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Fine Art Galleries Trying to Hang On

Simply being in an art-rich community isn’t a safety net

For Maplewood’s fine art community, 2009 is all about sustaining. Their customers are tightening their belts, holding on to dollars they once used to buy art. Gallery owners are optimistic about the future, but worry about surviving the present.

Astah’s Fine Art Gallery owner Sheila Cartlidge said that while many types of businesses have suffered in the current recession, luxury items like fine art have been hit particularly hard.

“Business is down, but that’s the case in general,” Cartlidge said. She has owned the Springfield Avenue gallery for 11 years.

“There’s a bigger down-slide for art because it is a luxury item," Cartlidge said. "People use 5 percent of income [to] purchase art. When people lose their jobs, their homes, that 5 percent erodes to nothing. Buying art is not something they run out to do. Because we are a specialty art gallery, our business is down even further."

Cartlidge said that overall fine art is not taking as much of a hit as other luxury item businesses.

“Fine art has a richer history," she said. "It will probably stand the test of time because that’s the item middle and upper income families will still look to get. They are feeling more comfortable with their finances."

She explains that, in an effort to sustain, more artists are selling originals rather than prints.

“People are tending to buy originals because they are getting better deals," she said. "Artists are starving, and they need to sell work. I know one client who has been living off his art for 20 years, and now he is really feeling the pinch. He tells me it’s the first time he hasn’t been able to live off of it.”

Mona Lisa Gallery and Framing owner Krista Hyer said 2010 can be profitable, but this year the goal is simply to survive.

She opened Mona Lisa, located at 168 Maplewood Ave., in 2004. She worked hard to create a rapport with her customers. Despite creating those relationships, business is down 28 percent.

To battle the drop in sales, she has created the Artists Online gallery, a web-based tool for artists to promote their work and reach a wider clientele. She said teaming independent artists with a “brick and mortar gallery” is a "revolutionary vehicle."

“We can’t rely on retail,” she said. “We have to diversify business, so do artists. They have to think of more venues to sell their work, creating a broader client base. This is a huge undertaking.”

So far, she has 21 artists signed up. She expects to have 100 when the site launches later this year.

Both gallery owners expect to see a turnaround in 2010, if not sooner. While they say more people are just browsing without buying, they believe sales will bounce up.

“The spot over the fireplace or the sofa, that spot can wait a little longer right now,” Cartlidge said. “A lot more people are looking but being more conscious. They say they are just looking, but they all say they will be back.”

Hyer agrees. She says that a rhythm is starting to develop on Wall Street, and people will soon become more comfortable with their economic situations.

“Money is being put back into the economy, but that money doesn’t come to the private business owner,” she said, but is quick to add that it will eventually reach private owners. ”In about six months I will feel it. I am hoping then it will start to swing around.”

“But, for now, “ she said as she shakes her head, “we just need to sustain.”

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