Art Beat: Can Art Keep Up with the Times?

By Alison Rooney

The arts story which generated the most feedback this year was a Sept. 21 interview with Matteawan Gallery owner Karlyn Benson in which she talked about why she closed the Beacon gallery after a five-year run.

With developments rising up and down Main Street, the assumption was that her landlord raised the rent, forcing her out, but Benson was quick to explain that her rent was fair. There just weren’t enough customers, despite Beacon’s reputation in the Hudson Valley as a mecca for the visual arts.

Visitors seemed enthusiastic about what she had on display, Benson said, and she sold plenty of pieces, but they weren’t expensive enough to pay the rent and justify the time and energy required to run the business.

“Although artists support each other well here, there aren’t enough collectors, which still surprises me,” Benson said. “There are months of planning for each exhibit, publicity, handling and hanging the art and all the other administrative duties that come with owning a small business. It’s a labor of love, but after a while, you have to make money.”

The Matteawan Gallery closed in Beacon on Oct. 7. (File photo by A. Rooney)

These sentiments were echoed by Eleni Smolen, who this year closed her TheoGanz Studio in Beacon. “What we really need in the Hudson Valley is more publicity that reaches the greater New York City audience,” she said. “The concept of the classic white cube gallery may well be transitioning into new paradigms of art marketing. The bottom line is many galleries cannot afford to operate as museums.”

With the continued funneling of young visual artists from Brooklyn to Beacon, the question becomes: Is it realistic for them to be able to exhibit and sell their art, especially in light of increased rents forcing artists to continually find studio space in “undiscovered” spots?

“Having a gallery in Beacon requires deep pockets,” notes artist Rick Rogers, the former president of BeaconArts. “You have your audience on Saturday and Sunday for perhaps six hours a day. If it’s a rainy day or there’s cold weather, your walk-ins are few. To depend on decent sales in that limited time frame is unrealistic. Beacon is a foodie and music destination with hikers sprinkled in.”

Of course, making a living by selling what you create is a challenge that artists in all fields have grappled with for centuries. But they are a wily, determined bunch. Their creativity seeps through barriers. Over the past year, in Beacon and Philipstown, I’ve seen shows on the walls of a real-estate agency, a creative work space, a property administrative office, above a glass-blowing studio, in several coffee houses, in the entryway to a hotel and spa, in a bank, the front windows of a supermarket, a couple of restaurants, and on the piano-saturated streets of Beacon itself.

Although, somewhat miraculously, an actual gallery opened in Beacon this year — Mother Gallery, which is experimenting with longer exhibits — perhaps brick-and-mortar, commission-selling galleries are on their way out.

Writers may not need a storefront, but most experience the same frustrations in getting their work published. So what are many of them doing? Self-publishing. What was once a vaguely derogatory connotation has undergone a transformation, and many of the writers we covered this year got fed up with the slush pile and instead took the lead in getting their books published, distributed and marketed through companies that specialize in this growing market. At the same time, community groups such as Beacon’s Get Lit built a literary force with its monthly open-to-all reading series.

Local musicians are streaming their songs and building a fan base with social media. There are home studios all over the Highlands. Performing at local venues while promoting digital downloads can get the word out.

Theater is malleable, as well. Got no proscenium stage to mount a production? Re-fashion it as a reading. The Excellent Creature company has been doing that with its Dialogues with Drama series at the Philipstown Depot Theatre, and Beacon’s Todd Hulet has, in the grand “Let’s Put On a Show” tradition, begun producing community musicals at the Howland Cultural Center. A modern dance company, A-Y Dancers, founded by three recent SUNY Purchase grads, also had its first performances at the Howland this year.

The artists still streaming into Beacon are looking for a community. It just may not be where they expect to find it.

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One Response to "Art Beat: Can Art Keep Up with the Times?"

  1. Jean-Marc Superville Sovak   January 11, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    I would like to applaud Alison Rooney’s uplifting sentiment that it is our people, and, specifically, our artists who remain one of the greatest assets to the Highlands.

    As I looked at faces lit up by the positively electric New Year’s Day performance of the Rock ’n’ Roll Hi-Fives and Mdou Moctar at Quinn’s in Beacon, I was reminded that what makes a great city even greater is not so much its buildings or its shops or its museums. Above all, it is our people, deeply woven into the complex tapestry of newcomers and old-timers who will continue inspiring those who want to become part of this fabric to come here, whether they have deep pockets or not.

    Whether we’ve been to a show or served at a church or opened up a shop, we all deserve credit for being, in Pete Seeger’s words, “people [who] lived in small villages and took care of each other.”