The soul of a community: How the economy is affecting the local arts scene

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 3, 2008

By Susan Shinn
In this period of bleak economic times, local business owners and artists paint a promising picture of a burgeoning arts community in Salisbury.
In a time when many of us are making sacrifices to buy gas or food, arts patrons are still managing to support local artists.
And truly, what is a community without beauty, without color, without music, without movement?
A very bleak place indeed.
Here’s what a few of them had to say about current economic conditions and the arts.
Bruce Wilson,
Fine Frame Gallery
Bruce Wilson, who’s been in the framing business for some 30 years, characterizes I-85 as “one big driveway” to Salisbury.
Within the past two weeks alone, he’s had customers from Charlotte, Concord, even Wilmington.
“People want a little something happy,” he says. “People are buying again. We had a real dry spell in the summertime.”
Wilson attributes that slump to high gas prices coupled with uncertainty about the presidential election and the economy.
“They were concerned with the unknown,” Wilson says.
Customers from Lexington or Mooresville now call ahead to make sure Wilson is available; they’ll combine a trip to Salisbury to make multiple stops here, he says. “They’ll visit the tea room at Caniche and Waterworks and stop by here. Salisbury’s become a little bit of a destination. We have a variety of activities people can come to. They can spend not a lot of money or no money and have fun.
“We have a real Main Street. It’s not made up.”
Newly developed shopping centers in the area, Wilson says, may have nice amenities and interesting architecture ó but they’re sterile.
“We have established restaurants and stores, which are all wonderful draws,” Wilson says. “We see Saturday as becoming a stop-and-shop day for customers from Mooresville, Lexington and Concord.”
Wilson began his framing business in the 1970s. He notes that times of recession have typically been good times for framers. People tend to have things redone and redecorate versus buying something brand-new.
But in the past couple of months, wealthy customers have seen their portfolios shrink.
“There’s been an air of uncertainty,” Wilson says.
But the change in seasons has brought with it more customers.
“Moms are out shopping again since school is in,” Wilson says.
Sales in June and July were “down appreciably,” but are picking back up, he says.
A miniature show on Valentine’s Day was well received.”We had original watercolor drawings and paintings for $35 to $400,” Wilson says, “and half the show sold.”
“The artists were tickled,” he continues. “They didn’t make a lot of money, but sometimes positive feedback is just as good as having a check. It inspires you to keep on going.”
He plans a similar format for the Night Out the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Wilson represents six local artists in his gallery: Phyllis Steimel, Robert Toth, Marina Konovalova-Bare, Tamara Bare, Robert Brown and Kenneth Koskella, as well as 87-year-old Sam Rigling of Shreveport, La.
Since opening his Salisbury store in 1995, Wilson has seen the arts community grow, from the amateur to the professional level.
In addition to Waterworks Visual Arts Center, there’s now Carolina Artists, RailWalk Studios and Gallery, Looking Glass Art Collective and East Square Artworks, along with private galleries.
All of this tickles Wilson.
“These groups get together to share ideas,” he says. “The camaraderie can be infectious.”
Wilson points to the last Night on the Town in October.
“The town was hopping, from Queens down to RailWalk,” he says. “All of that was in a plan for many years and now it’s happening.”
The downtown has evolved, too.
“In 1995, we had no coffee shops, no wine shops,” Wilson says. “We had Beatty’s and Bill’s Bakery and the Coffee Cove and Las Palmas. And look at us now!”
He adds, “I believe the arts are the soul of a community. An investment in art pays you daily dividends.”
Anne Waters,
Green Goat Gallery
Anne Waters took over the management of Green Goat Gallery in the fall of 2007, buying the business from local artists Cara Reische and Brent Smith.
Waters still carries Smith’s pottery and Reische’s jewelry and art.
She represents some 50 artists from North Carolina, the Southeast and beyond.
At the gallery, you can find baby gifts, kaleidoscopes, carved knives, photography, paintings and more.
Waters has cultivated relationships with local artists such as Sue Davis, who makes the kaleidoscopes, and sought out craftspeople from shows such as Dan Nicholas Park’s Autumn Jubilee, the Piedmont Craftsman’s Show in Winston-Salem and the Southern Highland Crafts Guild in Asheville, among others.
Waters is looking for “things that you can’t find anywhere else.”
She adds, “I love traditional art, I love folk art, I like a lot of whimsy and a lot of color.”
Finding artists, Waters says “is an organic process. One artist leads to another.”
She’s found “a pocket of artists” in Bakersville and Burnsville near Penland.
“I think that’s one of the most exciting places in the state,” she says.
These places have developed, she says, when Asheville became an unaffordable place to live for artists.
She sees Salisbury and Spencer as becoming such a haven for artists.
“Salisbury and Spencer have gotten to be very attractive because of the affordability,” Waters says. “We have a symphony. We have the Waterworks. We have a daily newspaper.”
Waters celebrated her first anniversary as businesswoman and entrepreneur Sept. 27 with a reception at the gallery.
“I had a great year,” she says. “I’ve been really lucky.”
She’s also been growing the Blue Ewe Yoga Studio, in the back of Green Goat Gallery.
She acknowledges, “There is some natural spillover into the gallery.”
More often than not, yoga students will stop and shop before they leave.
Waters started out with a booth at the Emporium called Two Bad Dogs Folk Art.
Smith and Reische both wanted to concentrate more on their art, so the sale of the gallery was a win-win for everyone.
“We have a great relationship,” Waters says.
Running a gallery may sound like a romantic notion, she says, “but it’s retail. It’s retail hours. You’ve got to be here. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown as a teacher in my yoga and I’ve grown as a businesswoman and entrepreneur. As business increases, I’m more capable of dealing with it.
“I don’t want to have a bunch of stuff I wouldn’t go out and buy.”
Waters has priced most of her inventory at between $35 to $300, but she’s also purchased new soaps for less than $10.
“Probably my bestselling artist is Leslie Hamlin,” she says.
Hamlin, who lives in Mocksville, creates paintings on recycled windows.
“They’re fresh and they’re whimsical and they sell for $75,” Waters says. “That makes it accessible for people who come in here.”
Waters sold seven of Hamlin’s paintings to one customer; five to another.
“I own one,” she notes. “I came in here long before I bought the place and that’s what I brought.”
Don Moore is a Salisbury artist who’s new to the gallery.
Waters was surprised a couple of weeks ago to sell one of Moore’s paintings for $900.
Late summer is typically a slow time for galleries, so Waters closed for two weeks of vacation in August.
After that, she says, “Everybody came back to yoga. They were hungry for yoga. We’ve had a terrific September and so far October has been wonderful.”
She pauses.
“I’m gonna jinx myself, but I’ve been really fortunate. People have already started Christmas shopping.”
Some of her artists have told her that they can’t fill Christmas orders ó they’re already too busy.
Waters works with some artists on consignment and buys other things for the gallery that she knows will sell.
“Occasionally, I’ll see something fabulous and buy it. I’ll just throw the dice and see what happens.
“The challenge lies in keeping it fresh but keeping the quality up. I want things to be unique.”
Waters is thrilled to see the arts community growing around her.
“We will all rise together,” she says. “We all have different personalities and styles. Together, we become a destination for people outside the community.”
Jenn Gardner
Artist Jenn Gardner concedes that there is an economic slump, but “there have been groundbreaking sales in the art world in the last four weeks.”
Gardner teaches art and photography at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. Her partner, Frank Selby, is a full-time artist who paints and draws. He is represented by galleries in New York and London, so Gardner keeps abreast of the national and international art scenes.
“We’re nervous about the art economy,” she admits. “We have been talking about this.”
But so far, Selby has not seen the demand for his work slow down, she says.
In December, he plans to attend an art fair in Miami.
“That will be really telling,” Gardner says.
She continues, “I’m not an economist, but art is a good investment. The value goes up. It’s not volatile.”
In the meantime, Selby and Gardner attended a viewing of Selby’s newest work, bound for London, on a recent Monday evening at Fine Frame Gallery.
A Step in Time
While art is not totally the focus at A Step in Time, owners Tom Wolpert and Joe Lancione do carry pieces by area artists.
“Our business isn’t as bad as what it could be overall,” Lancione says. “There is an interest in paintings, but it takes a while to make a decision sometimes.
“I suspect that we are going to do OK with our art during the holiday season. We’ll have more people shopping locally as opposed to going out of town. Maybe that will soften the blow.”
Charlotte artist Stephen Baldwin’s pieces can be found at A Step in Time. He favors roosters and other birds. Most of his art is priced between $500 and $1,000, but he does have smaller pieces available, around $300, which he terms his “bread and butter.”
“From what I understand, it’s hard for local artists,” Wolpert says. “It takes that unique thing to say, ‘I gotta have it.’ But there’s no getting around the economy.”
Rail Walk
Studios & Gallery
Marietta Smith is the founding artist at Rail Walk Studios & Gallery, a North Lee Street business that now has a total of seven artists: Smith, Jimmy Alston, Norma Velasquez-Frink, Annette Hall, Carol Dunkley, Sharon Forthofer and Patt Legg.
“So far, the economy doesn’t seem to have a major effect on business,” Smith says. “I hope that it won’t. A couple of us are still getting commissions and teaching classes.
“We seem to do more commissions than sales off the wall.”
Rail Walk is now part of a block that includes Cascade Sculptures, Looking Glass Artist Collective and Lee Street Theatre ó its own arts district, of you will.The growth now is setting a baseline for Smith and her colleagues.
“Since we’re not new, it’s hard to say what’s a trend for us one way or another. We’re still building our reputation.”
Clyde (the artist formerly known as Clyde Overcash) has come up with a pretty simple solution in a challenging economy: Paint smaller pictures.
“Diversify,” he says. “Good art will continue to sell.”
Clyde agrees with Reid Leonard, Piedmont Players Theatre director, who says that when times are hard, people enjoy things they like ó slapstick comedy, comfort food, perhaps a small piece of artwork.
Members of Carolina Artists, of which he’s a member, have been selling their artwork this fall at the Farmers Market.
“You find a new market,” he says. “Take the art to the people.”
Mark Brincefield
Mark Brincefield is the Post’s staff cartoonist. This year, he quit his day job to become an artist full-time.
Locally, his art is available at the Emporium and the Art Station in Spencer.
“I sell stuff all the time in Spencer,” Brincefield says. “It’s weird. I don’t know how to explain it, really.”
Brincefield also does cartoons for two other papers.
“Between the two, it’s kinda evened out,” he says of his income.
Even thought he hasn’t sold anything yet at the Emporium this year, he has gotten commission work from folks who have seen his art there.
“That doesn’t really depend on the economy,” Brincefield says of commisions. “I’m not doing bad.”