Friday, April 14, 2006

If You Think You're Good...

When we were very young, there was a popular joke current among many touring actors, musicians, and nightclub comedians around the nation. It had its roots in an older Vaudeville saying: "If you think you're good, wait 'til you play Cedar Rapids."

What made this funny was that it came to be understood both as a warning and a challenge. During the Vaudeville era, the city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was notorious for its stony-face, unresponsive audiences. They would turn out for the show, but they behaved like they hated it.

The reason was the city had a large population of first-generation working class Eastern European immigrants. They had few other other options for entertainment, especially in the long cold winters, except Vaudeville. But most didn't speak English. They liked only accordion music. And they considered stage performers worth watching only if they juggled something or hung by their toes from a trapeze.

Or so it seemed to most traveling jazz bands, concert orchestras, comedians, singers, and actors booked into Cedar Rapids theaters. They assumed the audiences there had no sense of humor, rhythm, or artistic appreciation. That wasn't true. They just weren't yet familiar with modern American humor, rhythms, dramatic acting -- or, for that matter, the language. The best of the traveling performers considered a Cedar Rapids audience to be a creative challenge.

We were reminded of all this today as we read the PNJ, which includes Mike Roberts' farewell to another downtown Pensacola art gallery:
"Imago Gallery is closing April 27. The news comes just shortly after the announcement that Bayfront Gallery, a 'veteran' gallery on Palafox Place, will be closing as well."
Roberts reminisces about other Pensacola art galleries that have disappeared. SOHO, Dolphin, Right Angles, and Fattahi are mentioned. There have been others. And he wonders why so many commercial art galleries seem to fail in Pensacola.

Ultimately, he comes up with three possibilities:

(1) recent 'hurricanes';

(2) the smelly 'Main Street sewage plant'; and

(3) 'sticker shock' over the price of truly good fine art.

It turns out, though, that Imago really isn't closing. Like some of the others on Roberts' list, it's just moving away to another place:
Baker intends to move to Palm Beach to open a new gallery with a partner by late August to represent such local artists as Pat Regan, Spiros Zachos, Quenby Tilley and Valerie Aune.
We think this might be a hint that there is another explanation for the repeated failure of Pensacola art galleries. An explanation like, not enough people around here are interested in the fine arts.

There's no doubt many art galleries have a tough time making it no matter where they are located. They always have. It's an expensive business that requires a knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and well-heeled clientele.

Pensacola is an especially challenging market, probably for the same reasons this area attracts so many retirees, military veterans, boaters, fishermen, and sun-loving tourists. We are a recreational magnet with comparatively inexpensive living costs. The average educational level here probably is substantially less than in many comparably sized cities. Most folk attracted to a place like Pensacola are more likely to spend time and money studying Home Depot wallpaper patterns than the work of local oil painters, print-makers, and sculptors.

That doesn't make it impossible for fine art galleries to survive, any more than it was impossible years ago to make a Cedar Rapids theater audience laugh or cry. Pensacola is changing, however slowly.

Surviving galleries, including the co-ops Roberts praises, are learning how to educate potential clients without being elitist or snooty about it. It can be done. But it takes time, imagination, and dedication.

As the Vaudeville performers of old might have said, "If you think you're a good gallery owner, wait 'til you open in Pensacola."

Take it as a challenge as well as a warning.


pissed off patricia said...

There is also the fact that the middle class is having a harder financial day every day. The well healed of the Palm Beach area have old money and plenty of it. To many working families art is not on their list of needs. Sadly that may be the situation for a long time to come.

We have a couple of big art shows here each year. This year you saw fewer people buying and that too was sad.

Linda L. said...

And then there are those of us dwelling on Santa Rosa Island who appreciate fine art and would love to be surrounded by it, but who hesitate to display it on our walls only to have to pull it down and move it to safe haven each time a storm threatens in the Gulf.

As for p.o.p.'s comment that this year's art shows saw fewer people buying, assume she was not speaking of this area, but rather of Palm Beach? Because the Gulf Breeze show here supposedly just had its best year ever. Go figure.