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The business of art: A tough business gets tougher when disposable income drops

BRIAN DUGGAN
bduggan@nevadaappeal.com
Shannon Litz/Nevada AppealLouise Russell, who signs her work L. Noel, at work in her home studio in Fish Springs, east of Gardnerville.
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With her silver hair tied in a ponytail, Louise Russell leans over her workbench and glides a paintbrush across a silk canvas. The paint is absorbed into the smooth fabric.

Russell, 60, who signs her artwork as L. Noel, is a Northern Nevada artist who quietly spends her days in the 800-square-foot basement of her east Gardnerville home. Business, she said, is steady.

“I’m making a living at it and I’m doing what I love to do,” she said.

Like any other business sector, the art world is feeling the effects of the recession in Northern Nevada, which is home to many artists.

The Nevada Arts Council will face another round of budget cuts when lawmakers meet again in Carson City next year, even after the council endured a 43 percent cut in 2009, said executive director Susan Boskoff.

The challenge will be how to operate on what seems to be a perpetually shrinking budget. For example, the Nevada Arts Council grants awards program has decreased since the 2008 fiscal year from $1.05 million to $458,151 in fiscal 2010.

“I’m confident that the leadership in this state is going to recognize to make Nevada a place we all want to call home that the arts and culture are not just niceties, but necessary public programs,” she said.

Fewer grants have meant tighter budgets at the Brewery Arts Center in Carson City, said executive director John Procaccini, who will be presenting a $500,000 operating budget to the center’s board of directors later this month, down from last year’s $650,000 budget.

“The amount of cuts (the Nevada Arts Council) has gotten alone affects the amount of granting for programming, education and so forth that any arts organization has access to, including us,” Procaccini said.

Besides grant money, ticket sales are down by 50 percent on average, with donations depressed by 60 percent compared to the previous fiscal year, the result of fewer dollars donors now have in investment accounts, he said.

Meanwhile, sales in the center’s gift shop are down or flat.

“Art organizations need to become rather light on their feet,” Procaccini said. “We in particular have not just two or three revenue streams, we have about 10 or 11 because we are an arts organization that happens to own property. Unlike many art organizations we have a rental income, that helps us, and because we are a performance venue, we also have production equipment.”

And that production equipment is rented and used in a variety of entertainment venues around town.

“Really, as dismal as the message has been out there, we’re pretty pleased,” Procaccini said.

Another effect of fewer resources will mean fewer programs for the public, Procaccini said. But he hopes that will create an increase for business.

It’s elementary economics: Decrease the supply of shows, and in theory, the demand should raise.

” If we all just cut back our programming a little bit for the sake of everybody getting some attendance, then I think we can weather it,” he said.

Galleries have been impacted by the downturn, too, said Peter Stremmel, the director of the Stremmel Art Gallery in Reno, which hosts the Coeur d’Alene Art Auction.

“It has been hit,” he said. “Generally people buy art with disposable income. When their disposable income is off, collectibles like art, jewelry feel the effects.”

Stremmel said his gallery depends on three constants to supply a steady stream of valuable artwork to consign: Death, divorce and debt.

But since the start of the recession, Stremmel said the gallery has experienced a substantial drop in income. He said that’s largely because people with valuable works of art are waiting for a better market before they decide to try to sell it.

“Nothing has really gone into a free fall, people are finding there’s a little more room to negotiate downwards whereas you might not have been quite so successful during the boom years like the mid-90s,” Stremmel said.

He adds, “We’re still doing fine here; it hasn’t been one of our record years.”

Since she was a child, Donna Jensen has been an artist. She started with pastels and later discovered glass work.

She and her husband settled in Carson City, which she said has never been a lucrative spot for art, especially nowadays.

“I don’t think you could live on your art around here,” said Jensen, 78, said, adding, “It’s a little slow right now.

“I still (sell) more over in St. George, Utah, than I do here. It’s such a growing area and it’s very art conscious. There are lot of retired people over there and people building fine homes.”

For Richard Davis, co-owner of Great Basin Gallery and Framing, which opened in 1986, art has never been the business’s primary income.

“Art in Carson City has always been really tough, so we’ve never really depended on our art to survive,” said Davis, surrounded by the gallery’s Nevada landscapes and photos. “I’d say 75 percent of our business has been our framing, hence our longevity.”

Back in Gardnerville, Russell’s business model is simple: Follow up on any opportunity that comes her way.

“It takes a lot of energy,” she said. “I shouldn’t say I do every single opportunity because I still don’t have a website, I still don’t do a blog. But I take advantage of a lot of opportunities and try to follow up on them and it’s provided me with a really good income.”

Most of her sales take place at art shows – she prefers the outdoor shows during the summer. Her paintings sell from the low hundreds to more than $1,000.

“People are still buying art, I’ve had several people come into my booth and say I really would love to have this, when I win the lottery,” Russell said. “Strangely enough, the lottery person was back two hours later and bought an original.”

But don’t try to haggle, Russell said.

“When people get rude I tell them it is my business,” she said. “I’m not looking to make a mint.”