's a very difficult business," says Thomas Barry, who moved his gallery out of the Wyman Building in the late 1990s after having been there for nearly 20 years. "In general, [local support] is nowhere near what is necessary to make it a vital place for showing and making art....It was better in the Eighties, most definitely. Art was a fashionable thing and people bought into it....But it's pretty much been flat for a long time now. A lot of talented people can't continue to make art because they can't afford to."

"The only way I survive," says Brewer, "is that I have an offshore [art] dealer in Hawaii. It's different from here: There's a constantly changing sea of consumers called tourists. This has saved my life the last couple of years."

Worse yet, the weakness in sales coincided with a period when the number of artists was multiplying nationwide. According to a report released last month by RAND and the Pew Charitable Trusts called "The Performing Arts in a New Era," between 1970 and 1990 the number of people identifying themselves as visual artists doubled. Meanwhile, this growth in the popularity of the practice of art, according to the study, has not brought with it a public demand for what all these artists are producing. So it is that well-trained artists face higher unemployment rates than other groups of educated professionals, and they struggle to compete against more and more peers for fewer and fewer rewards.

"I wake up every morning and think, God, what am I doing? Does anybody care?" Bill Wormley in his basement studio, Acme Visual Arts
Geoffrey P. Kroll
"I wake up every morning and think, God, what am I doing? Does anybody care?" Bill Wormley in his basement studio, Acme Visual Arts

Today downtown is all but dried up as an art venue. The Wyman Building on First Avenue North, which once had more than 20 commercial galleries selling work, now has only two. The artists who once had spaces downtown, including Wormley, were chased out by developers. "My [studio] space is a skyway now," Wormley says wistfully. "Those kinds of places just don't exist anymore. They tore all those old buildings down. I don't understand it."

The nonprofit art galleries that have filled the void left by the closing of the commercial galleries take a laissez-faire attitude toward selling artists' work. Places like Intermedia Arts, the Soap Factory, Franklin Art Works, and pARTS are funded almost entirely through grants; they have little incentive--or staff--to concentrate on selling work. Even the magazines such as Artpaper that local artists relied on for publicity and information folded unceremoniously in the mid-1990s. Not surprisingly--considering the artistic diaspora and the economic pressures--the sense of community among artists that Wormley helped foster is now gone.

"People got older and their hopes were dashed," says Gaard. "It was a shame. The PR of the time claimed it was a 'downtown art scene' but, really, the artists were being driven out....A lot of stuff going on pointed in the direction of 'Get the fuck out of Dodge.'"

Back in his basement, Wormley appears hopeful as we walk through and he speaks of the 40-odd paintings he intends to display. "It's getting there," he says of the show. Then he talks of work he needs to do around the apartment that has long been neglected--primarily fixing up a wall upstairs that is stained brown from rainwater and is crumbling in large strips. He also seems nervous about the clutter in his living space. Coffee cans of tools and hardware cover the tables, paintings lean here and there against walls and furniture. I wonder if his bed is buried somewhere, but he corrects me. "I sleep in the meat locker," he says, and points to a cabinet-like space high up the wall above the clutter--a remnant of a long-ago tenant.

I ask about the title of the upcoming show, and he explains it goes back to his days as a student at MCAD when he created his own course. As he spent most of his time painting at night anyway, he decided to call his class "Painting by Moonlight," and take advantage of his habit. Now, after many years, he seems poised to find some of the youthful optimism that got him started in the business.

When I ask if he ever considers his artistic life a futile one, he pauses for a long moment and stares off into a middle distance. "Every day," he answers. "I wake up every morning and think, God, what am I doing? Does anybody care?"


The show opens on a Saturday night at the end of July. By ten o'clock, most of the parking spaces within a three-block radius of the gallery have been taken. Sirens fill the air of the neighborhood, and spotlights shine over the trees in the direction of downtown, to the south. Women dressed in pink and orange party dresses, and men dressed in orange or red dress shirts mingle outside the gallery or wait in line to get inside.

Downstairs, the opening is in full swing. It is incredibly warm in here with the accumulated heat of the 50 or so people who stand and sit around watching the show. On the stage in the corner, a man in a Stetson sits on the floor playing a keyboard in a manner partly resembling Brian Wilson circa Pet Sounds and partly resembling a Berlin cabaret lounge act circa 1930. In that latter mode, singer Tulip Sweet, a dead ringer for Liza Minnelli, vamps and sings breathlessly confessional songs, swinging her orange-red dress and bobbing her blue-wigged head as she dances.

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