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19 April 2005
Published in the Columbia Tribune 30 May 2005


Hope Springs Eternal

(A version of the following conversation actually took place recently.)

"Hello."

"Hey Jim!  It's Billy-Bob.  How're you doin'?"

Billy-Bob Jones (not his real name, of course) was a business acquaintance from my days at the gallery.  "Pretty good.  What can I do for you, Billy?"

"Got a question for ya:  what would you think of opening a gallery?"

"Uh, I did that already.  It left me broke and bitter, though I'm mostly over the latter thing.  Why would I want to do it again?"

He chuckled.  "Not you, me.  I'm thinking about opening a real art gallery.  Original stuff, from around the country as well as some local artists.  Got a great spot for it that's available downtown.  What d'ya think?"

"I think you're nuts."

"No, really!  This should work.  I know lots of people in town who have the money to buy real art.  Town this size should be able to support a gallery."

"Billy, that was my thought with Legacy.  And it wasn't just me.  Paul Jackson thought so.  So did Brian Mahieu at Dauphin.  So did Byron Smith at Mythmaker.  And so did the people who owned Golden Hippo, Ardentia, and Panache.  Lots of variety in location, selection, management.  But all of those galleries closed in about a 7 year period.  It just doesn't work here."

"But it should.  Look, we have three colleges in town, plenty of well educated people.  Lots of doctors, lawyers, successful business people.  Folks who have some disposable income, and appreciate nice things."

"Yeah, it should work.  But it doesn't.  I was told the same thing by others who tried it in the '70s and '80s.  It just doesn't work here.  Look around, even the few places which show some art don't rely on it for their main business."

"But why?"

I sighed.  "I don't know.  If I did, maybe I'd still be in business."

"Well, we'd go for just classy stuff, have a good location, appeal to lots of tourists.  Get the parents of the college kids to come in when they were in town.  That sort of thing."

"Yeah, a substantial portion of our sales were to people visiting Columbia.  But you gotta have a local base to rely on, month in and month out."

"Columbia has a good local base of artists.  I've met a lot of them."

"You don't have to tell me that.  We've got an amazing pool of talent here.  But artists, by and large, don't buy art from galleries.  Oh, some do.  But for the most part they just don't have the money.  When they do want to get a piece from another artist, they usually just arrange a trade directly."

"Oh."  Billy paused.  "But there are lots of people who support the arts.  Look at the attendance at things like Art in the Park."

"True.  But thatís more of a family-outing type of thing.  Sure, some folks do buy art there, but none of those artists are getting rich.  And any sales there mean fewer sales in your gallery."

"OK, how about the business community?"

"A couple of the big banks have nice collections that include local artists, and Legacy got a lot of support from them.  That helped.  And I know that there's an effort to get members of the Chamber to buy art locally."

"That should help."

"Oh, sure," I said, pausing.  "Billy, it sounds to me like you've pretty much decided to do this.  Am I right?"

He laughed.  "Heh.  Yeah.  We're probably gonna give it a shot."

"Then all I can do is wish you well."

He laughed again.  "What can I say?  Hope springs eternal."

"More power to you.  I like you, and hope that you aren't on my end of this conversation in five or ten years.  Really.  It'd be great if Columbia would support a real gallery."

"You'll come for openings?"

It was my turn to laugh.  "Yeah, but don't expect me to buy anything."


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