Arts & Culture » Arts Stories & Interviews

Writing's on the wall



Orlando is a city under constant construction -- a city with acres of white, bare walls. With all of that wall space, there ought to be lots of original works of fine art hanging on them. And in a city with hundreds of visual artists, you'd think that many of the canvases would bear local signatures, right?

The truth hurts. While greater Orlando boasts an enormous amount of artistic talent, most local visual artists must sell their wares out of town to make a living. Unless they opt to work a "regular" job to support their creative output or are fortunate enough to have found a niche for themselves, they're in for a struggle so familiar to the art world -- a struggle that includes anonymity and empty pockets.

But in a city that just raised more than two hundred grand for the arts through its highly touted LizArt auction, one might wonder: If someone is willing to pay several thousand dollars for a decorator lizard, why not lay down at least a few hundred bucks for a piece of quality fine art, thus supporting a local artist in the process?

"I think everyone agrees that it's a weird market," says Winter Park artist Larry Moore. Moore is a landscape painter who makes most of his money through his work as a commercial illustrator. "We know that people are moving here every day ... there's money here, and people do buy art ... But from my vantage-point ... there's no pattern ... there is no specific demographic." Unless you count artists themselves, who are known for buying from each other.

Across town from Moore's workspace at McRae Art Studios in Winter Park, Carl Knickerbocker sits in the lobby of OVAL, the downtown artists' cooperative. The self-described "suburban primitive" painter agrees that the Orlando market is tough to decipher. Knickerbocker points out that the city's tourism-driven economy is not ideal for artists hoping to make a full-time living off of sales. "Let's face it, it's disposable income and if you're working in a service-economy job, you know you're gonna make a [car] payment or maybe buy a new TV. Buying art is a real luxury for most people."

And selling art is damn hard work for the artist. Just ask painter Lynn Whipple. She and her husband, John, also a painter, pack up their artwork at McRae Studios several times a year to hit the road and "do the outdoor, indoor, gallery and museum shows ... and they're almost all outside of Orlando." Their travels are a necessity. Whipple says she sells only 10 percent of her work here -- the remainder of her sales occur elsewhere.

That's not unusual. Most local artists must travel beyond Orlando to widen their visibility and increase their sales.

But hard to pinpoint or not, greater Orlando does have its buyers -- even if some of them have yet to realize their potential. "There are still a lot of people interested in art who don't know where to find it," says New Smyrna-based mixed-media artist Bill Gallagher, "and people making art don't know where to show it." Getting these two groups together in a society that is increasingly centered on its home-entertainment equipment is not easy. But just as an artist must find his own vision, so must he find his own venue.

While Central Florida offers its share of museums, it's not a museum's job to market local artists. (Although some museums extend some support: The Cornell Museum of Fine Art annually exhibits proven local talent; the Orlando Museum of Art offers its "Florida Artist of the Month" in its museum shop, along with the ever-popular "First Thursdays" event at which attendees can drink, hook up -- and even expose themselves to area art.) Hence, there's a need for commercial gallery space, a topic that understandably arises frequently among area artists. Even the McRae artists, who host two popular open houses a year, are emphatic about the subject. "I see many more galleries in other cities," says Lynn Whipple. "Here we just don't have that opportunity. I mean, that's probably the biggest problem." Whipple and photographer Randall Smith, also a McRae artist, look to Tampa and St. Petersburg as communities with vital commercial galleries. "[Tampa has] a young collector crowd that's phenomenal," says Whipple. "We have more collectors in Tampa than we do in Orlando."

Galleries in Central Florida have opened and closed over the years for good reason, says art dealer William Moseley. "If it was a profitable business, there would be [more galleries]." Spencer Pettit, artist and owner of Mount Dora's Chiaroscuro Gallery, agrees. Pettit says running a gallery that sells only art and doesn't supplement its income by selling collectibles or frames is an arduous task no matter what the location.

Like artists, gallery owners are reliant on sales, and when a painting sells, the gallery gets a cut -- usually 50 percent -- of the proceeds. In addition, galleries set the price of the art, which is why prices can run higher than if a piece is bought directly from the source. Such complicated pricing and profitability issues aside, the area does offer a few galleries featuring the works of local or Florida artists. The aforementioned Chiaroscuro and New Smyrna Beach's Arts on Douglas come to mind.

New kids sometimes appear on the block, like the Gallery at Avalon Island or Art Space in downtown Orlando. And with the re-opening of the Evolution Gallery this weekend, an older kid will reappear. OVAL holds frequent exhibitions, and artists at the collectives Studio 420 and McRae see clients by appointment in addition to their occasional open houses.

But centralized commercial galleries equipped to guide a buyer through the selection process -- places with knowledgeable staffs and stables of local artists -- are on many a wish list. Such gallery spaces would give artists the promotional push so many of them need but lack, whether due to inadequate funds to hire an agent or the inability to market themselves. More importantly, such galleries would cultivate buyers of local art.

Perhaps in response to the dearth of places in which to show their work, the "alternative venue" has become a refuge for artists seeking to connect with the public. Event-oriented exhibitions like Victor Perez's annual Valentine to the public, "Nude Nite," have proven that thousands can and will turn out to support local art (the naked bodies don't hurt the cause either). Artists' websites are playing a more important role, too. Both Keith "Scramble" Campbell and Jamali, for example, have sites set up to support sales and are making transactions.

Restaurant and club settings like Café Tu Tu Tango, Dexter's, Café Allegra and The Peacock Room have exhibited artwork by locals such as Kathleen Bordeur and Audrey Phillips. Cafes, however, do not bestow the kind of validation or attention that artists desire. In a restaurant or nightclub, food and drink compete with (and usually win over) the artwork. Still, says Lynn Whipple, cafe showings are helpful. "We all support [them]. It's the best thing we've got."

These alternative venues also might be more cost friendly for first-time buyers or those on tight budgets. The paintings one sees in a cafe may be lower in price than those hanging in a gallery (much to many an artist's chagrin).

Whether on the web or in a busy cafe, local visual art is becoming more visible. And its existing clientele needs nurturing. "We don't want to forget that there are a lot of people who do buy art here," says Lynn Whipple. There may be ways to broaden the client base, suggests former gallery owner Mosely. "It's a shame that local businesses, instead of buying cheap prints ... [don't] do a little more to help support local art by placing original works in their [offices]." Mosely's comment hits a nerve since OVAL barely broke even on its recent auction with most of the works going for less than $100, according to organizer Terry Hummel.

But if the art world has a rule, it is that there are no rules. And with so many emerging artworks from which to choose, a first-time buyer may feel a bit intimidated. But you don't have to hold a degree in art history to connect with a painting or sculpture. "Buy what you like," advises Theo Lotz, curator of the Cornell Museum. It's that simple. "What is it about art that [you] enjoy? Is it art that's provocative ... about beauty ... nostalgia?" Whatever it is that moves you -- go with it. After all, this world with no rules applies not just to the seller of art, but the buyer, as well.

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