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Art galleries, like those in Chicago's River North neighborhood, are experiencing new phenomenons--like half- off sales and returns on purchases--as a result of the recession.

Chicago galleries get creative with economic survival strategies

by Hollis Templeton
Feb 11, 2009






When Peter Bartlow negotiated with artists to mark down several of their $2,000-$10,000 works in his River North gallery by up to 50 percent, some thought he was crazy. “It’s taboo in galleries to say ‘sale’,” Bartlow said. “But I’d rather sell works at 50 percent off and make some money versus nothing at all.”

“I don’t think it’s artists’ responsibility to help us pay our bills,” said Catherine Edelman, who owns a gallery just below Bartlow's space at 300 W. Superior St. “I have great respect for my artists and the prices that have been established for them.”

Although Chicago gallery owners may disagree on how to cut costs, doing so is necessary in an economy where even art collectors are pinching pennies.

“It is a very tough climate for sales,” said gallery owner Thomas McCormick.

McCormick Gallery, located at 835 W. Washington Blvd., recently participated in the Los Angeles Art Fair, where among 35,000 visitors, the gallery sold only one painting. “Clients, even those with adequate funds, are being very guarded about spending money,” McCormick said.

Bartlow, in an effort to cut overhead will move Peter Barlow Gallery online, or by appointment only, beginning March 1. “We are giving up our pricey retail location and moving back to our bare bones wholesale location in the Loop,” Bartlow said.

The web has heavily driven recent business at Catherine Edelman Gallery. “A lot of collectors don’t come out and look for fear that they will buy,” Edelman said.

Calling the drop in purchases at her gallery “beyond noticeable,” Edelman has chosen to make programming changes—cutting the number of exhibitions each year from nine to seven and increasing the running times for each.

Ken Saunders, who said business was booming as recently as 2007 in his contemporary glasswork gallery at 230 W. Superior St., will also cut the number of shows he mounts each year from 11 to six.

“This gives exhibitions a little more time to become successful,” said Saunders, owner of Marx-Saunders Gallery LTD. “It gives the shows much more exposure and probably matches the pace of business.”

“Collectors are taking a lot more time to make a purchase,” he added. “In October there was a lot of instantaneous remorse. October was marked by many returns, something we see very rarely in this business.”

As part of a reexamination process that began in early 2008 when Saunders said he first felt tremors in the market, employees were retained, but their hours were cut.

“The key right now is to be here when things get better, and no one has any idea when that’s going to be,” he said.

Aron Packer, owner of Packer Schopf Gallery at 942 W. Lake St., has made “an official effort to not mail things out,” and instead switch completely to email. Postage was “probably our fourth most expensive thing,” Packer said.

Artists are also finding ways to navigate the recession.

“More artists are willing to make accommodations to make things happen in this economy,” Saunders said.

“This includes [lowering] prices, [offering] payment plans for collectors and considering commissions that might not have been considered in the past.”

Although this news may sound scary, there are 160-180 galleries and alternative spaces in and around Chicago, so news of one or two galleries struggling must be put in perspective with Chicago’s very large art market, said Ginny Berg, publisher of Chicago Gallery News.

Berg publishes magazine as well as online content on openings and exhibitions often months in advance of these events. “Galleries are reacting individually,” she said. They are “feeling a little unstable” but “planning shows for the rest of 2009.”

For many Chicago gallery owners, this recession is not their first.

Catherine Edelman has owned a contemporary photography gallery in Chicago for 21 years and has made it through downturns before.

“I opened my gallery in December 1987 so I signed my lease two weeks before the stock market crashed,” she said. “When I signed my lease was one of the worst times I’ve seen…followed by the 1991-1992 recession.”

Edelman said that if galleries are doing business correctly, they will have saved money during profitable times to make it through times of struggle.

“I’ve been at this for over 35 years. I’ve seen this at least twice before,” said McCormick, whose gallery houses a collection of 20th century and contemporary art. “Thankfully, I have the privilege of dealing in more expensive, vintage material so we are better positioned, financially, to weather the storm.”

“But I would not want to be a young or start-up gallery in this climate,” McCormick added.

Kasia Kay Art Projects has been in business for only five years. After three years at 1044 W. Fulton Market St., owner Kasia Kay said there should be momentum for young galleries to grow and strengthen in Chicago. “But with the recession, who knows,” she added.

This year Kay is cutting nearly her entire advertising budget. While in the past she has placed ads twice a year in major magazines like Artforum, Kay is now listing with local publications like Chicago Gallery News.

Overall, Kay is hopeful about the future of her gallery. “As far as the Chicago market goes, I think things have slowed down, but they haven’t stopped,” she said.

This Friday, Feb. 13, Kashia Kay’s gallery will debut the paintings of two young New York artists, Allison Katz and Aliza Nisenbaum, with an opening reception from 6-9 p.m.

“I hope we have good crowds and some sales!” Kay said.

Over on W. Superior, feelings about the future are still mixed.

Catherine Edelman said that she will continue to explore new avenues and show new work. “That’s my business,” she explained.

But Peter Bartlow is less optimistic. “I do not think we have seen the bottom yet,” he said. “And recovery in our business does come after it occurs in other industries.”