On a Thursday summer evening in Chelsea, “Sounds and Sights” brings a crowd of strollers to the Main Street sidewalks. Couples drift through the River Gallery’s door, letting in gasps of street noise. The mood inside the spacious and well-lit two floors of the gallery is peaceful but intense. The large dyed fabrics of Sue Moran and the rough encaustic grids of Curtis Miller energize the room, and John Schwarz’s large sculptures made of found metal objects add a touch of muscular whimsy. Near the door a poet reads from his new book, which is on display. Though art sales are not spectacular, co-owners Patti Schwarz and Deborah Greer are pleased: they have widened the circle of people who know what their gallery has to offer.
The art gallery scene in Saline, Dexter, and Chelsea has never been easily profitable, and the recession has made it even more difficult. The last few years have seen the closing of the Chelsea Gallery, Saline’s Serendipity Studio, and Dexter’s Daisy Lake Art Gallery, among others. Some galleries, however, have managed to stay in business. The key, it seems, is to be more than just a retail space selling artwork.
Schwarz and Greer started their gallery in 2003 and a year later moved into their current space in a historic downtown building. After making the same sort of cuts as many businesses have in recent years, reducing staff and outside vendors, they reassessed the River Gallery’s identity.
“A gallery does not achieve its success because of simple cause and effect,” says Greer, who has a background as a community organizer. “It’s more complex. You create an identity in the community–who you are–and this will eventually be the draw.
“We are part of a larger arts and culture community. We exhibit work, but we also provide space for the community–for meetings, concerts, whatever.”
“We decided to say yes to anything,” adds Schwarz, a graphic designer–including, recently a series of writers workshops. The proprietors also do appraisals, hang work for collectors and corporations, and consult with artists–critiquing their work and suggesting how to organize and market it. They also work as brokers and consultants for institutions to select artwork for temporary shows and permanent collections. Greer serves on the board of the Chelsea Center for the Arts and the countywide Arts Alliance.
The result? “We received tremendous moral support from people in town,” Greer reports. “We were told by the community that ‘we value you.'”
The gallery also has a strong reputation in the art world. In 2004, a show by the late Gerome Kamrowski, a surrealist painter and art professor at the U-M, attracted artists and collectors and laid the groundwork for future success. While most visitors are from southeast Michigan and Toledo, the gallery has sold work to customers from New York, Los Angeles, Korea, and Japan.
On a quiet Tuesday afternoon in Dexter, two women enter the Side Door Gallery and look at the twenty-some works on the walls, including paintings by longtime area artist John Copley depicting Michigan’s vanishing agricultural landscapes. The patrons walk from the gallery into the Dexter Picture Frame Company, continuing to examine paintings and photographs that spill over from the gallery, including four striking oils–three florals and an exuberant rooster–by Victoria Schon, who recently closed her own gallery in town. They pause at a display showing seven different ways to mat and frame reproductions of a Copley painting of an oak tree.
Mary Bowe, co-owner of the Side Door, sees her gallery as one of four entities under a single corporate umbrella. Physically attached to the Dexter Picture Frame Company, the operation also includes the Saline Picture Frame Company and an online gallery, thesidedoorgallery.com. While the gallery by itself does not generate much income, its visitors find out about other services Bowe offers, mainly framing and repairs, as well as her husband Peter’s service hanging hand-to-handle works, and it leads people to look online at the more than twenty artists and studios–including Motawi Tileworks and Pewabic Pottery–the gallery represents.
“We came to the gallery differently from other” owners, Bowe says. “After thirty years in the art business, we have made connections with artists.” The Side Door Gallery has been open since 2007 when the Saline Frame Company expanded into Dexter. “We saw in the space a physical place to showcase regional art by people we knew and liked,” Bowe says. But, she adds, “I would not want to fly solo with a gallery.”
The Friday evening reception at Saline’s Two Twelve Art Center, a 1912 Sears kit Two Twelve house on Michigan Avenue, features the work of two sisters, Saline’s Charlene Jacobsen and Maryland artist Pat Clubine. Their friends and neighbors, fellow artists, and some art buffs from Ann Arbor inch past one another to examine the delicate and dreamlike work on the walls. A few people carry their wine upstairs to see work from other artists.
“We’re more of a school than a gallery,” says Margie Bovee, the petite and energetic woman whose Massachusetts background was in theater and who now directs Two Twelve Art Center. Opened in 2006 as a nonprofit, Two Twelve is endowed by the Cowan Slavin Foundation, a family philanthropic organization on whose board Bovee sits. This support removes the kind of financial pressure that has caused many galleries to close.
As a school, the Two Twelve Art Center offers a wide variety of classes for kids and adults, from painting and drawing to fiber arts, pottery, and jewelry. So on most days, visitors have to make their way around a half dozen people immersed in watercolor class or a noisy group of kids doing something messy with paint.
Once a month “we clean the place up,” as Bovee puts it, to host Artist-of-the-Month exhibits and receptions. As a nonprofit, Two Twelve does not charge a commission: artists receive the full price of works sold. Following the receptions, the gallery places work in the Saline Public Library and My Favorite Cafe.
Bovee had been aware of “a missing element” in Saline, and Two Twelve Art Center was her response. “It’s thriving,” she says, “because we’ve built this community that’s supportive.”
Other galleries in Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline continue to live a hybrid existence. The Susannah Keith Gallery, open by appointment only, appears to be more studio than gallery. Other shops feature gifts, craft items, and home decorating services more than fine art. Saline artists Taylor and Charlene Jacobsen’s Saline Mill functions mostly as a studio and classroom, open for purchases only on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Otherwise, the Jacobsens’ work is shown at the Two Twelve Art Center and My Favorite Cafe. The couple also recently opened Hartman House, just outside Saline, where the artwork on the walls is secondary to the classes and studio space provided. And Victoria Schon, who previously owned the Daisy Lake Gallery in Dexter, occasionally shows her work in her home; she also helps place work by area artists in the Corner Cup Cafe.
Much the way plants will find a way to grow in rocky and difficult terrain, art, through the creative and resourceful people who present it, continues to flower in communities, even in hard times.