Gallery Openings: What Are They Good For?

Opening reception at The Granary Gallery for  Heather Neill and Jeanne Staples, 2014. —Robin Nagle

“People were ballooning in from the Azores,” joked Chris Morse, owner of the Granary Gallery in West Tisbury. The word on the street was that almost a thousand people stepped into the Granary between 5 and 7 pm last August 9 for the opening reception of Andrew Moore’s show. The actual number is irrelevant; the point is that the gallery saw a significant amount of foot traffic from people who came out to celebrate and mingle with Mr. Moore and view his paintings — which were nearly impossible to see, due to all the very many people there to see them. “We used to have that kind of attendance for Eisenstaedt, and Steve Mills used to draw a crowd that would camp out an hour before we opened,” said Morse, who noted that in recent years social media have altered what gallery patrons expect from an art opening. “Patrons are often able to view the artwork prior to the opening, so there’s not the mystery there used to be — almost the veiling and the unveiling. It isn’t good or bad, it’s just the way it is now.”

There are art galleries, artist co-ops, and artist-operated spaces in each town and sprinkled in between them on the Vineyard. During the protracted and breathless rush of the summer season, many galleries hang new shows every few weeks. Each new show is generally ushered in with a celebratory opening reception for the artists, which often includes food, cocktails, and sometimes live music. One gallery owner likened the work it takes to get ready for an opening to putting on a wedding. Another compared it to preparing for a dinner party where you have to polish the silver. The metaphors continue. Artist receptions tend to be elaborate and costly productions posed to look effortless. MV Arts & Ideas began to wonder: Are they worth the effort? Who really benefits? And aren’t the same folks just showing up all the time to drink the free wine?

“Opening receptions for artists are a quintessential part of the business model for galleries,” said Louisa Gould, owner of Louisa Gould Gallery on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. The gallery routinely attracts several hundred people for its artist receptions. Gould’s husband J.B. Lamont remains stationed on bar duty to serve drinks and oversee a modest spread of food; Gould and her staff circulate throughout the gallery introducing guests to the artists and answering questions. “Most people love a party. We have lots of people who love to come to the openings, and they might not be huge art buyers, but they’re art supporters, and they bring their friends,” Gould said. “People are always welcome. They might say they don’t buy artwork, but then I say, well then, bring your friends and relatives.”

A Gallery, which has built a name for itself in recent years by exhibiting contemporary fine art, hosts up to eight opening receptions a season. Gallery owner and curator Tanya Augoustinos pointed out that artist receptions bring a vacationing public to the artist and the artist to the public. “I think it’s really important for artists to show their work and have the support and appreciation from people they know and care about. It’s a celebration of them. I think also it exposes the gallery therefore to that audience, who might not be inclined to go to a gallery,” said Augoustinos. A Gallery is located on Uncas Avenue in Oak Bluffs, and until the bowling alley was built, was considered to be in an out-of-the-way location. “I don’t have a lot of passing traffic,” Augoustinos said. “An opening for me is really about exposing the gallery to a wider audience.” She added that while gallery openings in New York tend to attract people connected to the art world, on the Vineyard the artist’s friends and family come out for the openings, and they come with their houseguests: “It is not unusual for someone to show up to support one artist and fall in love with the work of another artist.”

However, Augoustinos added, she is trying to figure out how to more efficiently incorporate the cost of openings into her business. “Openings are expensive — I did food in the past. I realized that was a magnet for certain types of people who came to eat, so I stopped the food thing and I toned it down on the variety of alcohol,” she said, then added teasingly, “I have an idea how to revolutionize my openings, but I don’t want to tell you about it yet.”

“The show is a party to bring in as many people as you can,” explained Chris Morse. “What you hope is that the ripple effect comes from there. You may have people who are visiting or meeting another couple, having a glass of Chardonnay and milling about the gallery, and they may see something and realize: My daughter’s new apartment in New York needs something for her hallway. You’re hoping that the exposure at the show introduces a fresh group of eyes of viewers to the work. You’re hoping if they’re not the end users or end buyers or customers for the work, they can share the experience in a positive light to encourage more people to come in and see the work.” Adds Morse: “We don’t do food because we don’t want people to consider it their evening meal. That’s conscious.” But he does offer a full bar. “I don’t want to oversell the spirit component, but we pour Absolut, not Smirnoff,” said Morse with an impish grin. “I have some patrons who buy a modest piece of art at the end of the season, saying specifically they’re settling their bar tab. And they know who they are.”

What could be pegged as the proliferation of the “houseguest economy,” but is often referred to as “cultural tourism” or the “creative economy,” is in play as Vineyard galleries promote and enforce the idea of the Island as a cultural destination. Art openings have emerged as an important part of the vacationer’s experience. “I think art gallery openings are definitely integral to the summer lifestyle,” said Ann Smith, whose multiple hats include chair of Arts Martha’s Vineyard and executive director of Featherstone Center for the Arts, a nonprofit arts center off Barnes Road in Oak Bluffs.

Alison Shaw, arguably the Vineyard’s best-known fine arts photographer, shows her work at three Island galleries in three different towns, including the eponymous Alison Shaw Gallery in Oak Bluffs. She said, “I worry sometimes — I mean how many times a summer can you go to an Alison Shaw opening?” But Sue Dawson, Ms. Shaw’s business partner and wife, feels that the galleries attract people from different parts of the Island. She also noted that when artists have their own galleries, the receptions are not so much openings but announcements: “Often for a gallery that carries a bunch of different artists, it’s to say we have this new artist up on the walls now. For us it’s very different, because we have one artist. So for us it’s saying we have all new work on the walls.” After contemplating Dawson’s remark, Shaw added, “You’re going to an opening reception, and as a visitor, you’re paid attention to. I like engaging with people. And quite frankly it helps to sell the art.”

Most artists spend months, if not years, working long solitary hours, and by all accounts the art opening is primarily to celebrate the artist’s efforts and a new body of work. “You’re exposing your soul, first to the staff of the gallery, then the gallery presents the work and then you’re exposing your soul to the public,” explained Chris Morse. “In a lot of cases it’s a bit horrifying — even if you’re a successful painter it’s a big deal.”

Andrew Moore, a soft-spoken realist painter whose reverence for the natural world is captured in his work, said, “For me, it completes a cycle of working on a group of paintings that relate to each other, and then the show is kind of a celebration of completing that idea.”

Last summer Moore walked into the Granary for the opening of his show a few minutes after five. Within the hour, the gallery had filled up. “It was like a walk through time. There were so many people I knew from different phases of my career. People who have been following me since I started showing during college at the Old Sculpin Gallery, and friends I had in the ’80s, and people I’ve met recently.” He paused and smiled, “It was very heartwarming.”

Kate Feiffer is the author of 11 children’s books, and a contributing editor for this magazine.

Leave a reply

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites