Not so long ago, a dark cloud loomed over the New England art market. As the recession crippled commerce across industries, discretionary incomes dwindled and what little remained was diverted away from art and towards basic needs. Galleries quietly shuttered their doors and weary artists followed suit, migrating towards the bright lights of new cities where the grass was presumably greener.
However, in recent years, there has been a noted shift in attitudes. Levity has returned to New England and brazen gallerists driven by an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to enrich their communities, have begun peeking out of molehills and embarking on new ventures that celebrate contemporary art making.
Susan Nalband of 555 Gallery in South Boston has felt this shift and is capitalizing on the surge of new-found energy. Nalband’s gallery, a sunlit contemporary space that embodies her lifelong passion for photography, opened earlier this year in a section of the city that seems to have transformed from blue collar beginnings into a cultural hub overnight. Situated within a newly formed “arts corridor” and surrounded by like-minded businesses, Nalband is poised to become a fixture in a neighborhood on the rise.
“The economy is getting better,” she says. “We all are recognizing that there’s some reasonable wealth and a large population of young people in Boston. I’m starting to notice these young collectors buy the works they see at openings—people who are in their first big job and may have a little extra money, maybe they got a bonus, and want to do something special with it. They can bring home a piece of art and talk about it with their friends. It’s a great investment in the artists themselves and the environment where they live.”
Gone are the days of the alienating gallery experience. Nalband guides customers to “buy what you love” and with that in mind, presents work that is “beautiful, accessible, and has an intelligence behind it.” She takes the time to greet visitors and educate them about the exhibition, oftentimes physically putting editions in their hands from the gallery’s flatfile. Her natural warmth and openness is something she attributes to her Midwestern upbringing, a far cry from traditional perceptions of the unfeeling gallery experience.
While the scene in Boston is picking up, the art market in Hartford, CT, is just getting started. At the forefront of the activity is Eric Ben-Kiki, a local framer who opened EBK Gallery as a small works space in March of this year. Not only are these exhibits cost-effective to ship, packed entirely within a single crate, but they’re affordable, catering to new collectors and seasoned buyers alike.
It is the only independently run commercial gallery in a city that’s home to over 125,000 people and has quickly become a beacon for the creative community. Located in the Historical Goodwin building in West Hartford, the gallery’s windowed facade represented a great opportunity for Ben-Kiki. He keeps the space lit each evening until midnight, allowing passersby to stop by and see the current work on view long after the other businesses on Pearl Street have closed. The weekly exhibition cycle, coupled with all-night access, makes EBK a place tourists want to revisit and locals want to incorporate into their daily meanders.
“I wanted to make sure I was physically showing and selling art more in line with the pace of how we get most of our visual info these days, which is primarily through websites, emails and social networks,” says Ben-Kiki. “While the shows are only up for a week, they are always available online through the gallery site. The frequency of exhibits and web presence also enables me to accommodate a greater number of shows and celebrate all the amazing work that is being made by some incredibly accomplished artists.”
In neighboring Rhode Island, Lindsey Stapleton and Corey Oberlander of GRIN Gallery approached their project in 2013 with an eye towards sustainability. Located on the ground floor of The Plant, a historic mill complex in Providence, GRIN is a place where emerging and underrepresented artists have a chance to shine. To facilitate this mission, Stapleton and Oberlander pursue full-time jobs outside the space. The additional income stream takes the pressure off gallery sales and allows the duo to concentrate on the quality of their programming.
“Oftentimes galleries don’t want or are simply unable to take the risk of showing an unexposed, underexposed or untested artist,” says Stapleton. “A huge part of the founding mission of GRIN was to offer a space to artists who have the drive, passion and quality of work that warrants exposure in a formal, sophisticated gallery environment but cannot get that exposure due to perceived inexperience or lackings in their resumes. It’s great to see what happens when artists walks into their show for the first time, when the gallery is clean and there is nothing but themselves up on the walls. It’s a sense of pure accomplishment and it is rewarding to be able to give that moment to artists who really deserves it.”
Farther north, in the tourist town of Portsmouth, NH, it is difficult to find galleries that stray from the “lobster boat and lighthouse” aesthetic, but Ali Goodwin of Drift Gallery set out to shake the city from its slumber. After closing the original location in Kittery, ME, in 2010, Goodwin opened Drift Gallery last year on the grounds of the historic Wentworth Coolidge mansion.
“The property is around 400 years old, and the place is steeped in art history,” says Goodwin. “John Singer Sargent and Isabella Stewart Gardner used to summer at the estate and at the turn of the century it was an artists’ colony. So I feel like I am a steward of this sacred place. My goal was to return it to its artists colony roots and to instill a sense of place for the 21st century. I feel like I’ve been given an incredible gift and this is my legacy, to follow in the footsteps of the wonderful, talented, creative and luminous people that came before me and brought such rich culture to the space.”
In a converted carriage house overlooking Little Harbor, Drift has quickly become a regional treasure showcasing dynamic contemporary works in an unexpected space. Goodwin, who has a graphic design degree from RISD, holds herself to a high standard as a curator and has a knack for unearthing high-caliber artists from New England and beyond. Visitors have referred to the gallery as “the best kept secret in Portsmouth,” but for Goodwin, who on any given day is a gallery director, marketer, PR maven and accountant, she hopes they share this secret with everyone they know.
Less than 15 minutes from Drift, across the Piscataqua River, sits Chases Garage in York, ME, co-directed by Ned Roche and Cait Giunta. The arts space–a blacksmith shop in the 1800s and later an auto garage–was purchased by Roche’s family in an effort to preserve the charming structure and save it from the hands of luxury condominium developers.
The gallery, which officially opened Memorial Day weekend in 2013, is also home to a ceramics classroom, nine artist studios and a printmaking shop (in the works). Roche and Giunta are conscientious about their use of space and have taken care to introduce new elements piece by piece, assessing what is working, not working and soliciting feedback to avoid getting in over their heads.
“We don’t want to grow too quickly,” said Giunta, “ but we knew from the start that it was important for us to have artist studios at Chases Garage because we are artists ourselves and thrive on that creative energy. Unlike factory studios in the area, we created smaller, affordable spaces where the walls don’t touch the ceiling and you can actually chat with your neighbor. Coming out of a college atmosphere where we had routine critiques and like-minded folks around to say ‘Hey how did you do that? Can you teach me?’ we wanted to replicate that feeling of openness and encourage the spirit of collaboration.”
Is New England experiencing a new art renaissance? If our region’s gallerists are any indicator, you can sense a strengthening “yes.” From the budding proprietor to the serial entrepreneur, there are opportunities abound for those who are willing to approach this new economy with a fresh set of eyes and a willingness to experiment. In recent years we are seeing projects that are less about the commodification of art and unrealistic visions of grandeur, and more about pursuing one’s passions and buying what one truly believes in.