Risky business

Artist-run galleries exist in a tough spot between business and philanthropy

Chad Sorg owns Bleulion, an art gallery that’s struggling to survive.

Chad Sorg owns Bleulion, an art gallery that’s struggling to survive.

Photo By David Robert

There’s a type of gallery where you know you’ll see edgy art, the kind of work that might intrigue or bewilder or give you pause. It’s not where you’d buy a $200,000 painting, a 10-by-15-foot canvas for your favorite CEO. But it is where you could expect to find the work of a local artist you’ve never seen before, maybe this city’s next Andy Warhol.

In Reno, you’d find this kind of art at the Bleulion Art Gallery, or, until recently, Chapterhouse, which closed in November. These galleries exhibit the work of artists often just beginning their careers, which might last many years or as easily fade away. So, too, the galleries might blossom into the area’s next Stremmel Gallery or one day close up shop.

Stremmel, the gallery on Virginia Street with the large, brightly-colored, Modernist panels, is owned by Peter Stremmel, who began it in 1969.

“When we opened this gallery,” he said, “it was a small hole-in-the-wall just down the street next to my father’s Volkswagen agency.”

Over the touch-and-go years, he developed Stremmel into the kind of gallery that does sell expensive paintings to CEOs, but he knows the kind of struggles faced by the alternative galleries, as he terms them. He faced them himself.

“When we started out,” Stremmel says, “we weren’t any different from Bleulion.”

Ahren Hertel was part-owner of Chapterhouse Gallery, where the enthusiastic following of artists wasn’t enough to keep the rent paid.

Photo By David Robert

Bleulion is owned by Chad Sorg, with two partners. Although it’s been here for seven years already, the gallery’s life is still tenuous. To help extend its lifespan, Bleulion is holding a benefit art auction March 3 and 4. The owners hope to raise enough capital to tide them over until they begin renting their two available basement studios to artists.

Sorg says Bleulion is still striving to create its own network of artists and buyers to sustain itself. “It’s just hard to connect money with the passion,” he says.

Sorg’s friend Ahren Hertel opened Chapterhouse, another alternative gallery, in the autumn of 2003. Less than a year and a half later, it closed. Hertel describes the art they exhibited as “low-brow,” not the kind that would interest most people with money to invest in art. In fact, Hertel and his co-owners purposely limited their promotion to word of mouth because they wanted to fill their gallery with those they knew would appreciate its informal atmosphere.

“I don’t think we ever thought about money,” he said. “I think from a business standpoint, that’s very naïve. But as a gallery, you feel if everything is done correctly, you’ll have enough support. With the gallery closing, we just felt like we worked our butts off, and if it didn’t work, it didn’t work.”

A gallery with a backup plan

Hertel, Sorg and Stremmel all agree that having a business plan helps a gallery survive past just a year or two. The problem is many alternative galleries are run by artists, not usually people with business experience.

Not so the Wildflower Village. Owned by Pat Campbell-Cozzi, Wildflower Village now includes a bed-and-breakfast, motel, gift shop, espresso bar, wedding chapel and, of course, a gallery—in fact, two of them. Campbell-Cozzi’s business strategy is to allow the galleries the time they need to grow enough to sustain themselves. She exhibits mostly the work of local artists. This businessperson opened the art galleries in 2003 because she wanted to fill her unused space with something she loves.

Pat Campbell-Cozzi is something of an arts patron who supports her galleries at Wildflower Village with other related businesses.

Photo By David Robert

Jill Berryman, executive director of the Sierra Arts Foundation, sees Campbell-Cozzi as more than a businessperson who started an art gallery. Wildflower Village offers a venue where artists can provide art, or they can work for the gallery. In exchange, Campbell-Cozzi provides them the gallery space to display and sell their pieces, studios where they can create their art, or rental units to live in while they make their artwork. She keeps a low commission on sales, 35 percent. (It’s typical for galleries to keep a 50 percent commission.) Also, she often provides gallery space, studio space and/or a place to live in exchange for artwork to sell in the gallery, minding the store or helping out on the property.

Discussing the challenge for alternative galleries to survive beyond a few years, Berryman remarked on the absence today of the centuries-old patronage system for the arts. Often a person with more money than the artist would support the artist by providing living arrangements or steady consignments for the artist’s work.

Berryman said Pat Campbell-Cozzi “is an example of this kind of arts patron. If all these artists had a patron, we wouldn’t be worried about losing this kind of art” through the financial attrition of alternative galleries.

The generosity suggested by that kind of patronage is apparent when you talk with the owners of each of these galleries. Normally, you’d expect professional rivalry among businesses apparently competing with each other. But just as the gallery owners want their artists—and the arts—to thrive in Reno, so do they seem to respect that each gallery strives to fill its own niche.

“I can’t be anything more than encouraging to these galleries,” Stremmel said, echoing the others’ sentiments. “We’ve been there. There’s no security in this business. We just live year-to-year anymore. But at least it’s better. Early on it was week-to-week. Then it grew to month-to-month. Who knows?”

Thinking positively

If Sorg and Campbell-Cozzi have a view into that crystal ball of Reno’s arts future, it’s rose-colored. Wildflower Village is betting on Reno’s growth as a city focused on the arts. “I think as the community grows, it will be easier for them,” Campbell-Cozzi said, speaking about alternative galleries like Bleulion. “Reno as a community is emerging, growing, expanding, so I really think that if those galleries can hang on, that [this city’s major events will] bring us the kind of people who are vacationing and will spend money on art to take home.”

Sorg describes Reno’s arts scene as going gangbusters. He cites current projects like the new artists’ studios at Wildflower Village and the Riverside Artist Lofts, which opened three and a half years ago in the old Riverside Hotel on Virginia Street. Sorg is also enthusiastic about future plans, such as the rental studios in progress at Bleulion and a potential 10 to 15 artists’ studios on the first floor of Arlington Towers in downtown Reno.

“We’re all starting to figure out how we all fit in," Sorg said. "We all have a job to do here; the city is really kicking in, and everybody’s kicking in. Maybe eventually this will be a real art destination, like Santa Fe. It’s going to happen."