Bedroom, kitchen, art gallery

Homes, gas stations, hair salons house art exhibits and musical performances in hard times
By MARK GUARINO | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

After years of training at the School of the Art Institute, Edra Soto Fernandez of Chicago never imagined a show of her new work would be exhibited in a small bedroom that requires walking up four flights of stairs and passing through a kitchen and by the living room couch.

Yet despite having her work exhibited in commercial galleries and museums in Puerto Rico, Chicago, and New York City, Ms. Soto Fernandez says she would have it no other way. “It seems easier and easier for artists to open their living rooms and people are excited by that,” she says. “It’s idyllic in a way.”

Unexpected gallery and performance spaces are popping up in apartments, vacant storefronts, living rooms, gas stations, hair salons, and anywhere else artists connect with a landlord anxious for a tenant in a housing market crippled by foreclosures and a credit crisis.

Alternative art spaces are, in their quiet way, running in reverse of thecurrent economic downturn. As new-construction condos, main streets, and other vestiges of former good times shutter, artists are stepping up in greater numbers to reimagine potential blight. Which means anywhere you turn – a hallway in San Francisco, a bathroom in Chicago, an abandoned storefront in Dallas – you may be stepping into a gallery space, with art chosen to aesthetically fit its new home.

Borders between the commercial, nonprofit, and underground gallery worlds are softening; now, artists are encountering possibilities – addresses in upscale neighborhoods or buyers willing to mine for new work in funky spaces.

“Creative retail is the future, not just for downtowns, but in general,” said Kourtny Garrett, senior vice president of marketing for Downtown Dallas, a nonprofit that works with the city to encourage partnerships between artist groups and developers. Artists are receiving grant money to revitalize spaces plus subsidized rent money to lock in leases for up to five years.

The city helped shepherd Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas, a gallery association, into a 4,000-square-foot storefront vacant for years. Since opening last September, 4,600 people have attended group shows at the space, which director Anne Lawrence said is due to the city “taking a chance.” “Creating a presence on Main Street downtown was important,” says Ms. Lawrence. “Who wants a vacant building?”

Sometimes art can find the building a buyer. Boston realtor Will Brokhof taps artists he knows not just to help them in their work, but to sell a few properties. Mr. Brokhof regularly curates weekend art openings in homes he is representing – if they are new construction lofts, he makes sure the developer has not painted the walls to give the space a gallery feel. He says he has sold 10 properties over seven shows, which often include live music and catering. Artists also benefit – at his last show, $10,000 of art was sold.

“When we first started, a lot of [the artists] were a little apprehensive and a little disgusted, [saying] ‘Hang art in a house we can’t actually own?’ The reality is, after they sold a bunch of art and saw people were genuinely interested in their stuff, they were like, ‘Oh, I see,’ ” he says.

At the Second Bedroom Project in Chicago, where Soto Fernandez recently was featured, curator (and tenant) Chris Smith says the combination of extra space and cheap rent in the city’s Bridgeport neighborhood made him realize he had an opportunity to afford his fellow artists exposure they might not have otherwise. Openings take place once a month and the work is available for showings by appointment.

“It’s really just a relaxed environment and allows people to take some chances and do things that they wouldn’t do in a more formal gallery,” Mr. Smith says.

His shows became so successful that he decided to tweak convention by opening a second gallery – in his bathroom. Called the Medicine Cabinet Gallery, the compact showcase has hosted dioramas, performance art, and other types of experimental work.

He insists that living in a homespun gallery is “really not obtrusive at all.” “You go into the bathroom and you’re alone for a minute to engage a bit with this little tiny space that artists decided to handle,” he says.

In some city neighborhoods galleries have quickly reorganized business models to be more cost-effective. Gallery Soco in Austin, Texas, shut its doors once rents doubled last year, transferring open showings to appointment-only or via online, as well as launching satellite openings in quirkier spaces like restaurants or hair salons.The alternative galleries are following a tradition that has been going on in the folk world for years: house concerts. Because of the intimacy of acoustic music and the diminishing number of venues that host it, fans have opened their homes to singer-songwriters and bands, creating a network of home venues that connect artists directly with the people who most appreciate the music.

Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart, a Nashville-based folk and country-and-western duo, perform up to 40 house concerts a year all across the country. They say the combination of potluck dining and informal interaction is welcome, especially after a day spent stuck in a car traveling between markets.

Plus, there are the economics: House concerts tend to charge at least $10, which the musicians collect in full, as opposed to clubs that often take a percentage. Ms. Earle and Mr. Stuart, who are married, also sell more merchandise, as house concerts create exposure most musicians can’t get on commercial radio or TV.

Stuart says that house concerts actually have helped him become a better musician. “I did 20 years in bar bands…. You’re playing while people are shooting darts, playing billiards or watching TV. When you’re thrown in the fire and … have 40 people sitting in chairs paying attention, it forces you to be a better entertainer,” he says.

For homeowners, the opportunity to host a favorite musician is worth the expense. Ken Drost spent $23,000 in a charity auction to have Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy perform a house concert last March in Mr. Drost’s home in North Barrington, a Chicago suburb. This is the fourth year Drost, a commercial litigator, has paid for the honor.

A domestic setting like that is becoming more desirable, says San Francisco art curator Glen Helfand, because of the “intimacy and realness” they generate, which consumers are finding more valuable in this current recession. “[Home events] are like comfort food in a real way,” he says.

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