Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Recession Mentality and the Santa Fe Art Scene

Did I mention we're in Santa Fe, NM? You'd think I would have written a few blogs about that. You'd have thought I'd have written blogs about our recent stay in New England. But we've been so focused on what we need to be doing in our personal world -- one that feels a little too personal -- that we've taken a step away from our usual routines. Today is no different. We're looking at moving AGAIN but since it's the recession that has made us need to be doing so much moving lately I thought I'd offer my take on how the economic climate seems to be affecting the local scene.

One of the joys of Santa Fe is the art. There's an amazing assortment of art. The quality ranges a bit as would be expected but overall there is a quality and seasonedness to the offerings you don't usually get to see almost anywhere else. That makes the experience of walking into a typical gallery a bit of a treat...except when it turns into a slap in the face!

Wow, I bet you didn't expect me to end that last sentence like that, did you?

The recession has hit many parts of the United States hard but here the recession mentality can be intense. Lots of empty storefronts, nary a "Help Wanted" sign to be seen anywhere, and the Craigslist Jobs section is awash with con artists posting fake job ads in the hopes of luring in a sucker. Still there is prosperity to be seen—it's just not where it's always been.

Just talk to some of the newer artist-run gallery owners and other relative newcomers to the gallery business. The ones who have been here five years or less are the most optimistic. After all, they've started a business in what's considered the worst economic climate since the Great Depression and they're making it. One said: "I just opened here on Canyon Road less than a year ago and you'd be surprised at how quickly things sell once summer starts!" But they're newcomers. They haven't bought their million dollar mansions yet. Their shoestring allowances haven't allowed for over-expansion and making a living at what they've always dreamed of is more than good–it's fantastic! They weren't here in the golden years so they're content.

But imagine how the people who need the level of income they were making before to maintain their mansions in the hills feel? Even without a recession, the art world can be a fickle place. The craze for Southwestern art is not over but it's certainly not what it has been. Old-timers in the trade are grumbling, their real estate is worth a lot less than it used to but they're still paying the exorbitant rates that the previous years of greed and inflation created. $20,000/month rents for the largest spaces on Canyon Road are not unheard of. $6000-15,0000/month is the norm.

So what does that mean to the typical shopper?

We have found it to be a challenging experience. You can go into just about any other retail establishment, take in your fill of the offerings, and leave without anyone saying anything but "May I help you?" and "Have a nice day! Thanks for coming in!" But not in the Santa Fe gallery scene. Most gallery owners are fine but there is a significant -- and I'd imagine growing-- cadre of sales people and gallery owners who greet you at the door with "What can I wrap up for you today?!!" You haven't even looked at the art and it's like a used car salesman is breathing down your neck. The worst example of this happened today. Someone in our family knew a famous southwestern artist whose work is being shown in a gallery near the downtown Plaza so we went in, looking forward to seeing some of his work.

We had a nice conversation with someone who appeared to be an off-duty saleswoman while her boss was on the phone. As soon as he hung up, however, he felt the need to make a joke: "We take checks! This is a gallery, not a museum." But there was a tone to his voice that wasn't really joking and it wasn't even close to the first time we had heard similar things. We left immediately, the excitement of seeing the artwork washed away. Even if we had the money we wouldn't want to spend it under those circumstances. There's something really off-putting about being treated as a wallet to be opened instead of as a human being.


Anne Vis said...

Yikes, that does not sound good. Exciting to be in Santa Fe though, wish I could just pop over and visit with you ... :-)

Sheryl Karas said...

We've gone to at least one gallery or more everyday and talk to the gallery owner in every one. What we've heard is that the very high-end market is doing fine, maybe better than before but the middle-range market has almost completely dropped out. Mid-range shoppers -- the middle class who goes to Santa Fe and maybe buys an art piece as a big splurge -- can't do that now.