• Abigail Hall

A changing landscape: local artisans adapt to the shifting industry in the digital age

Originally published by Wichita Eagle July 21, 2019.

The art landscape is changing in Wichita — two local art galleries will close, while several others are beginning a new community event over the next few months.

While Hue Gallery of Contemporary Art and Cjoy Soulworks galleries will shut their doors in the next month, others will join together to increase sales through a gallery walk called First Fridays — instead of the city-wide gallery walk Final Fridays, a staple in the community since 1997.

For some, the Final Friday event has continued to bring in a steady revenue, but for others, customers and sales in their brick-and-mortar locations have decreased, making it hard to justify keeping their doors open.

Sean Ward, co-owner of Hue Gallery of Contemporary Art on Commerce Street, said the gallery will close its doors permanently after July’s Final Friday. Cjoy Soulworks, will close its doors on St. Francis Street after August’s Final Friday, with plans to reopen in a new location sometime within the next year, owner Casey Joy said.

Ward said over the past year the gallery’s in-house sales and foot-traffic have dwindled significantly in comparison to five years ago, when the gallery opened.

Commerce Street — a destination neighborhood, known for its art community — was home to ten galleries that attracted thousands of customers every Final Friday in 2014, he said.

Ward said in the first few years of business, the event brought out 1,000 to 2,500 people to their shows. But in the last year, it’s shifted to 300 to 400 on a good night.

“In the last year it’s started to feel like Commerce Street is dying,” Ward said.

Ward said he and his co-owner Lindy Weise kept the gallery open with their online art sales from the help of several burgeoning platforms such as Saatchi Art and Artsy, which have modules for artists to market their work to interested buyers.

In the past few years, some artists and gallery owners have made the switch from the old-school brick-and-mortar gallery model to online art platforms — and in Ward’s experience, finding success through the online art community.

With their 5-year lease ending Aug. 1, Ward said the duo couldn’t justify the high cost of rent for a brick-and-mortar gallery that only brought in half the sales their online counterparts did.

“It was a little bit of a burden,” Ward said. “(But) in the end, it’s all been worth it. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Fiber artist and owner of Fiber Studio, Marilyn Grisham and her husband opened the gallery’s doors with art shows of her work and other local artists in 2003.

Grisham sees the fluctuation of foot traffic on Commerce Street as “normal cycling” of innovation and energy that occurs in communities across the country, she said.

A few years ago her gallery attracted about 800 visitors per month, but this summer their numbers have ranged from 200 to 400, she said.

“(Commerce Street) is a destination,” Grisham said. “I have gorgeous shows, but that’s not enough.”

Once Hue Gallery of Contemporary Art closes, there will only be three true galleries left in the neighborhood: Fiber Studio, Diver Studio and Fisch Haus.

“(It) will be interesting when we disappear from this street as well,” Ward said. “I hope everyone else won’t be affected.”

While some Wichitans have found success solely marketing through online platforms, some, Reuben Saunders Gallery on E. Douglas, have turned to a hybrid model.

Saunders has been in business selling local and regional works for 41 years, and said he and his staff are always looking for new platforms and techniques to market artists’ works so they will be seen by interested buyers.

And Saunders and Ward are not alone — galleries across the globe are following suit in adapting to the shifting art landscape.

In a global art gallery trend study, 80 percent of galleries said while in-house sales are still valuable, using digital marketing platforms is critical to their success in 2019.

In the study, 700 global galleries ranging from small to large in size reported that in-person networking, fair attendance and presence on an online art platform and social media were the top three most effective tools in promoting their galleries.

“I think that online sales will continue to grow and grow, but I still think there will be for some years to come, a strong brick and mortar market,” Saunders said. “We’re robust in moving both of those. They’re both important to us and one no more important than the other.”

Saunders has moved his business five times, displays a variety of traditional to contemporary works, and has committed his business to both an inviting brick-and-mortar gallery environment and a competitive online presence.

“Online sales are growing but people still want to see it, touch it, walk out the door with it,” Saunders said. “You can create an experience in a gallery that you can’t create elsewhere.”

With the increasing digital landscape of selling and buying art, Saunders says marketing the brick-and-mortar gallery as accessible and inviting is crucial.

That’s one of the reasons Saunders thinks making the switch to First Fridays is so important, he said.

Saunders says the new gallery walk evening will rejuvenate the art community with a hopeful influx of patrons visiting local galleries. Saunders and eight other local galleries will make the switch in September, most of which will discontinue hosting gallery shows on the last Friday of the month.

Saunders says there are many reasons for the switch — lining up with the rest of the country with a First Friday gallery walk rotation, less conflicting dates with other city events in the fall, which will hopefully increase sales, and beginning each month with a new show.

“People get confused,” Saunders said. “They think Final Friday is closing, and they come in at the end of the month to see a show you had up and you’ve taken it down because you’re getting ready for the next one.”

While some galleries are not yet sure if they will make the switch to First Friday, Downtown Wichita will continue to support the local arts community in whichever events they choose to host.

In an email, Jason Gregory, executive vice president for Downtown Wichita said because the art gallery walk is a community event and does not belong to an individual, Downtown Wichita “plan(s) to reflect whatever direction comes from the local arts community,” he said.

Martha Linsner, Wichita Arts Council president, agreed and said the council’s role is to support the arts and encourage the community to buy art.

In a news release, the Wichita Arts Council endorsed the switch to First Friday, and plan to phase out Final Friday over the next several months.

According to the release, the Arts Council sent a poll to the Final Friday venues and the results of the poll showed a “strong preference to have it occur on First Friday.”

Thomas Dalton, marketing committee chair, said the council spoke with several gallery owners, most of which said they intend to start First Friday as an opening reception. Dalton said a few galleries intend to continue to host Final Friday as an ending reception, before making the switch altogether.

“The Arts Council is a steward in the arts community,” Dalton said. “Since the galleries and shops are the ones that are putting in effort (for the art crawls) we want to follow their leadership in this time of change.”

Dalton said the council will begin initiatives on social media in August to communicate the change in the art community and eliminate confusion.

Reuben Saunders Gallery, Gallery XII, City Arts, Workroom and Prairie Vistas will host their last Final Friday on July 26 and begin First Fridays on Sept. 6.

Other galleries will join in with First Fridays in other ways.

Fisch Haus will begin First Fridays on Oct. 4, along with WSU’s Shiftspace gallery, which will reopen at a new location at St. Francis and Third streets, after being closed since May.

However, Fisch Has will also continue to host a Final Friday event, said Elizabeth Stevenson, gallery director.

Stevenson said if both evenings continue to bring steady crowds, the gallery will work to be open for both events, but if one becomes more popular than the other, moving forward the gallery will stick with that evening.

Fiber Studio and Midwest Center for Photography will also continue to host Final Friday in addition to First Friday starting Sept. 6.

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