A Space on This Wall Could Cost You $800
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."
The Frank Stone Gallery, which mostly focuses on the glasswork, ceramics, and jewelry of emerging artists, used to charge artists a flat, $250 fee for a weeklong show. (The business would only keep a small 15 percent commission on sales.) But the northeast Minneapolis gallery recently dropped that charge and changed their commission structure.
"It's hard for artists to come up with money ahead of time to pay for the minimum commission," says Lynn Olson, the gallery's co-owner. Still, artists are expected to do their own hanging, work at least one day a week in the gallery during the show's run, and cover the costs of any promotional postcards. "We all make no money at this," says Olson, who in the daytime is a district judge in Anoka, "but we all have different reasons for doing this. We're kind of pioneering it, seeing what we can do and learning as we go along."
In some ways, Harper's straightforward fees are just a more open way of doing business. And in fact, in other locales such charges are more normal. "Maybe it's been uncommon in Minneapolis," says Susy Greenberg, who runs the fee-free Soo Visual Arts Center on Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis, "but Chicago and other places have done it a lot longer. Somebody has to pay for it...I have thought about having artists chip in more." Other local artists and gallery owners confirm that the practice is fairly common in New York.
Greenberg asserts that art is a tough business, and she argues that galleries must do whatever it takes to stay solvent. Even if a gallery does not charge artists up front, there are other ways to collect money from them. Soo, for instance, asks artists to donate works for auction at gallery fundraising events or junk to sell at benefit garage sales. (One such Soo sale recently netted the nonprofit gallery $1,200.) Artists are also being asked to spend more time setting up shows; occasionally, they have to hire their own crews.
"There aren't many galleries that represent people any more," says Sean Connaughty, a painter who has an upcoming show at Soo. "We [artists] just don't make any money. I had good opportunities here a few years ago." He mentions a huge, site-specific work he showed at the Soap Factory, a nonprofit gallery primarily supported by foundation money. But, he adds, "since then, the climate has changed."
And in fact, it's possible that artists who are strapped for exhibition opportunities are simply readjusting their expectations in the current market. Ceramic artist Laura Drabant, who has paid several times to have shows at Frank Stone Gallery, bears no resentment at having paid to exhibit her work. "They've been great to work with, and have been really helpful," she says. "It was a great opportunity for an artist."
Other artists are more circumspect. "We just came off it, and we all have mixed emotions," says Marq Spusta, whose Burning Artist Co-op held a Rogue Buddha group show in October. "It was kind of expensive...We did okay and sold more than $800 worth of work"--the amount that Spusta says they were charged for the space--"but I found that the gallery owner didn't have a vested interest in selling the work...It's fun, you can do what you want. But in the future we'll probably look at cheaper places."
In this forbidding commercial climate, it can be easy to forget that there are still many gallery owners in town who maintain a vested interest in selling work and have made few attempts to pass on their costs to the artists. Shelley Holzemer, who displays artists from around the country in her four-year-old south Minneapolis gallery, stays in business through the art of the sale.
"I'm always trying as hard as I can," Holzemer says. "I bring it to people's homes, figuring out where to hang it, calling them back to the gallery for the third time....I think it's important to support living artists, because when we're gone what's left but the arts and books and music?"
Though it's tempting to suspect gallery owners of gouging or trying to exploit artists, these art fans hardly seem to be getting rich off their artist customers.
"Personally, I'm in the red," says Nick Harper, who has run the gallery for three and a half years. "Artists' fees don't cover the rent. I don't believe it'd be fair to make artists pay the total amount." He says he would have to charge artists 50 percent more per show to break even.
Harper, who long supported his gallery through a day job pouring concrete, just recently decided to quit that work and focus solely on art. "I just have credit cards now," he says. "I guess that's a full-time job... Profit [at Rogue Buddha] is like the 10- to 15-year plan."
When I ask him why he bothers to run a gallery if it's so difficult to break even, he laughs with faint bitterness. "I ask that a lot. I don't know. I have a strong desire to help artists. I've been in the same boat"--Harper is a painter himself. "I just think there aren't enough gallery spaces for the number of artists in town. And we really don't have enough wall space for the alternative, independent artists. It's kind of my personal mission, to gain [them] exposure."
Harper continues moving around the gallery with a ladder to adjust light fixtures as he talks: "I've heard that people who run the for-profit galleries in New York basically do it for tax write-off purposes. That's how they afford to not make any money."
"So no one in art is making money?" I ask.
Harper pauses. "I hope that's not true, man. Don't make me give up my dreams!"
In the end, Harper will likely continue dreaming, and artists will continue coming to him with their own dreams.
Think what you will of the fees, but Rogue Buddha's busy schedule makes its own case. "I haven't had trouble finding artists," says Harper. "We're booked up now until next October."
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