When economy stumbles, fine art takes a fall

The Baltimore Sun

When Kevin Schoffstall opened his gallery, Fells Fired, during the 2006 holiday season, he was young, optimistic and giddy with the possibility of selling so much art that he could quit his day job and throw pots for a living.

A year and a half later, he's still young, at least.

Shoppers have wafted away. Fuel costs jacked shipping prices for his favorite clays and glazes heavenward. He's had to sell his best pieces at deep discount just to get them out the door. Two other galleries in his Fells Point neighborhood closed. And now, with the economy depressing by the hour - to say nothing of his outlook - Schoffstall thinks Fells Fired might follow them to extinction.

"It seems like a lot more people are being a lot more cautious about spending - even 20 bucks on a mug," says the 25-year-old who also works as a photographer for an Owings Mills portrait company. If not for that other job, he could not have covered the gallery's rent these last months.

"I've been able to make it, but only because I still work a full-time job. Without the full-time job, I'd really be in a pretty bad bind."

It's the same story for so many others who paint and sculpt and craft - creating objects of beauty that people want but don't need, things people bump from the priority list in favor of heating the house, stocking the refrigerator and keeping the gas tank full.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the art world thrives in good times and crashes in bad.

And lately, it's pretty bad out there.

Tony Walker thought he was offering reasonably priced pieces at his Gallery ID8 in Fells Point. But not cheap enough, apparently, as he had to close last summer after four years in business.

"People were cutting back," he says. "On movies, on going out to dinner, and maybe, on cool little marble sculptures."

At the quirky shop he sold his sculpture for as low as $100 and paintings sometimes for less than $300.

"We tried to flex with the times, but even at low prices it's hard to sell - $100 is a lot for people," says Walker, an emergency room nurse who has been stretching his own salary to cover the increasing costs of gas, eggs, bread - seemingly everything.

Though business at his gallery started out fairly strong, Walker says it began fading as the economy began its tilt. He and his wife, also an emergency nurse, weren't too worried about profit - they saved money living above the Fleet Street space. But when the sales all but flat-lined, their tax consultant insisted they pull the plug.

Individual artists seem to be feeling the downturn more than arts organizations. The budget of the Maryland State Arts Council, for instance, hasn't dropped a dime. As always, the group handed out $250,000 in artist grants in January, doling the cash out in checks of $1,000, $2,000 and up to $6,000.

Some upscale galleries are insulated, too. C. Grimaldis Gallery in Mount Vernon, with clients all over the world, is quite flush. "I cannot talk about the future, but we had similar numbers to what we had the year before, which was a very good year," owner Costas Grimaldis says.

Rachel Bone is not sharing his luck. In the two years her craft business Red Prairie Press has existed, she says she is pretty sure she hasn't seen anything close to "a good year" - she sells printed T-shirts in stores and online. But she's hanging in there and trying not to get overly discouraged. "I haven't had to turn back and get a part-time job yet," she says.

To improve their sales chances, Bone and fellow members of the Charm City Craft Mafia are creating fewer purely aesthetic objects, choosing instead to make shirts and bags and mugs - things that people can actually use and perhaps justify.

"It seems to me, from traveling around the country to craft fairs, that the people I meet are more likely to purchase things they can use than things they'll only look at," she says.

If people are buying art for the wall, she says the pieces tend to be smaller and less expensive.

Schoffstall knows all about the utilitarian item ploy. If it weren't for ceramic bowls, plates and dinner sets, he'd hardly be in business.

As for his lovely raku items - vases and artful objects swirled in brilliant color that for a few hundred dollars could grace a mantelpiece - those things he's moving into his new "sales corner."

When he slashed by half the price tags of a few pieces in hopes of getting them out of the shop, it would only have pained him more if someone had smashed them against a wall.

"It hurt. It definitely hurt," he says. "I was just covering my materials basically and a little of my time. It definitely felt like I was cheating myself."

Schoffstall hates that sales corner. It not only wounds his artistic pride, it's annoyingly magnetic, pulling his few customers over as soon as they get inside.

And he misses the foot-traffic, the nearby galleries that didn't make it and the ring of the sale that allowed him to keep his entrepreneurial dream alive.

Mostly he just hates hearing would-be customers say The Line, the thing they mumble as they work their way out of the gallery with no intention of buying.

"They say, 'Oh, I'll be back," he says. "But you know they won't."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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