Blurring the Boundaries between Galleries and Shops

There was a time when you really knew the difference between galleries and shops.  Galleries were spaces for special exhibitions and solo shows. They were known for displaying art with great lighting and pedestals.  In contrast, shops could be easily identified by the crowding of products on often poorly lit shelves.  Over the years, both have begun to adapt to each other’s practices. The lines between them are blurred beyond definition.

In the 1980s, tax laws changed drastically during the Reagan years. Thousands of galleries could no longer benefit from the tax deduction provided to non-profitable businesses.  This forced some galleries to close, and others to become profitable.  Thus began the great migration to applying retail “best practices” to the gallery business model.  Galleries started carrying production items, jewelry, and lower priced production sculpture.  The result was a broader clientele, and economic stability.

Baby boomers were drawn to these new stores, as they became less elitist and more welcoming to a broader audience of art lovers.

All of this didn’t escape the notice of other luxury retailers, who began to embrace the gallery environment as a way to prove value and attract brand-hungry elite customers.  Retail was evolving. It was becoming an experience, an adventure, and a new way of branding and expanding value to products.

The Reagan years changed the economy in more ways than closing tax loopholes for gallery owners.  The trickle down economic practices that included deregulation effectively began to shrink the middle class in America.  Craft shops and galleries that once relied on well-educated middle class customers were now forced to narrow their sights on a smaller group of more affluent consumers and established art collectors.

With each successive recession of the 80’s and early 90’s, a seasoned group of older collectors began to vanish.  Replacing them was a much larger, younger generation of new collectors. Baby boomers were approaching their peak earning years, and cultivating new art collecting habits.

Boomers didn’t label themselves “art collectors.”  Instead, they used terms like “I gather,” “I love,” “I’m a fan,” and even “I hoard” art glass, pottery, and other handmade items.  They would often use the word “collect” but never in combination with the word “art” – that would be an offensive, elitist term!  They frequented shops, not galleries… or galleries that looked like shops, or shops that looked like galleries.  These spaces were warm and welcoming, with the most unusual items well-lighted and displayed.

Country club memberships were replaced with more egalitarian, socially acceptable groups found in new places.  At that time, the internet was in its infancy.  Boomers were going back to college to learn new things, to fill a gap in their lives that an average career never could.  For personal fulfillment, they were attending art classes – and in the process, learning how art is made.

The once comfortable corporate job was changing too.  Boomers were no longer secure in their career choice, as mergers and acquisitions eradicated many complete business sectors and retail categories.  Remember family owned office supply stores, bakeries, travel agencies, and local banks?  The big box stores and the category killer retailers had arrived.  Main Street was under siege and struggling to stay alive.

Who arrived on a big white horse to save the day?  Artists!  They moved into the most affordable, blighted Main Street locations and opened public studios, art schools, art centers – and galleries.  Some downtown areas boasted as many as twenty-five different theme-based galleries in just a two or three block strip of Main Street.  These new downtowns reinvented themselves into being the center of activity, excitement and neighborhood connection.  The artists who developed these new shopping experiences created brands that have lasted, and secured their success in the future of their communities.

Examples aren’t hard to find. Jerome, Arizona still touts that it’s a ghost town filled with artist studios.  Miami’s South Beach revitalization began, but not with millions from real estate developers. It began with one woman convincing Lincoln Road landlords to lease space to artists for $1 per square foot (today its $95 per square foot).  Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood promotes its connection to John Waters and the movie Hairspray, but it all started when a Civil War-era cotton mill was renovated  into an artist studio complex.  Alexandria, Virginia was another blighted main street, until one person decided that the old Torpedo Factory would be a great place for artists to work.

Yes, galleries, and the marketing of art have changed.  Today, it’s far from its elitist past. It’s on the forefront of economic development, the pioneers of new exciting community centers.  Art isn’t just what you buy.  It’s what you are, and where you want to be. Today’s successful artist makes work in a wide variety of prices, styles and colors, for several different types of collectors or consumers.  Like most entrepreneurs, artists have learned that business and product diversity is the key to success.


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  1. Great article.
    I belong to a local cooperative art ‘ gallery/shop’. We have been in business for 25 years. I have been with them for 17 of those years. We succseed because of our diversity in the art we sell. Our best customers are our local population, that return and purchase from us for all occasions.

  2. It is true, but there still seems to be a need for younger new owners, and the cost of doing business it tough. I hope we can keep it going. Thanks for the article.

  3. Very interesting and succinct summary of arts and economics. My husband and I have often talked about the demise of the small town center, and I have never considered how art and galleries might playing the redevelopment of these areas. I think it’s important to note that this is not an easy proposition to pull off. A secondary draw, like a local attraction, a college or university, or outdoor activities is also important to the success of these new artistic communitiy centers.

    NPR recently had an article in Smart Talk about the new trend they are seeing with an increase in populations returning to city centers and planned community living. I would love to see how this will affect and perhaps augment this development of artistic community centers.

  4. Bravo! Well put; this echoes what a lot of us have been saying for years now in my small city. Having had a working studio downtown for almost 20 years in a formerly depressed area that is experiencing the beginnings of a resurgence, I loved reading this article. I plan to forward it along to everyone I can think of!

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