Picturing the Gallery's Future

Three Evergreen alumni, art-world insiders all, talk about galleries and the future of the business.

The art world has been buffeted by recent economic turmoil and transformed by the growing influence of the Internet, as dealers, auction houses, and artists themselves go online to reach viewers and buyers.

Catherine Person in her gallery

Catherine Person surrounds herself with art in her Pioneer Square gallery.

At the frontline of this changing landscape are art galleries, the entrepreneurial (or cooperative) operations that find new creative talent, nurture it and introduce it to the public. Because of their stance in the cultural ecosystem and the challenges they face in staying in business, commercial galleries have been called “canaries in the coal mine.” They are vulnerable to changes in trends, financial pressures, industry shifts, government policies and so on. And naturally, how the galleries are being impacted has a ripple effect on artists themselves.

The following alumni spoke with us about the value and prospects of today’s galleries.

Catherine Person: '76, who studied sociology at Evergreen, opened her eponymous Pioneer Square gallery in 2005. For the previous 18 years, she ran her own art advisory firm to support independent artists, working with a range of customers, from first-time buyers to corporate curators. Her clients included many of the region’s biggest corporations like Boeing, Nordstrom, Safeco and Microsoft. Person loves to educate people about art and introduce novice collectors to the artists she represents, like Kensuke Yamada '05, whose solo exhibition she runs May 20 to June 26. She showcases mainly regional artists and curates eight shows a year.

Chris Rauschenberg

Chris Rauschenberg at the Blue Sky Gallery he helped establish in Portland, Oregon.

Christopher Rauschenberg: '73, is a fine art photographer and curator. Born in New York City, he is a longtime resident of Portland, Oregon. In 1976, he co-founded Blue Sky Gallery (also called the Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts), a nonprofit focused on contemporary photography. Today, it has grown to 3,700-square feet and hosts as many as three solo exhibitions a month. Rauschenberg is the son of two eminent artists, Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil. He has taken pictures in dozens of countries, published a photo book—Paris Changing: Revisiting Eugene Atget’s Paris—and exhibited his work internationally.

Pablo Schugurensky

In downtown Seattle, Pablo Schugurensky admires one of the Three Women statues commissioned by Vulcan Real Estate, a client of his art advisory firm.

Pablo Schugurensky: '84, is an art advisor who started his own Seattle-based firm, Meta Arte, in 2005 to help people and institutions make decisions about art. At Evergreen, he studied studio art, art history and art management, and he earned an M.F.A. in painting from Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. In 1987, he went to work for the New York State Council on the Arts’ Visual Artists Program, and in 1992, he moved to the Washington State Art Commission’s Art in Public Places Program, which he managed for five years. After that, he became the director of the Microsoft art collection, and from 1998 to 2005, he was director of art collections for Vulcan Inc. He has served on various arts boards and committees, including the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park advisory committee.

What is the role and value of contemporary brick-and-mortar art galleries, not only for artist, but also for society and culture a large?

Catherine Person: Galleries are gathering places for the community—for artists, collectors, families, friends, reviewers. Galleries are at the heart of community and the art scene. People know we're here, that we care about our artists and that we’re passionate about the work we're showing.

Christopher Rauschenberg: The function of the gallery is to present the artist’s work to the public. The role of the artist in society—that’s the person operating against the forces that want you to act the same and feel the same as everybody else. I think the artist has an important role in saying, “That’s not true.” When I travel, my first question generally is, “What art is here that I ought to be looking at?” Galleries are the places to do that.

Pablo Schugurensky: Art galleries provide us with the opportunity to encounter and perceive works with our senses, in actual scale and dimensions, at our own pace. They allow us to engage in dialogue with others about our perceptions in front of the actual artworks.

How do you see the role of gallery owners and curators?

Pablo: Curators are very important. They articulate collections or exhibitions. They help make connections among artworks in visual, thematic or historical ways.

Christopher: As a curator or dealer, you're selecting work you believe in. If you see something at Blue Sky, you can be sure that somebody looked at a lot of work before coming up with that one picture.

Catherine: We're a buffer between the clients and the artists. A lot of us have been at this for a long time and we really know what we’re talking about. We promote the artists we love and when we have group shows, we work hard to have the featured artists play off each other in ways that make sense.

How has the current economy impacted art galleries? How has it impacted artists and the marketplace?

Catherine: Artists are used to living on the edge—most are not ever going to be wealthy—but the past few years has been particularly hard. We are selling art here at this gallery. Some shows do extremely well, some not so hot, but it all seems to magically work out. However they do, I love all my artists very much or I wouldn't be selling their work.

Pablo: Galleries that rely on primary sales are probably the ones that suffered most. The ones dealing in the secondary market—especially in established artists—have been less impacted. It has been difficult for young artists, as discretionary income has shrunk.

Christopher: Galleries are trying to keep their doors open and support the artists. On the buying side, there have been two different effects. Some people who used to buy work, can’t afford to now. Then there are the people who can spend money, but have been holding off. Stabilizing the economy has not done anything for the first group; the second group has started collecting again. They have regained their confidence and returned to the art-buying fold.

Temporary pop-up galleries are sprouting up in vacant buildings and storefronts around the country, as well as in people's homes, in restaurants, and even in elevators. Are you aware of other gallery venues, besides online, and what do you think of these developments?

Catherine: I think all those things are great. Anyone who’s brave enough to put a show together is doing something for the community. If they sell art, more power to them.

Pablo: Nontraditional venues are always interesting developments, as artists can try ideas for works or installations without the pressure of a commercial gallery. To me, they are less successful or interesting when they try to imitate the look of commercial galleries.

Christopher: Last year, a local artist rented a former gas station and filled it up with affordable art. It was organized and manned by 30 different artists. I bought eight pieces myself. It was great.

With the proliferation of online options—for example, gallery and auction websites and artists’ own websites and blogs—how do you think the Internet is affecting artists? How is it affecting galleries?

Pablo: The Internet has given people the ability to check for ideas and trends, to send and receive images and inventory and understand pricing. More communication avenues are always better. However, mediated images cannot supplant the experience of the original medium and dimensions of an artwork.

Catherine: We all do business from our websites. I’ve had people look around on my site, write to me and it's resulted in a sale. Most of my artists have their own websites and they're Facebooking and blogging and so forth. These are excellent tools for artists. Some artists are better off working on their own. Most, though, like having someone buffering for them and taking care of business.

Christopher: Being a photographer, the Internet has been amazing. You can see something you’re interested in on a gallery website, then go to the gallery and see it in person. It gives people the opportunity to be fans and researchers.

How do you think cyberspace will impact artists and galleries in the future?

Catherine: It's hard to predict, but I think it will just continue to grow in importance. Do I think it will replace galleries? No. Relationships make the world go round. They're key.

Pablo: I hope that artists will further explore using cyberspace as a medium in itself, not a manipulation of ideas from other media. For galleries, it should allow for dissemination of information and interpretive materials. I would like to see a program where virtual audiences are able to curate exhibitions and write about them.

Christopher: It will continue to make it easier to have the world at your fingertips. One of the things photographers always had at their disposal was photo books. One of the great things about the Internet is that if you can put your wares on the electronic roadside, there are an infinite number of cars going by. Things are going to happen.

More generally, what are your predictions for the future of art galleries?

Christopher: I think there will continue to be art galleries, chugging along as they always have, not making a lot of money and doing an important service for the culture. I think new ways of doing things will always come up, but I don't think the gallery is going to go away.

Catherine: No matter what's going on with the Web galleries, the brick-and-mortar galleries are here to stay. We’re not going to become obsolete anytime soon.