by Leah Sottile
Jesse Peck looks a lot different today than she did last November, when I stood in front of the glass display case at Studio 901. That day a year ago, Peck rattled through her ideas behind opening the bite-sized art gallery and leftist newsstand in the Garland District. She was optimistic, positive and giddy as she crowed about the new hardwood floor she'd just installed. It was her first business, and she and husband Bob Seale were entertaining the idea that they could fill a void for local artists, liberals, free thinkers and zealots.
This could change Spokane, they thought.
Today, Peck sits quietly next to the counter -- now surrounded by "75% off" signs, the glass case only half-full with foofy cigarettes and anti-Bush stickers. One wall of the petite gallery is still swathed with art; the other looks empty, with only two prints still hanging. She and Seale were packing up. They officially locked the door and turned in their keys to Studio 901 last Saturday after a year in business. Sure, Peck says, they filled the void, but, financially, their noble causes just weren't enough to keep them afloat.
But she's upbeat still, saying that they just didn't have the backup cash to keep the gallery going.
"At this point, we expected business to have improved," she says. "It's to the point of keeping the business open, or having money for groceries."
Peck says gallery ownership comes down to a few key principles: having the backup capital, the contacts and the time to stay in business. Because, despite the fact that it's a place to show art and engage viewers, a gallery is still a business -- a very tough business.
"It's always a bad time to be in business in Spokane," she says. "We really just went balls to the wall and said we can do this without any backup. [Staying open] really wouldn't take that much -- it's just more than we have."
Gallery Ownership 101
But keeping a gallery afloat anywhere is a tough task -- whether it's in New York City, Portland, Coeur d'Alene or Spokane. Peck says she thinks it would have realistically taken about three years for her and Seale to really establish themselves.
Steve Gibbs, owner of The Art Spirit Gallery, says she's right. "It's all a business of building contacts," he says, "and you have to be willing to hold out for quite some time before you build enough contacts to make ends meet.
"The artists tell you about a couple more artists to get involved with. They tell their clients and friends," Gibbs continues. "You start from zero and you get a person a day to begin with. It goes from nothing on up."
Gibbs speaks from experience, having originally opened his Coeur d'Alene gallery in a different location than where it now sits on busy Sherman Avenue. In his original location, off the beaten path from Coeur d'Alene's main walking areas, he found that people only discovered his gallery by word-of-mouth. Occasional passers-by just weren't reliable enough to keep business consistent. Location is key for a new gallery.
"It helps if you already have built-in traffic. If you don't, then you have to build it yourself," he says.
Peck says that was a main obstacle for Studio 901 -- the Garland area hasn't completely established itself as an arts district like she thought it might a year ago.
"The outside areas don't get revitalized until the downtown is nice and hip," she theorizes. "We opened up here because we love this area. You'd think that there'd be people walking, but there are very few."
And because art is not an essential consumer product ("Art is bourgeoisie, it's this extra thing you buy," she says.), Peck says without that constant foot traffic that downtown businesses and galleries get, it's difficult to draw people into the gallery. And that challenge compounds when your window displays are made up of feminist magazines and books written by Noam Chomsky, with prints of dead birds hanging on the walls behind them.
"We were marketing to people in their 20s who have a viable income, and there just aren't enough of those [in Spokane]," she says.
The Ethics of Art
"[The art I show] isn't necessarily everyone's taste," Gibbs says, "but as long as it's good quality original art, you'll find someone out there. You just might have to look a little further."
And that is, perhaps, the main question among new gallery owners: to sell or to inspire?
Peck says that she often felt that in order for her business to succeed quickly and survive, she would have to display art that people wanted to purchase.
"I wanted to show art that was really strong," she says. "You have to be willing to put up what will sell. You have to cater to the market, and we're not."
But Gibbs says the duties of a gallery owner don't have to be that black and white, especially if you're looking to establish a gallery for the long run. He says just making the decision to show good, cutting-edge art is enough to draw in some customers -- you just have to be willing to wait for them to come around.
Lorinda Knight, owner of one of Spokane's most prominent galleries, says that owning a gallery that's just looking to sell art is meaningless: "I don't think there is any point in having the gallery unless it shows top-quality work that pushes the boundary," she says. "Some exhibits break even, and some don't, but it all evens out over the long run."
Both Peck and Gibbs agree, however, that maintaining a healthy set of galleries can only happen when people in the arts community start opening their wallets and buying art. And sometimes, Peck says, that means people want to see art made by familiar hands.
"There's a lot of really great art here -- I don't think [Spokane's] behind in that - but people want [to see art by] people they've heard of," Peck says.
And establishing that base group of consistent artists takes time -- something many aspiring gallery owners aren't willing to idly sit and watch tick away.
Establishing a gallery isn't impossible in Spokane because the arts community is small -- it's just a long, time-intensive endeavor. And while Peck and Seale are happy with their decision to close -- they plan to spend time over the next year watching Elmo with their two little sons -- they say that they'll hopefully give Spokane another artistic shot in the next year.
Publication date: 12/23/04