City artists face lack of gallery space, NY competition

Hayne Bayless makes “artful ceramics” — jugs, vases and goblets — and he has done well for himself. His kiln-fired, delicately latticed ceramics have won awards from places like the Smithsonian Museum to craft shows in New Zealand. In one week last April, he sold $18,000 worth of pottery.

But not everyone in New Haven’s art scene is so comfortably successful.

“I’ve been to a lot of great shows,” photographer Paul Duda said. “But I don’t think people are buying. It’s a non-necessity category.”

Visual artists describe a New Haven fine arts scene that is young, passionate and dynamic. But many express dissatisfaction with what they say is a lackluster market for their work.

“It’s not perfect but it’s getting better,” said Maryann Ott of the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. “It’s a glass half empty or half full. There are plenty of frustrated artists feeling the world owes them attention.”

But while artists say New Haven is a hard place to work — as commercial galleries close, and New York siphons off buyers — the arts scene may be stronger than many of its participants acknowledge.

Nowhere to go?

After a widespread exodus of artists in the late 1980s, arts organizations around the city have been working to raise New Haven’s profile. In the last 10 years, the International Festival of Arts and Ideas and the City-Wide Open Studios have made the city the focus of national attention.

But after the recent closing of the Munson Gallery, New Haven has no major commercial gallery to sell artists’ work. The scene is dominated by nonprofits, like Artspace.

“There’s a dwindling number of galleries,” said Betty Monz, the director of the Regional Cultural Plan. “The opportunity to sell artwork in [commercial galleries] doesn’t exist, but it should.”

Despite the international festival and the open studios — which Monz and Ott said create a lot of excitement — it can be hard to make a living between the major events.

“I’ve never found the market around here particularly encouraging,” said Gale Zucker, a commercial photographer based in Branford.

With little space to show work, artists are on their own. In this marketplace, the most successful artists are not necessarily the most talented ones.

“Some see plenty of opportunity but are aware they have to hustle,” she said. “Often times [the successful] are the most savvy at self-promotion.”

Recently, artists have begun to market themselves through Web sites and aggressive e-mail campaigns. Ott said artists should “always be out there, trying to peddle their wares” — to the point of carrying their portfolio around with them, wherever they go.

Non-profit excellence

But even without any commercial galleries, there is plenty of wall space in the nonprofits, whose leadership has taken innovative approaches to cultivating new artists.

“No question — for visual artists to sell their work is extremely challenging,” said Helen Kauder, the executive director of Artspace. “But rent is cheaper in New Haven.”

Kauder said Artspace focused on developing emerging artists who might one day become famous in New York. The nonprofit gallery is increasingly relying on sales to cover operating expenses.

Artspace also organizes the two-week City-Wide Open Studios, which gives local artists a heavily publicized platform to promote their work. She said that artists in this year’s event made a total of $50,000, distributed fairly evenly among several dozen participants.

Kauder said that New Haven needs to develop capitalize on the art lovers attracted by the open studios and that the excitement level needs to be “cultivated further.”

But in a city with no art gallery district, a lack of cohesiveness creates hardships for local owners.

“Galleries are not necessarily profitable,” Monz said. “[But] the arts community should push forward to open gallery space.”

Strength in specialization

Artists and administrators said New Haven artists have suffered as much as benefited from the city’s proximity to New York.

“We’re too close to New York; the cachet is in buying fine artwork there,” Zucker said.

Ott and Monz both said that serious buyers often leave New Haven’s less stable market for New York, which has an art scene recognized worldwide.

“New Haven can’t compete with Philly and New York,” Ott said.

But the New York art scene has felt the aftershocks of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks acutely: Many downtown galleries have closed their doors, and tourism is down.

While New Haven has not seen a jump in interested buyers, craft-oriented artisans remain secure. If the city’s art scene has one area insulated from the cyclical, oftentimes vicious nature of the art world, it is in its potters and photographers.

While Duda has not had a gallery show in months, he has had a steady stream of clients for his photography business. The lagging advertising market hurts, but he said he more than makes up for it in portraiture and similar work.

“Photography is a ‘what the hell’ business,” he said. “‘The world is going to hell, so I’m going to be a model and get the picture of myself I always wanted.'”

And New Haven is not the only city where the arts economy is sometimes capricious.

“Americans are not generally interested in supporting individual artists,” Ott said. “A lot of foundations and grant-writers have stopped because it’s too controversial and risky.”

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Eric Werness
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