In Hard Times, Art Becomes A Hard Sell

The abrupt collapse of the real estate industry has made art a harder sell for Montana’s galleries, which flourished and multiplied in recent years alongside the real estate boom.

“We’re closing at the end of the month, so that’s how it’s effecting us,” said Carol Hoffnagle, who opened Studio 12 Art Gallery on Broadway and Pattee Street with her husband in downtown Missoula a little over a year ago.

“In September we felt we were just getting going,” Hoffnagle added.

Over the past decade art galleries flourished and multiplied in the Mountain West, as flush tourists and new and moneyed residents in the region snatched up artwork to hang on the region’s new wall space. Estimates by longtime gallery owners is that the number of galleries selling original artwork in towns like Missoula and Bozeman has roughly doubled or tripled since the late 1990s.

The abrupt collapse of the real estate industry and the national recession has brought hard times to the art galleries.

“It’s saturation more than anything,” said Frank Ross, who owns Coffrins Old West Gallery in Bozeman. The number of galleries is bound to drop, although he feels his niche—including prints of historical photographs by Old West photographer L.A. Huffman—may afford him some breathing space.

One gallery owner in Hamilton offering high-end original paintings in the $10,000 to $25,000 range said she expects price declines of about 10 percent and slower sales for her own business. As for the art gallery industry in general in the West, it’ll fair a lot like purveyors of everything from furniture to faucets—with less construction, times will be tougher.

Thomas Nygard, whose Bozeman gallery bears his name, said he expects to see a natural decline in the number of galleries in Montana as well as around the country. With the decrease in discretionary income, owners will be working harder for less money, he said.

Still, Nygard cautioned against viewing art galleries as a monolithic industry, as it includes houses selling bronze sculptures, antler art, oil paintings by obscure artists as well as $400,000 paintings by famous deceased artists, which would be something Nygard sells.

“Auction houses are more competition to me than other Bozeman galleries,” said Nygard, who has been in business for 33 years. He counts only eight or nine galleries like his in the country.

To weather the downturn, Nygard plans to work harder. One tactic will be to better utilize his mailing list.

“You increase the odds. The odds will play for you,” he said.

For Hoffnagle and her husband Peter Keefe, the time to talk about odds has passed.

“It’s not just the lack of sales, it’s depressing,” Hoffnagle said. “Emotionally, it’s hard. You sit here on a Saturday and no one comes in.”

Like many small gallery owners, Hoffnagle and Keefe offer their own artwork and those of friends. The two are established artists. Hoffnagle had a line of posters and postcards in the 1980s. Some of Keefe’s images from his 50-year career, especially his Southwest landscapes, have become classics, recognizable outside the art world.

The two didn’t dream the gallery would be a cash cow, but it seemed like a fun way to sell—and show—some artwork. First Fridays, when Missoula residents wander through galleries downtown, brought as many as 150 people through Studio 12’s small space.

It was a lot of fun, and the business seemed to be growing. Hoffnagle turned some images into a line of cards, a business she had been in before. It was hard to get into the stores at first, and then a buyer from Chicago contacted her, and the cards seemed to take off. Two months ago, the cards brought in $441. Then, last month, the figure dropped to $27.

“It’s going to be tough going, not just for galleries but for everybody,” she said.

(This news article appeared on a now-defunct Missoula web site on Nov. 21, 2008.)

 

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