Arts market at a crossroads

The rich are getting richer, but changing attitudes toward fine arts and crafts spell uncertainty for galleries and artists.

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It’s a couple of weeks before Christmas, and holiday shoppers at the Real Mother Goose gallery in Portland are lined up at the register, clutching glass-blown ornaments and thick wooden children’s toys. Other customers gather at the jewelry case, or mill through the 900 art glassworks and one of the West Coast’s largest collections of fine wood furniture.

As it turns out, the festive scene is as much about nostalgia as the holiday season.

Real Mother Goose, in business for 46 years, was one of several tenants evicted in late December to make room for a yearlong renovation project by the Portland Bureau of Transportation and Prosper Portland, the city development agency.mothergoose

In many ways, the gallery closure is a quintessential Portland story: An iconic small business — an arts business, no less — is sacrificed in the name of urban progress. But inexorable development is not solely to blame.

“Our customers are primarily baby boomers, most of whom are downsizing,” says co-owner Judy Gillis. “The reality is, the younger generations are not as into nesting as our generation was. A lot of them are minimalists. It’s wiped out our customer base, and it’s not going to come back.”

Real Mother Goose is not alone in its predicament. A confluence of market changes is reshaping Oregon’s arts and crafts industry. In New York, record-breaking stock market returns have translated into boom times for galleries, says Bob Kochs, owner of the Augen Gallery in the  Pearl District.

“The rich have gotten obscenely rich and are willing to buy million-dollar paintings,” he says.

arts market bob kochsBob Kochs, Augen Gallery

In Portland, not so much, although Kochs says business is decent for the dozen or so galleries that comprise the Portland Art Dealers Association. Fine-craft shops like Real Mother Goose have their own challenges: Urban density is forcing the closure of brick-and-mortar outlets, the internet is rewriting the rules of selling and making art, and young people are less interested in buying expensive display items.

“There’s a resurgence of crafts these days, but it’s the type of work that you don’t need a lot of equipment for, like knitting, macrame, crystalling — that kind of thing,” says Gillis. “It’s simply more difficult for young artists to get into this industry than it was in the ’70s.”

“The rich have gotten obscenely rich and are willing to buy million-dollar paintings.” — Bob Kochs

Back then, budding artists could take a glassblowing class and grow organically. “But most young kids can’t afford to set up a studio,” Gillis says. “I know three or four glassblowers who can’t sell their studios, for example, because no one can afford to buy or operate them.”

Glassblowers in particular have had a tough couple of years. In 2016 world-renowned glassmaker Bullseye Glass came under fire for emitting toxic chemicals into neighborhood air. The company has since filed a $30 million lawsuit against Gov. Kate Brown and several state and local agencies, claiming the company had always been in compliance with air-emissions agreements.

“It was really unfortunate how Bullseye was treated, and it wiped out some glassblowers who never got back into the business,” says Washington-based fusion glass artist and Bullseye customer Ann Cavanaugh.

Art-glass manufacturer Uroboros Glass, also embroiled in Portland’s toxic-air scare, sold to a Carlsbad, California company and is relocating production of its products to Mexico. In a statement posted to the company website, owner Eric Lovell said gentrification was another one of the reasons for the move.

As fine-arts businesses struggle, DIY and maker movement businesses are flourishing. The city’s well-attended, twice-yearly Crafty Wonderland holiday fair, for example, focuses on woven wall hangings, small ceramics with succulents, jewelry and pins, embroidery, and DIY craft kits.

During the holiday period, the Southeast Portland industrial workspace of Grovemade is hopping. Over the sound of drills and packing tape, 20 employees hand-make and ship computer stands, watches and iPhone cases made from walnut and wireless phone chargers made from soft natural cork. Grovemade sells practical crafts  — to the tune of $2 million in sales, says 39-year-old owner Ken Tomita, a former furniture maker, who started his business in 2009.

BD2F9851 2Ken Tomita, GroveMade

Tomita isn’t immune to the problems facing crafts businesses in Portland. His rent is tripling in the next year, and Grovemade will need to relocate to another part of town.

But like Gillis, Tomita doesn’t bemoan the market. “I hear people crying about the changes in Portland, but that’s not our stance,” he says. “We’re just focusing on what we do best, and at the end of the day, one thing will never change—creating great product and great experience, and creating a loyal customer base that way.”

etsy pgs

It’s impossible to talk about the new arts-and-crafts economy without discussing the digital disruptors. Etsy, of course, is the big player; the thriving online marketplace showcases the wares of around 1 million jewellers, candlemakers, bag designers, woodcutters, and other artists and craftspeople from around the world.

The internet has changed the game for gallery spaces, says Kelli MacConnell, a spokesperson for Art in the Pearl, Portland’s annual arts-and-crafts festival. Customers demand more personal connection with artists, which a traditional brick and mortar can’t always offer.

“Artists are making themselves more accessible these days, whether with an online presence where people can buy directly from them or through events where customers can meet the artists in person,” MacConnell says. “I do wonder what effect it’s having on galleries as a whole.”

Jewelry maker Ashley May Heitzman says several major galleries that she’s worked with around the country have closed in the past year. “It’s not to say that it’s the end of all stores, but it’s just a new crop of stores that have a different appeal, have a social media presence and think more globally.”

“It’s wiped out our customer base, and it’s not going to come back.” — Judy Gillis

Geography makes a difference. If New York galleries are flourishing, so are galleries in select Oregon communities. “It’s interesting to hear what’s happening in the art market as a whole, and I think it really depends on where you live,” says Eeva Lantela, owner of DragonFire Gallery in Cannon Beach.“I have not heard anyone say they’ve had a bad year out here, even with many galleries in a small town.”

cannonbeach DragonFire Gallery in Cannon Beach

Lantela attributes the optimism to two factors:

“One is that 80% of our business is second home-owners who are looking to decorate their homes, and the other is that people are still traveling and buying art while they do so. I truly think it’s because, despite what may be happening in our crazy world, art still has the power to change your mood.”

In some cases, collectors are buying from Instagram or other online images. But for the most part, the internet and online craft markets don’t cannibalize sales from high-end art sellers, says Augen Gallery’s Kochs.

“A serious collector, anybody going to make a significant purchase, needs to see a body of work in person,” he says. But even high-end galleries are struggling with the cost of real estate showing at art fairs, he says.

Is Portland’s tech industry flocking to area galleries? “The tech industry hasn’t made a significant impact on art dealers’ numbers anywhere in the U.S., Kochs says. “They haven’t come to the party.” Not that they are excluded, he adds. “They’re just not there.”

As for the Real Mother Goose gallery, its headquarters is now housed at their Portland Airport location, where back-end employees and many longtime sales staff will relocate. Real Mother Goose sales dropped by about a third during the recession, says Gillis’ husband and co-owner Stan, who calculates sales at over $5 million per year before the economy tanked.

“We never regained those lost sales, which was a common story in our industry,” he says.

A version of this article appears in the February issue of Oregon Business.