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Art Galleries Doing Well In Spite Of Economic Downturn


November 15, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Spurred by last year’s opening of the Puerto Rico Art Museum in Santurce, a renewed interest in fine art has arisen. And the availability of high quality artwork at competitive prices has allowed local art galleries to ride above the current economic downturn.

At a time when most people are being more conservative in their spending–especially on non-essential items–mainstream art galleries have resorted to increasing advertising, providing flexible payment plans, and offering lower priced items to lure customers.

"Although the effects of the economic slowdown started in 2000, the gallery began to feel its impact early this year," Viota Art Gallery owner Armando Viota told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. "As a result, I quickly began working with young artists who put out high quality work at much lower prices."

In addition to the 20 or so exclusive and renowned artists that Viota exhibits on a regular basis (as most galleries do), he has added some lesser known ones with great potential as a way to expand the gallery’s selection to help sales. At the same time, he has negotiated with some of his exclusive artists to offer selected art at reduced prices as well.

Last week, the gallery’s glitzy opening a new exhibit by Carlos Cancio was in itself a social "happening" reminiscent of the art scene in New York or London.

These strategies–along with the gallery’s successful framing business–have helped Viota maintain sales, although the downside to it is that he must work three times as hard to make the same sales he made a year ago, Viota said.

Maud Duquella, owner of Botello Gallery on Roosevelt Ave., has reacted to the economic slowdown the same way as Viota has–because her business has had to face the same challenges–but in addition has had to implement cost cutting measures.

"You now have to be more conservative with expenses," said Duquella. "Perhaps put a project on hold until the economy recovers, because this is only temporary. We will recover from it."

Since the days when its Spanish-master, owner and namesake was still alive, Botello has been a sort of dean among local art galleries for decades. To this day it represents some of Puerto Rico’s greatest including such names as Jose Torres Martino and Myrna Baez.

Both Viota and Duquella agreed that in times of recession, most collectors continue their art purchases at a slower pace. But the events of Sept. 11 impacted sales even further.

"That’s when you have to be risky and creative," said Viota. "When sales are slow, that’s when you beef up advertising, offer lower prices and selection, and increase payment flexibility."

For Francisco "Paco" Gonzalez and wife Mildred, owners of Pamil Fine Arts, offering a wide selection at affordable prices is a good business model to follow every year, not just during economic slowdowns. Their gallery concentrates on the work of younger, up-and-coming artists such as Ricardo Avalo, Carlos Rubin, Ruben Alcides, and Luis Ivorra, along with more established names, like Francisco Ruiz del Porto.

With more than 100 years of tradition in retail–he was one of the three brothers who ruled the Gonzalez Padin empire–Gonzalez himself is an artist at catering to consumer preferences. But he also has a fine sensibility for the social purpose served by his newfound trade.

"For a younger artist particularly, it is more important that people be able to buy their art and take it home than to command a certain high price for a piece. Offering excellent quality art at affordable prices is also a way to spark interest in art in a younger crop of art collectors," said Gonzalez.

Part of the business of any upscale gallery is to cater to bona fide art collectors. That’s why many are reporting good sales in spite of the effects of a slow economy.

Biaggi & Faure Fine Art Gallery owners Gail Biaggi and Carlos Faure have experienced sales growth of 35% over last year’s–in spite of opening their new gallery this past June.

"Our business is not the norm," said Faure. "One of a business’ biggest overhead is its payroll. We have only three employees, which allows us to provide a more personalized service, while keeping expenses down."

Before opening their new facility in Puerto Nuevo, Biaggi and Faure had earned a good reputation as art consultants & dealers since 1989, which helped them establish a clientele of true art collectors. Their gallery represents names ranging from contemporary master Luis Hernandez Cruz to up-and-coming Willliam Quetzalcoalt.

"True art collectors don’t stop buying art during bad economic times," said Faure. "Our clients buy art because they appreciate and love it, not because the see it as a decorative item. That’s why we were not concerned about opening our gallery during a slow economy."

In fact, the gallery established a new sales record during the month of July, noted Faure.

Faure admits that so far, September has been the worst month of the year, but still, the average sales for that month were 10% to 15% higher than the average for the previous year.

"We have been able to sustain our growth with good inventory, competitive pricing, quality personalized service, and exclusive merchandise," said Biaggi. "When you enter the world of art and submerge in it, it becomes a part of you. You must have it."

Neither the tragic events of Sept. 11 nor the slow economy has stopped art collector and businessman Jose Alegria from fulfilling his lifelong dream of owning an art gallery.

Alegria’s Obra Gallery in Old San Juan opens today.

Alegria comes from a family known for its support of the arts–uncles Ricardo and Jose "Poppy" Alegria were the founder of the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture and a famous art collector, respectively.

The concept behind Obra Gallery involves the sale of great pieces of art that Alegria has collected over the years, rather than presenting rotating exhibits as other galleries usually do. Like Biaggi & Faure, Obra caters to true art collectors–but with a twist.

"Obras’ inventory ranges from rare Ming Dynasty Chinese art and 16th Century Hindu statuary, and Chihuly crystal, to authentic <I>santos<I> and a gamut of works from past and contemporary artists of Puerto Rico, especially from the 1950s and 1960s," said Alegria. His initial offering includes works by Tufiño, Irizarry and Botello.

Both Faure and Alegria agree that for true art collectors, buying art is a better investment than the stock market–especially when the market is not bullish.

"The best art deals happen during recessions and times of war," said Alegria. "You can get excellent works of art at great prices."

All agreed that the opening of the Puerto Rico Art Museum in Santurce has had a positive effect to art collectors and gallery owners, as it has promoted a renewed interest in fine art.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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