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As Outsiders Art gallery closes, Durham is still an art scene under development

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After four years of exhibitions and parties, Outsiders Art gallery is throwing one last bash. On Friday night, owner Pam Gutlon will gather her festive cabal of food trucks and musicians to the colorful Victorian house on Iredell Street in Durham—ground zero for the community-based resurgence of the city's art scene—before closing the visionary art gallery for good.

A few weeks ago, Gutlon announced that she's moving to Manchester, Vt., to transfuse her creative energy into The Inn at Willow Pond. Naturally, people are mourning.

"I'm having the conversation a lot, people asking, 'Why are you closing Outsiders?'" Gutlon says. "And I ask, 'How many pieces of art did you buy this year?' That pretty much ends the conversation."

If a restaurant or hardware store doesn't sell enough burritos or hammers, it goes out of business. But the Bull City doesn't apply the same common sense to its art galleries. Even though Durham is lauded for its creativity, and Third Friday art nights are now crowded affairs, its galleries are subsisting rather than thriving. Turnout does not yet equal sales.

Gutlon's not disappointed in this so much as exhausted by it. She leaves behind a legacy of creating a scene around one's events that's become second nature for Durham art spaces. "I feel like I met my goals for the gallery in terms of introducing this kind of work to this community, and in using art, food and music to create community," Gutlon says. "I can bring the horse to water."

But it's hard to get the horse to drink. Gutlon fishes tax forms out of a folder so we can turn that water into numbers. In 2012, Outsiders showed gross receipts for well over $70,000 of art. Because she's been generous to a fault, adjusting her commission in order to discount work to sell it, two-thirds of that gross number went to the artists. After rent and expenses, the gallery showed a net profit of $334 for the year. It was the first and only year that Outsiders turned a profit.

Every Durham gallery is running a different financial model. Wisely, none is solely dependent upon art sales for survival. Durham's grown into a regional creative leader, but it's not taking its wallet out yet.

The downtown The Carrack Modern Art gallery is organized to make exactly nothing from art sales. Sculptor John Wendelbo co-founded the gallery in 2011 upon a pair of very unconventional rules: The Carrack takes zero commission from art sales, and shows run for only two weeks.

While this has spawned a vibrant community space, the finances have been trying to catch up ever since. Wendelbo has moved on, but director Laura Ritchie is now steering the Carrack into calmer, sustainable seas.

With no revenue but donations, Ritchie is transforming the Carrack into a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization. She loves the curatorial freedom that the no-commission idea affords the Carrack. Meanwhile, she's not getting paid, and exhibiting artists hang their own shows, handle much of the marketing and underwrite the cost of their opening and closing events. "Our artists become staff people for their two-week show," Ritchie says.

The Carrack is entering a new phase, combining two levels of exhibition sponsorship with individual sustainer donations comparable to public-radio fund drives. Ritchie has clear-cut goals to make her projected $18,800 budget this coming year (the majority of which is rent). This doesn't include a director's salary either, but there's a plan in place that aspires to increase the budget in fall 2014 to pay a director and some part-time staff.

"I'm feeling a lot better having this three-phase plan," Ritchie says. "I can do math that adds up to the number we need."

Just a few blocks away, at the crisp, white-walled Pleiades Gallery, founders Renee Leverty and Kim Wheaton did that math well in advance. After seeing the pros and cons as members of a collective gallery in Hillsborough, they wanted to open a space of their own in Durham—and they wanted to do it right. Through months of meetings at the Durham Technical Community College entrepreneurial incubator, they honed their idea into what Leverty calls a "hybrid collective."

Leverty and Wheaton juried in eight other artists who share wall space in the gallery and receive a regular featured show up front. Pleiades artists sign a one-year contract and pay a monthly membership fee. They participate in all the gallery's decision making and sign up for shifts to cover open hours. And they keep 80 percent of sales, with the 20 percent commission going back into the collective.

After the launch six months ago, turnout to show openings and special events with partners like the American Dance Festival has been terrific. But sales have been below expectations. "We exceeded sales our first month. It was Full Frame and the Art Walk. Since then we've been under," Leverty says.

Pleiades could conceivably add artists to its collective to boost the membership side of the revenue equation, but Leverty is wary of crowding the walls with too much artwork. "We really want to honor the artists we have," she says, "and how you do that is you give them adequate space."

To survive long-term in Durham, galleries have had to balance the hard cost of that space with a revenue stream separate from it. Roylee Duvall, of the photography-only Through This Lens, has seen downtown's CCB Plaza turn from an empty lot into the heart of a bustling neighborhood of businesses, restaurants and residential spaces. Since he opened in 2004, Duvall makes upward of 70 percent of his revenue from framing. Scanning and large-format printing brings in another chunk. Art sales limp in at 5 to 10 percent of the gross take.

"It's more important to help people to think than to show them something to buy," Duvall says over the construction noise from the 21c Museum Hotel that will open in the Hill Building across the plaza next year. Although the disconnection of art sales from his livelihood enables Duvall to feature conceptual work and alternative photographic processes, the economic downturn of 2008 nearly did in the framing and printing business. Business is finally approaching pre-recession levels this year.

Almost paradoxically, Durham's oldest gallery—Craven Allen on Broad Street—reinvested in the art because of the recession. John Craven Bloedorn and Keith Allen Wenger bought the established House of Frames business in 1992 and added a gallery as a creative relief from framing work. Framing brought in almost all of their revenue.

"We were undercapitalized and had to make money from day one," Bloedorn remembers. But Paul Hrusovsky, the original gallery manager (who just opened his own Studio Design Gallery in Chapel Hill), helped the owners make good choices about representing artists. When 2008 hit and the framing business slackened, they tried to see it as an opportunity rather than a threat.

"We really looked at the art and thought maybe we could do more with it," Bloedorn says. "We had more time and we wanted to keep all our staff."

Bloedorn and Wenger kept their three full-time employees and expanded the artists they represented, bringing in emerging talent like painter Beverly McIver and photographer MJ Sharp. Before 2008, Craven Allen made 15 percent of its revenue from art sales. That's now doubled. "I'm more excited about the business than I've been in years," Bloedorn says, "and that's because of the challenges we had to overcome."

Many galleries, however, don't have a primary revenue stream to depend upon other than the art. Drawing on her background in design, photography, film and property management, Alicia Lange opened SPECTRE Arts in the Golden Belt area this past May. Two studio rentals pull in less than a quarter of her monthly cost, so she's banking on gallery sales. First, though, she has to build awareness of her space through event programming—the Outsiders method—although she knows that can work against sales, too.

"People don't respond to a gallery as a business," Lange says. "People see it as more of a free venue—and in some ways it is." Come see some art, hear some music, eat and drink, all without a cover charge.

Bill Fick isn't even bothering with art sales at Supergraphic, which opened along the industrial corridor between downtown and Golden Belt this year. The anonymous-looking building accommodates a large screen-printing work area for classes and workshops. Fees from classes (provided they fill) plus two private studio rentals covers Fick's monthly cost, so the front room changes from a gallery to a fabrication area as needed. He'd rather be printing and building things than hanging shows and selling work. Maybe he'd do it if Supergraphic were in New York or Los Angeles, but not in Durham.

"I've always thought of North Carolina as kind of a place of sleepiness," Fick laughs. "There aren't a lot of amped-up people running around here like in a big city."

Perhaps there will be more of those kinds of people after the 26-story project known as "City Center" is built on Parrish Street, right up against the Carrack. Ground won't be broken until well into next year, but when the tower is completed in 2016 it will dominate the Durham skyline, dwarfing the Hill Building. Around 130 luxury apartments will sit on top of more than 60,000 square feet of office space and 20,000 square feet of street-level retail. If you can afford to live there, you can afford a few paintings and photographs for your walls.

Cathy Crumpton is wagering on that. Her Alizarin Gallery space, on the second floor of a building on Main Street overlooking the lot that "City Center" will stand upon, is currently filled with scaffolding and sheets of drywall. But she's accelerating toward an opening event on Nov. 21. After a successful career in regulatory pharmaceutical work, she sold a company a year ago and is ready for a new challenge.

Crumpton paints and has been collecting work, which she'll draw upon in the gallery's initial phase, mixing in meeting rentals and artist-led workshops to make rent. "I really want to take a chance," she says. "It's something I've always wanted to do, so I'll give it a shot."

Gutlon can say the same thing now as she empties Outsiders and heads for Vermont, hoping that she can help draw weekenders from the big Northeastern cities. She's keeping her house in Durham, though.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Why doesn't Durham buy art?"

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