Reflections On Owning and Closing a Fine Art Gallery

All Images and Content © 1980 - Present (2017) Copyright Janet Tarjan Erl 

I regret to say that my husband Harry and I closed our fine art gallery in Port Townsend, WA. We were open for a brief time - the summer of 2016. Unfortunately, Port Townsend has a very short tourist season, and sales were not brisk enough to carry us through the other lean months. All my patrons who collected my art, brightened my summer. Without people supporting the arts by buying it, artists can't make a living creating art, and if artists can't make a living creating art, they won't make much of it, let alone have the time to master it, so I deeply appreciate all art patrons, especially my collectors.

Though owning and sitting a gallery is very time consuming, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed chatting with the many visitors who came into the gallery. If I could have made a dollar for every compliment I got, I would have not needed to close the gallery, so I am grateful for all those lovely compliments I received.

I had long wanted to open my own gallery and had odles of confidence that if I found the right tourist town, I would sell well; however, I never imagined that there are tourism dynamics that determine the success of art sales. Port Townsend at a glance would seem to be a good place to sell art because it boasts of being an arts and seaport town. It is a tourist town, no doubt, and I estimate it draws at least 300,000 plus tourists a year. Most of that tourism is concentrated in the warmer summer months from June through September. I would not, however, classify it as an arts town in the sense that it is where people go there to buy art. Towns like Santa Fe, NM or Carmel, CA are art towns to the core, and people travel to those locations from around the globe just to buy art. Unfortunately, Port Townsend isn't one of those kind of art towns.

I would say that Port Townsend is truly an art town because it excels in its musical and literary arts- especially with all the music and writing workshops, performances, and readings happening at Fort Worden, and the numerous street performers who play on the downtown streets for tips. However, Port Townsend does not excel as a visual arts town. Though it has numerous art galleries, most of those art galleries are co-ops owned and operated by the artists, and most of the work in those co-ops is comprised of crafts that are created by hobbyists - not full-time professionals. So the lack of art made by full time professionals isn't prevalent enough in Port Townsend to attract the upper class collectors to Port Townsend for the sake of collecting art. Enough tourists buy art there to keep the co-ops open, but their art purchases are more coincidental rather than being the sole reason they went to Port Townsend.

Port Townsend has an interesting tourist dynamic that probably influences why it isn't a thriving fine art town. I spent a lot of time conversing with visitors and found that most of them were from the greater Seattle region who were escaping the city for the day. I was surprised at how many people came into the gallery, and for that matter, - came to Port Townsend - purely for the entertainment value with no intent of buying art - let alone anything else. I sold no art to the greater Seattlites. The majority of art I sold was to visitors from far away. I did, however, sell some art to Port Townsenders who were new to the area. Surprisingly, the deadest weekend I had was the Wooden Boat Festival - a weekend that draws over 30,000 visitors. Even though I had some wooden boat paintings, the wooden boat fans didn't come into the gallery, let alone, buy art. So even though Port Townsend hosts a lot of tourists, most of those tourists are day trippers from the Puget Sound region.

These days every tourist town claims to be a great art town - just like Port Townsend. It sounds good in all the ads, and it helps get people to visit those places, but actually delivering on that claim is difficult. I suppose there are many solutions to nuture the fine arts, but it is costly - as we found out. So I hope the community can come up with some solutions to nuture the fine arts so that high end art galleries can thrive.

I wish I could say that this endeavor was a rewaring experience, but even though there may be some good lessons learned, my overall feelings were of disappointment. The gallery looked good, and the artwork looked good, so shutting it down was like putting down a beloved pet. Walking away from a loss is depressing.

All Images and Content © 1980 - Present (2017) Copyright Janet Tarjan Erl