A Space on This Wall Could Cost You $800

"Gallery Fees" pit the struggling gallery owner against the starving artist

Few people stumble upon the Rogue Buddha by accident; in fact, you might not find the place even if you're looking for it. The gallery is located on East Hennepin Avenue in a Minneapolis dead zone of blond brick, corrugated iron, and concrete buildings. These somewhat shabby-looking storefronts host fruit and vegetable distributors, wholesale florists, and other nondescript light industries. Rogue Buddha owner Nick Harper is in an even tougher line of work. A recent cloudy, concrete-colored November day finds him atop a ladder, making final lighting adjustments just a few hours before the opening of an art exhibition called the fifth annual Festival of Appropriations.

Doubtless the 15 or so artists involved with the show are thankful for Harper's ministrations and for the opportunity to have a place to show their lost-and-found (and swiped) creations. But at the same time, this doesn't mean the artists are getting a free ride. For in fact, Rogue Buddha is prominent among a handful of local galleries that have started charging artists a fee for the privilege of showing their wares on the walls.

"I do have a gallery fee," says Harper, a somewhat gaunt 29-year-old who makes his home in northeast Minneapolis. This means that in order to show in Harper's space, artists must pay him money up front. Though Harper is unapologetic and open about this arrangement, he's a bit more coy about the specific rate. He gives the basic number, but asks that I not publish it. Let's just say that to rent the main, ground-floor space in Rogue Buddha is comparable to renting a good one-bedroom apartment for a month in a much nicer neighborhood than this one. It must be said, though, that Harper charges no commission on sales made in the gallery until the artist earns back his fee. (After that point, the commission is the standard 50-50 split.)

According to Harper, for this fee, artists receive numerous services. Aside from fixing the lighting and hanging the work, Harper says, he spends time helping his young artists with pricing, portfolios, framing, and other professional issues. "We're trying to be the place where they can raise their output," Harper explains. "We take on mailing. We staff regular hours four days a week. We have a website. Also we try to sell the work...And artists make back their money at least half the time."

The idealistic notion that artists can take work to a gallery owner who will aggressively market it to local collectors does not have much credence in these parts. This has especially been true since the mid-1980s, when changes in income-tax exemptions for art purchases helped send the local market into a downward spiral. What have generally flourished in Minnesota over the past 15 years are two alternative models. One is the art crawl, in which neighborhood artists advertise a certain weekend when they will open their personal studios to the public. The other is the nonprofit gallery.

These spaces tend to act as mini-museums, showing cutting-edge art that has little chance of garnering a mass buying audience. Such galleries survive primarily not on sales, but through foundation grants. Unfortunately, there are problems with the nonprofit gallery economy. As the number of artists rises and the foundation money stays static or declines (as has happened over the past two years), competition for wall space becomes forbidding at the places that manage to stay afloat.

To the extent that few galleries seem particularly solvent these days, the concept of spreading fiscal responsibility on to artists is becoming more widespread. Places like the Frank Stone Gallery, Icebox Gallery, Gallery 360, and Vern Carver and Beard Art Galleries have started charging artists up front for services that add up to pretty much the same thing as an exhibition fee, even if the gallery does not call it such. Some galleries charge artists for the costs of printing and mailing invitations, which can sometimes run upward of $600, depending on the size of a gallery's mailing list. Other places require artists to hang their own work, spend time gallery-sitting, or put up money for other expenses.

According to several artists, Gallery 360 charges artists showing in their solo exhibition space for the cost of food for the opening. If artists won't provide food, the business asks for a $250 check. Also, if the artist sells work out of the gallery, Gallery 360 assesses an immediate $200 on top of the typical 50 percent commission. Merry Beck, who owns and operates the south Minneapolis art space, downplays these expenses, saying artists must meet only a "small obligation [in order] to have a show in the back gallery." Yet for many artists, such costs can be daunting.

"A lot of people don't do shows at 360 because of that," artist Yuri Arajs says of these expenses. Arajs, who is also a gallery director at the Outsiders and Others Gallery (which does not have any artist charges), is planning to mount a painting exhibit at Gallery 360 in February.

"I'm going to give it a shot, and see if it's beneficial to me to tap into a new audience," he says. "But it's not a small thing. In theory I have to sell $900 of work to cover all my expenses just to be in the gallery. And that doesn't cover any of the costs of my materials or framing. It's a huge donation."

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