In a troubled economy, people will cut out nonessentials in order to save money. Nonessentials might be anything from magazine subscriptions to dinner at a local tavern. Buying art – an original or a print – certainly would count as nonessential.
But if people stop buying art, what happens to the art gallery boom in Philadelphia, specifically Old City, which has been compared to New York City’s Soho because of the dense concentration of small galleries there? During my travels, I find myself walking past many galleries, usually in the middle of the day, and more often than not, they look empty. I might see a desk clerk inside at a computer, but, for the most part, people are absent.
I checked with a few Old City gallery owners to find out how they were faring in the economic drought, and I got some surprising answers.
Edward A. Barnhart, a Center City architect who opened Always by Design (AxD) at 265 S.10th St. four and a half years ago, says he is ceasing art shows at AxD as of the end of the summer.
“We’ve had a trickle of sales from last year. We’d sell a piece or two in a show, but that’s it. Last spring, there was a spurt of optimism. It began from the start of 2010 until early summer. I guess people were feeling that things were headed back in the right economic direction and they could be looser in discretional spending, but by midsummer it totally tanked again,” Barnhart said.
AxD has had to reinvent itself as a multipurpose space. In addition to gallery shows, it rents its space out to theater companies as a rehearsal area, a reception area for author readings or private parties, film nights, film castings, and Fringe Festival rehearsals and presentations.
Like most small galleries in the city, AxD might attract up to 10 walk-ins a day for any given exhibit, a not-so-good number when it comes to art sales.
In Old City’s MUSE Gallery at 52 N. 2nd St., I spoke with collective member and artist Susan Wallack (an exhibition of Wallack’s work, “One-Part Paradise,” is on display until July 31), who told me that Philadelphia could be doing a lot more to support the Old City art scene.
“I was in Soho before it was Soho,” the former New Yorker told me. “I can tell you right now that Soho is a tourist destination. Guided tours are walking people in and out of the galleries as part of a tour. Philadelphia hasn’t gotten to that point yet.”
If Wallack had her way, she’d have those Old City Benjamin Franklin tour guides extend walking tours of the area to include something else besides the Liberty Bell. “Walking around looking at the Liberty Bell is fine, but they need to have moving docents, who say to tourists that this is Philadelphia’s Soho, and here’s a place to eat, or shop, and here’s an art gallery. New York’s Soho was really promoted when it stopped being a lower part of Greenwich Village. It was promoted so well that the city changed parking regulations there. The city did everything they could to get people to visit and live there.”
Unfortunately, in the world of art gallery sales, the reports aren’t good, even if Wallack told me that several of her pieces at MUSE sold recently. “You go anywhere today, whether it’s to the mall, to Bloomingdale’s, to Macy’s, and you see that these big stores are all empty. They don’t draw in the crowds they once did. And basically very little is happening now in the Philly art gallery world because everybody here is so uptight about spending money.”
Well, maybe people are just uptight about spending big money on art: consider the long lines at Rita’s Water Ice stand in the Richmond Shopping Plaza. On one warm Saturday afternoon I counted nearly a hundred people standing in line for water ice. While that’s not art in my book — frozen yogurt, my friends, is art! — it tells you that people will open their wallets and pocketbooks rather quickly when it comes to cooling off.••