Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Gallery For Rent

Alva Gallery
54 State St., New London, (860) 437-8664
Legacies 2007: Ceremonies and Celebrations
Nov. 10—Dec. 15, 2007.

Alva Gallery has always been about both contemporary art and a commitment to the city of New London. Unfortunately, after trying to cultivate an art market for nine years and barely breaking even, Alva Greenberg has decided to close shop and pursue other interests. I stopped by the gallery on Saturday to check out their last show, where I met longtime Alva employee Susan Hendricks, a dedicated member of New London’s art glitterati. We chatted about what the gallery closing means for New London.

New London has always seemed like a place where artists and the arts should thrive: it contains scads of underused buildings ripe for studio space, and plenty of vacant storefronts. And in fact, civic-minded locals have tried to revive the city culturally by renovating historic buildings and rebranding New London as an arts community. But the reality is that landlords’ expectations for rent are too high, and there aren’t enough collectors to nourish the artists and galleries. Supporting the arts isn’t merely providing affordable studios and gallery space for exhibitions. People need to buy the artwork, and that is what hasn’t happened. Looking at the houses, yachts, and other indicia of a fat wallet, there are plenty of wealthy people in southeastern Connecticut. Imagine what might happen if people started buying art from galleries and living artists instead of the poster shop at Ikea. The CT Commission on Culture and Tourism generously provides educational programming for artists and arts organizations, but that may not be the best allocation of resources for revitalizing arts in the region. A campaign aimed at wealthy people to promote the purchase of original artwork might be more effective. If more galleries close, artists may have to start selling their artwork on eBay andBrooklyn-based Etsy, where a more clued-in audience awaits. In that event, gallery owners will move on to other more remunerative endeavors, and New London will be the poorer for it. Heiress Alva has deep pockets, so she has been able to stick with it for almost a decade, but other gallery owners lack that kind of staying power.

It is not that the work arising from smaller areas like southeastern Connecticut, outside the cultural radii of New York and Boston, is inherently unworthy, or the shows poorly conceptualized. The current exhibition, curated as usual by Alva, is loosely based around the notion of “Ceremonies and Celebrations”—a well-considered concept for a thematic group show that is at once broad enough to elicit diverse artistic interpretations and sufficiently defined to keep them on message. Traditionally curators establish a theme based on current trends they detect among art makers, then select specific pieces to examine and refine that theme. In this exhibition, Alva posited a general idea, and aptly asked artists whose work she admired to submit artwork they felt addressed the idea in some way. The work submitted to the show, however, doesn’t fully articulate a cohesive point of view. Much of it smacks of the proverbial student art project, doggedly and obviously exploring the assigned thematic conceit. Yet some pieces do manage to quietly embrace the theme while still standing strongly on their own.

Peter Good's “Ne Plus Ultra,” which looks like an old-fashion appliqué sewing project, depicts a partridge with a branch of leaves in its mouth. The image, sewn to what resembles a yellowed linen dishtowel, is made of different upholstery scraps. They are carefully cut, and sewn to the cloth with thick zigzag machine stitching. The meticulous, charming handiwork of past generations is evoked, while the modern machine method, the industrial materials, and the masculine bearing of the artist himself register its contemporary provenance.

“Wish” is composed of a faded, large-scale, black-and-white photograph of a young African-American girl jumping rope, juxtaposed with an array of hanging brooms, handmade from sticks and branches. For artist Diane Barcelo, who cites the African-American tradition of “Jumping the Broom” when talking about the work, the open-ended installation may be a memento of her recent marriage. For me it suggests truths about work as play, and stirs longings for the simple games of childhood. The adult artist’s more serious broom-making ritual echoes the repetitive, compulsive action of the well-loved juvenile pastime.

“Dipping into the Fountain of Youth” is a small-scale drawing made with pencil, watercolor and gouache on paper. The artist, illustrator Patience Brewster, has been drawing for as long as she can remember, and this little gem demonstrates both her imaginative skill and her mastery of the materials. Finely detailed in pencil and subtly painted in gouache and watercolor, the drawing depicts a woman wearing the fountain of youth as a ball gown. Or has the fountain of youth come to life?

The Alva Gallery’s closing, of course, isn’t anything for New London to celebrate. For nearly ten years, it has enriched the community with consistently worthwhile shows – including, despite some shortcomings, “Ceremonies and Celebrations.” If this is the Alva’s swan song, the hope is that someone with Ms. Greenberg’s resolve and passion will soon arrive to fill the void. For any new gallery to be sustainable, though, marketing innovation and aggressiveness as well as aesthetic acumen will be required. The harsh reality, which New London is now feeling, is that galleries need to sell as well as show.

Artists include Imna Arroya, Forrest R. Bailey, Diane Barcelo, Siona Benjamin, Patience Brewster, Judy Cotton, Carlos Estevez, Beverly Floyd, Francie Bishop Good, Peter Good, Peter Harron, Gigi Liverant, Tim Lovejoy, Mark McKee, Fethi Meghelli, Anita Soos and Joy Wulke.

Note: My camera batteries died after shooting four terrible pictures, so if you want to see the show, you'll have to make one last trip to Alva.

Related post: Connecticut Collects Connecticut


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