Hitting a Wall 

When commercial galleries close, artists look elsewhere

Coffeeshops can be both a boon and a burden for emerging professional artists.

Laurie Pearman

Coffeeshops can be both a boon and a burden for emerging professional artists.

After more than 30 years in business, Randall Brown was forced to close the doors of Brown's Gallery in March. In a window flanking the large wooden doors, a "for rent" sign advertised available space in the 8th Street Marketplace building.

"We were able to get a large, secure storage unit," said Brown. "Our stuff is all stacked very nicely inside. It's a vacant store, basically."

But Brown's is only the latest in a string of gallery changes. When the recession hit in 2008, it sent shocks through Boise's small art market. J Crist closed its doors in 2009 and longtime Basement Gallery owner Perry Allen sold his space to new owners in 2009. But while the commercial gallery scene has wilted, other, more eclectic art spaces have sprouted up. New cooperative spaces like Green Chutes, Enso Artspace and Black Hunger all offer a different take.

On what seems to be every corner in Boise, coffeeshops and retail spots are now brimming with art, their formerly naked walls festooned with color. While one might assume these exhibits are preened by an in-house curator, it turns out that many artists hang the work themselves out of necessity.

Local artist Travis Campion has hung pieces at Flying M Coffee House and other shops during the last 20 years, including a rare art show at Neurolux, a smattering of local galleries and a former clothing shop, all with mixed results. He doesn't discount the coffeeshops but said they don't carry the same professional clout as galleries.

"With the prices I ask for my art, it's difficult to sell at a coffeeshop," said Campion. "I'm not going to spend two weeks or a month on a painting and sell it for $50 or less."

Campion's paintings resemble Victorian portraiture and he often employs coffee for its antiquing power. He said space is limited for work like his in Boise.

"If it weren't for Sam Stimpert and Anneliessa Marie Balk at the Visual Arts Collective, as well as the Basement Gallery, we'd be stuck with having to show our stuff at minor venues such as coffeeshops, boutiques and bars," said Campion.

Kirsten Furlong, a Boise State art instructor, artist and gallery director of the Visual Arts Center, also has strong opinions on the matter. She said coffeeshops aren't a smart bet for artists unless no other options exist.

"I have a particular take on this, which may not be the popular take," cautioned Furlong. "For artists preparing to be professional artists, I think showing your work in a coffeeshop, a restaurant, a hair salon, a cafe, a retail store--I think that's a final resort when you don't have any other options."

While she acknowledged the success of the Flying M model as an example of the coffeeshop gallery done right--with its annual Valentine for AIDS art auction--she said a business needs to focus on helping artists in order for the trade-off to work.

"It's truly setting aside space, where the artists and the business owners are working together," Furlong said. "Places like the Flying M, they market it, they promote it and people are expecting it--it's part of their business. It's somebody specifically organizing it with respect to the artists and not just decor for the space."

Located somewhere between the coffeeshop and the dedicated commercial gallery are flexible spaces, like VAC and the Linen Building, where art is welcomed with opening celebrations and evenings of music or performance art during the venue's fluctuating schedule. But Furlong said those spaces can be a risk for artists, since some spaces don't offer full insurance. Though VAC offers up to $2 million in coverage for any art on display and the Linen Building offers protection for the full price value of work, a bar or coffeeshop may not.

"I recently had a show at the Linen Building," said Furlong. "There were certain things they could and couldn't do. It was a little nerve-wracking."

Furlong cautions artists to ask about insurance or carry their own.

But Jane Brumfield, who owns Basement Gallery with her husband Mike, said that art is shown in less-professional settings for a different reason. She said there just isn't enough space in Boise for showing art at any level, whether it's coffeeshop, retail gallery or mixed-use space like VAC or the Linen Building.

"The coffeeshop art scene is great," said Brumfield. "But I think the best art scenes have a wide provision of spaces. To have a healthy art scene, all of those have to be present."

Brumfield added that while First Thursday brings people through her gallery, the idea that it leads to big sales is a myth, and dedicated galleries are struggling because of that.

"First Thursday is a social event," she said. "It doesn't equate to actual sales. Three-hundred to 500 people come through, but visiting a gallery is not supporting a gallery. Buying art is supporting a gallery. We don't typically have a lot of sales, and they're typically small sales."

Furlong agreed that Boise is low on gallery spaces but said that doesn't hurt the art scene. Rather, it's just part of the changing tide.

"I think the much-better options are the people who are creating their own spaces," said Furlong. "I think the best examples of that are Enso Artspace and Black Hunger. Artists are just working together to create a space that is a gallery, and it's properly showcasing and contextualizing the work."

Black Hunger is an artists' collective and studio space in the North End that doesn't have a sales goal. The artists involved said they are trying to build a scene, one that could help push Boise out of the coffeeshop mindset. Erin Cunningham, an art instructor at Boise State, visual artist and Black Hunger member, said the gallery is a response to Boise's changing arts scene.

"Black Hunger is different. We came together because we wanted a place to work. The gallery came second," she said. "We sell nothing. We just want to look at it--whatever is on display--for a night and maybe have a conversation."

While people on the outside might suggest Boise's art scene is limited, gallery owners say that the groundswell of emerging artists is here and it's growing. But the next rung, blending a local art scene into a regional or national scene, still needs work.

"It's about mobilizing the community and keeping real art alive in a place that is often indifferent to it, or thinks it can be bought in the mall," said Cunningham.

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