Howard galleries few, determined

Survival: Owners have stayed the course because of a practical approach and grit, even without sales of a large amount of upscale art.

January 13, 2000|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Howard County has never been a hot spot for upscale commercial art galleries.

Far away from the tony art salons found on Baltimore's Charles Street and Dupont Circle in Washington, Howard's few galleries have survived over the years because of their owners' practicality, determination and entrepreneurial grit.

In Howard County, "you don't have that level of sophistication that you find in the city," says Rebecca Weber, owner of the 20-year-old Shepard Art Gallery on Ellicott City's historic Main Street. "People aren't necessarily willing to buy high art and start art collections. Most people just want to decorate their houses and they don't want to spend" tens of thousands of dollars on art to do it.

But Howard is an affluent county, and those who do buy art don't focus only on price.

"We're in an area that wants quality, even if that means something's a little more expensive," says Marian Berman, owner of Gallery 44, which moved last week into a larger gallery space in the Valley Mede Shopping Center, a bustling, nondescript strip mall along Ellicott City's U.S. 40 corridor.

Three of Howard's high-end commercial art galleries -- those that sell original paintings and other art ranging in price from $200 to $15,000 -- are on Ellicott City's picturesque Main Street: Shepard Art Gallery, Margaret Smith Gallery and Ellicott Mills Gallery.

Artist Tatiana Seelinger owns and operates a gallery that occupies a restored church in Glenelg.

"Everyone who comes out here is on a mission," says Tatiana, who uses only her first name. "No one just walks in. I get fewer sales, but I also get less theft than if people just walked in. This seems to work well for me."

Berman says her profits have doubled over the past three years, in part because she was in another busy strip mall, Bethany 40 Center on U.S. 40, before moving to her new strip mall location.

"Things worked out exquisitely in our last location," says Berman, who hopes the new gallery is more visible and easily accessible from U.S. 40. "We could definitely appeal to our highest common denominator."

Berman's inventory of art includes oils, watercolors, acrylics, serigraphs, monoprints and other mixed-media pieces. Though Gallery 44 represents a few local artists, Berman gets most of her art from dealers and agents in New York and Atlanta.

Gallery 44 has a mailing list of more than 3,000 and hundreds of return customers who buy art and use the gallery for custom framing, including those by the Atlanta-based Larson-Juhl framers. Prices for original art range from $200 to $7,800, with the higher-priced works selling at a surprisingly swift clip, Berman says.

In 1973, when she opened her first gallery in Westview Mall in Baltimore County, Berman bought art wholesale from dealers, good and bad quality, "just as long as it was in good taste."

"Now I sell pretty much my taste," she says. "After 26 years, I feel comfortable as the arbiter of taste for our customers. People feel like they can trust us."

The county's commercial art galleries are distinct from alternative, nonprofit or cooperative galleries like Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City, Mill River Gallery in the historic Oella Mill, the Columbia Art Center in Long Reach Village Center and the Artists Gallery in Columbia, which all receive outside funding from patrons or grants.

"It's very hard to stay alive in the commercial art gallery world," says Coleen West, executive director of the Center for the Arts. "Rents are high, and they may not sell enough paintings every month to be able to stay there."

For-profit art galleries can and do sell high-end, expensive art, but most also offer low- to medium-priced pieces, as well as framing and other decorating services.

Artist and Mill River Gallery curator Joan Bevelaqua says suburban art galleries have a hard time staying open "because the public isn't educated about art."

"People are just as content to buy a print from a nationally known artist in a shopping mall when they could get a nice, framed original watercolor for about $300," Bevelaqua says. "The galleries you're talking about are really run by people who're trying to sell a product and make a living."

Margaret Smith, owner of the 12-year-old Ellicott City gallery that bears her name, says the economic boom has had more than a little to do with the success of local art galleries.

"As long as the economy is going, we're all fine," Smith says. "When it takes a dive, we're one of the first industries that takes a hit. A strong economy makes all the difference in the world."

But art that carries a higher price tag -- more than $1,000, perhaps -- doesn't necessarily scare off customers in Howard County, Smith says.

"Generally, people who are interested in buying art are already predisposed to buying something nice," she says. "It's a luxury item -- it's not posters. They'll spend a little money, but they have to like it."

Berman agrees.

"We're so lucky to be in a county that's as affluent as Howard County," she says. "I mean, thank God, I'm not using anybody's grocery money. People have enough disposable income that they're buying for the look, and they'll spend the money as long as they like something."

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