Keeping it above water

First in a series titled: The Trials and Lessons of a playwright recently become Theater Manager

Had some funny feedback today about the Vermont project. Every month all the galleries in Brattleboro get together and organize this thing called Gallery Walk… everyone comes out for it and all the galleries open up to the public. It makes for a nice evening.

The feedback was, the quality of the free food we serve at Gallery Walk is starting to disappoint folks.

In past years, many of the galleries timed their openings for new shows to this event, and many in the traditional “show opening” spirit served food, some times healthful and solid, others lavish.

But over the past year and a half, many galleries in Brattleboro, squeezed by the arid funding climate and reduced art buying by the strapped middle class, have either cut down or eliminated the free eats. In that period, the Hooker-Dunham became known as “the last remaining place” to get a good, classy, free bite. And that supposedly kept it on the itinerary of many residents, despite its lack of a good art show. So it came to pass that folks who were hungry but not particularly interested in seeing a lackluster art show showed up, ate the good eats, and left with their families, leaving only a trail of breadcrumbs in their wake.

Then the Hooker-Dunham fell. And , well, the spirit of Hansel and Gretel aside, we decided when we took over the gallery and theater that our primary responsibility when we came in there was to keep it going. And to eliminate the practices that caused it to previously go through hard times and close. We noticed that we weren’t selling a lot of art, that the art shows at the gallery were not well-regarded, and that on gallery walk night most people who did show up, simply grabbed a bite and left.

So we made a judgement call. We cut down our emphasis on a good feed that night, and focused our resources on a better show in the space for Gallery Walk and the month following. We asked a curator whose work looked particularly special to give us a try. She brought much better shows in. We also went from a solid $175 a month in gallery rent to a free arrangement, with the hope that if we could build this right, and attract the right artists, we’d get more art purchases and that would offset the loss of the rent.

Well the gamble is still being tested. Little art has yet been sold, though we definitely have good art in the space and most folks love the shows.

So some residents resent we have de-emphasized the great feed we used to have. They used to show up for the food and they want to know why we’re not offering it with the same aplomb.

Well, hm… I guess they’re right. For now at least, we think it’s more important to have a great art show for people who want to come in and see an art show. We’re a gallery, not a restaurant.

And we spent some time looking at the folks that seemed to most relish the food we put out… they typically left immediately after securing victuals. Not a glance at the art. They were just hungry. If you asked them on the way out the door what the name of the space was, or whose art was being shown, or even when the next performing arts show at the theater was going to take place, they’d typically give a blank resentful stare. As if it was an imposition for them to expect anything other than, we’re here for the food, lay off.

To my amazement, I was told, that’s why we should have first class food, to serve the community’s need for good food on gallery walk night. This when all the other galleries in town have either gone to a pay for eat model (like the Museum) or stopped it altogether.

Are we wrong? We seem to be getting good traffic for the gallery. We still do have free food, it’s just more frivolous stuff, bruschetta and chips and crudite and cheeese and finger-size hot pizza bites. We’re still one of the few serving anything. We would just rather be known for being a great gallery where important artists are being shown. We aren’t making anything on the gallery yet, we don’t yet have a sponsor to cover this, and in fact we’re laying out $80 a month for what we’ve got, and frankly can’t afford that $400 spread any more.

That’s the complaint for today… next time I’ll talk about the accessibility harpies.