WSG Bows Out
Covid-19 was the coup de grace
by Sally Mitani
From the June, 2020 issue
"It's heartbreaking that we have to close our physical space right now, but it's the right thing to do," says Valerie Mann, president of WSG Gallery, one of the crown jewels of Main St. Until March 23, dinner in a Main Street restaurant and a stroll through the WSG, maybe followed by a little music somewhere, was the definition of a night on the town, not just for locals but for people all over southeastern Michigan, fans in football season, and visiting U-M parents.
Originally the Washington Street Gallery, WSG has graced downtown storefronts for twenty years. "During the last recession, our sales never dropped. We're the only gallery that lasted," says painter Elizabeth Schwartz, one of its fifteen artist owners. But WSG's five-year lease in the historic Pratt Block was up in February, and the group and landlord Ed Shaffran couldn't agree on new terms.
It was a long-term relationship--Shaffran also owns their previous location on Liberty--and both parties agree on the basic facts of the breakup.
At the end of its lease, WSG was paying about $5,000 a month. It never missed a payment, but it was a struggle. Shaffran was looking to increase that by several thousand over the next five years.
Schwartz, who's also an attorney, handled negotiations for the gallery. She asked for a rent freeze the first year and much softer price hikes over the rest of the term.
The parties were still at loggerheads when Covid-19 hit. When Governor Whitmer issued her first stay-at-home order, WSG closed its doors. When it missed its April and May rent payments, Shaffran asked the members to vacate by May 26.
Shaffran manages more than 200,000 square feet of rental space and says about twenty tenants have asked for some type of rent concession. "Right from the get-go we've said we'll try to help as much as we can," he says. "But I'm not the lender of last resort. I'm not the federal government."
he's offered to let all his tenants defer rent for two or three months and amortize the missed payments over the rest of the year, essentially giving them an interest-free loan. But he says he can't make additional concessions to WSG without offering concessions to all his other tenants.
"Nobody created this; nobody wanted this," he says. But "when taxes come due, I have to pay"--and when the rent is due, he expects his tenants to pay, too.
Mann emphasizes that the WSG will continue, just not on Main St. All members are still producing art, which they will continue to exhibit online.
That's not ideal, acknowledges the group's newest member, fiber artist Cathryn Amidei: "Art is one of those things you want to keep 'warm,' and online can be 'cool.'" But with no immediate alternatives, they're overhauling the website, adding, among other features, "studio visits"--two-minute videos of artists talking about their work. Soon there may be pop-up events, and they hope to eventually find a less expensive space somewhere else.
WSG Gallery, wsg-art.com.
from Calls & Letters, July 2020
"We haven't paid $5,000 a month since 2009!" objected Elizabeth Schwartz. A member of artist collective WSG, Schwartz emailed in response to our June Marketplace Changes article on the closing of their Main St. gallery.
We thoroughly misunderstood the history and status of the gallery's lease with landlord Ed Shaffran. WSG's prior lease, from March 2015 through February 2020, started at $7,000 a month and rose to $7,995. Last fall, the parties agreed to a new three-year lease at $7,500. Schwartz, who handled negotiations, says Shaffran made the concession after being informed that they had a better offer from another Main St. landlord.
But just as the new lease started, Covid-19 turned everyone's business plans upside down. With the gallery closed, the collective asked Shaffran to negotiate, didn't pay rent in April or May, and vacated toward the end of that month. While looking for a less expensive space elsewhere, they are operating online at wsg-art.com.
[Originally published in June, 2020.]
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