Leslie Levy (left), who has owned an art gallery i.
(photo credit: AP)
Art gallery owners across the country are finding they have a tough sell these days.
With houses going up for auction, unemployment
continuing to rise and the threat of layoffs seemingly ever-present,
many gallery owners in art communities such as Scottsdale, Arizona
, New Mexico
; and New York City
shop, going broke to stay open or drastically changing the way they do
"Art is a very discretionary sort of object, and we are in the
worst recession arguably in the postwar era," said Jay Bryson, a global
economist with Wells Fargo Securities
, North Carolina
"Obviously somebody who has lost their job in a factory in Indiana
probably is not buying art."
Even people with plenty of discretionary money aren't spending much on it.
a billionaire and you took a 40 percent hit on your portfolio, now you
only have $600 million left," Bryson said. "That's still pretty deep
pockets, but 40 percent is 40 percent."
In the gallery district of downtown Scottsdale, at least a half
dozen galleries have been forced to close in the past year or are in
the midst of closing. Others still are wondering how much longer they
can hold out.
One recent day, Leslie Levy sat quietly amid the
contemporary art she sells in her gallery, which was just as deserted
as the streets outside, where the temperature was in the triple digits.
The summers here are always slow because of the heat, but this
one is much worse than usual. That's partly why Levy is closing her
doors at the end of August after 32 years in business and becoming a
private art dealer online.
"I'll tell you what - if I was younger, I'd just keep at it
knowing we've not seen times quite as bad as this before," Levy said.
Longtime customer Marylyn Gregory of Bernardsville, New Jersey,
came in the gallery that day to see it one final time and check out
what pieces Levy had left of her and her husband's favorite artist.
Gregory told Levy she was surprised and upset when she heard the
gallery was closing but added, "You're probably doing the right thing."
Gregory didn't end up buying anything that day, saying she
needed to check with her husband. Before, she might have been more
"Sometimes you'd go to an opening and have a glass of wine, and
you're like, OK," she said. "It's certainly the method to get everyone
to open their checkbooks."
But like many other art lovers, the Gregorys are more conservative with their money these days.
Levy understands. "People are watching what they spend - cutting
back and spending on the necessities of life. That makes sense to
Becky Smith knows that all too well. She owned the Bellwether
Gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood for a decade, but closed at
the end of June after watching her revenue plummet to $80,000 gross in
the first quarter of 2009. She had $40,000 net, and $10,000 of it went
to rent each month.
The $80,000 figure was down from about $350,000 the same quarter in 2008 and about $600,000 during that period the year before.
"I was really startled," Smith said. "It was the spring of '08
where I saw three shows that should have been blockbusters
underperform, and I was in shock."
"Things were booming so intensely a couple years ago and the
pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction, it was impossible
to know where I stood," she said. "And I didn't want to be paying for a
storefront while I was figuring it out."
In the past two years, at least 24 galleries have closed in Manhattan, mostly in Chelsea, according to New York City-based Artnet magazine, which covers the fine-art world. "That's really dramatic," said Artnet editor Walter Robinson.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, between 10 and 15 galleries have closed
this year, said Christy Walker, managing director of the Santa Fe
"A lot of people have this idea that running a gallery, the
owners make a lot of money, when it's just a lot of effort to make a
living off of it," she said. "It's a hard business to be in, and when
things are good, things are good, and when times are tough, it's a
really tough business to maintain."
Kraig Foote of art one gallery in Scottsdale has done everything he can think of to avoid shutting down.
His house is about to go up for auction because he hasn't made a
payment in seven months, he has laid off his two employees and he has
resorted to selling his own beloved art collection for a fraction of
what it's worth.
"I have given up everything," he said recently in the very
empty gallery, which sells work by local high school- and college-age
And still, the threat of closure looms.
"I'm trying to make it to December," Foote said. "I think people
will start spending again once they get to the next holiday. They'll
say, 'We've saved, let's get something.'"
He paused. "I don't know."
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